Cameroon - Schools Targeted in Anglophone Crisis

(File photo).
6 November 2020

As Paul Biya marks 38 years in office, residents in the country's Anglophone region are struggling to come to grips with a series of brutal attacks on schools.

Cameroon's volatile Anglophone region is in the midst of a surge in violence, with unidentified assailants launching a serious of attacks on schools in the past month.

According to the United Nations (UN), gunmen have assaulted five schools in less than two weeks, subjecting children and teachers to torture and violence.

The current Anglophone Crisis began in 2017 as a low-scale insurgency demanding independence for the predominately English-speaking population in the country's north and south-western regions from the majority Francophone state.

But the security situation remains precarious, with more than 3,000 people killed since the beginning of the conflict.

Multiple schools targeted in wave of attacks

The latest attacks took place on Wednesday, with armed men targeting a college in the town of Limbe. Nine children were kidnapped on the same day on their way to school in Fundong, but were later released.

Another 12 teachers and several students were abducted from a primary and secondary school in the town of Kumbo on Tuesday. Eleven of the teachers were later freed on Thursday, according to a representative of the church which runs the schools.

On October 23, 15 schoolchildren from Bamenda were also kidnapped on their way back from school. Six of the children were released the next day, with several having to be hospitalized after being subjected to torture.

A day later, gunmen killed eight schoolchildren in the town of Kumba at the private Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy. The UN described it as "the worst atrocity" since the beginning of the school year on October 5. The brazen attack was widely condemned both within and outside Cameroon, with President Paul Biya denouncing the "horrific murder" of school children.

A 90-year-old archbishop and retired cardinal was also briefly abducted on Thursday near Kumbo before being released on Friday. Archbishop Christian Tumi has often acted as a mediator in the conflict in the past.

Blame on both sides

Human rights groups have accused both the separatists and government forces of committing widespread atrocities. However, no group has yet taken responsibility for the latest attacks.

The UN humanitarian coordinator in Cameroon, Matthias Naab, says these attacks were not linked to the government.

"These incidents are part of a pattern of violence by non-state armed groups who are calling on residents to boycott schools in the two regions," he said.

According to the secretary general of the Popular Action Party (PAP) Fabrice Lena, the only solution to the ongoing violence is a change in government.

"The responsibility of the atrocities [and of the] inability of children to go to school [lies with] the government," he told DW. "An irresponsible government that assured the citizens that all security measures were in place. The lasting solution to this problem is the departure of Biya."

November 6 notably marks 38 years since President Paul Biya took office, making him the second-longest ruling African president.

Since the 1990s he has faced strong opposition from Anglophone separatists, who account for approximately four million of the country's population of 23 million. For years, Biya repeatedly rejected calls for policy reform and greater autonomy from Anglophone moderates, before hardline separatists finally declared independence unilaterally.

Human rights lawyer Tamfu Richard says regardless of who is to blame for the latest surge in violence, it all comes down to a failed peace process.

"The right to education is a fundamental human right which has to be respected," he told DW. "Armed men have no right to attack schools, be it the regular army or the secessionists... What we are experiencing today is a consequence of a failed system which has refused to apply all the avenues to peace to solve a political problem."

Schools threatened in quest for independence

The school system in the Anglophone region meanwhile remains at a standstill. Thousands of students did not return to class when the school term officially resumed in early October, with nervous parents increasingly reluctant to send their children to school in light of the increasing violence -- even before the attack in Kumba.

Although the government had promised a smooth start to the school year, the current situation on the ground has residents feeling uneasy. Schools have closed in many of the smaller towns.

"There are a few schools that are operating in Bamenda, especially in upstate Bamenda," a resident of the locality of Boyo, who wishes to remain anonymous, told DW. "But it is really difficult to find schools functioning in the [rural areas]."

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), nearly 850,000 students have been deprived of their right to education since the beginning of the Anglophone Crisis, and more than 4,000 schools burnt down.

Parents fearful of further violence

Even in the larger cities in the north west region, the presence of the military is no longer enough to reassure residents of their safety.

Bamenda resident Blessing Orey told DW she prefers to wait until the situation calms down before sending her children back to school, with the brutal Kumba attacks still very much present in people's minds.

"Here in the north west, everyone is at home," she said. "It's a little quieter now, but I'm not sure I will send my children to school tomorrow, or even for the rest of the week."

"I prefer to observe what's going on, because when [the attacks subside] in the south west, maybe then they'll attack people here in the north west. You have to be really careful."

Educationist and CEO of the St. Louis University Institute, Nick Ngwanyam, says members of the "Anglophone elite" in the diaspora who wanted schools to reopen are not fully aware of the dangerous reality of the situation:

"That message was not genuine, and we are witnessing the repercussions today and children are paying a huge price," he told DW. "I think we are going through a kind of ping pong [of blame] between the separatists and the government."

Psychologist and university lecturer, Busi Ernest, says the students who were affected by the attacks -- either directly or indirectly -- will require thorough counseling.

"The kids need psychological consolation and therapy so that we can build up their self-esteem," he told DW.

"The fear factor and nervousness are still there."

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