Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict: Children should be able to return to school

Enrica Picco
By Enrica Picco

International Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director

Murithi Mutiga
By Murithi Mutiga

Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group (@mutigam)

Posted on Tuesday, 20 September 2022 11:07

Schoolchildren, their parents and teachers hold a protest after gunmen opened fire at a school, killing at least six children as authorities claim, in Kumba, Cameroon October 25, 2020. REUTERS/Josiane Kouagheu

Since 2017, fighting between separatist insurgents and the military has disrupted the education of over 700,000 children in Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions. As the school year starts in September, education in the conflict-affected regions is at risk again. The two sides should strive to protect schools from being attacked and keep classrooms open.  

At the start of Cameroon’s academic year on 5 September, schools in the two Anglophone regions kept their doors shut to comply with a general strike (locally known as a “ghost town” operation) imposed by separatist militias combating the government in Yaoundé. The following day, only a handful of schools offered classes, primarily in the relatively safe towns of Buea and Limbe.

School’s out

Some separatist groups have ordered public schools in the Anglophone regions to remain closed until at least 1 October. On that day five years ago, separatists proclaimed the independent Federal Republic of Ambazonia, as they call the North West and South West regions. In response to the boycott, government officials said they considered shuttering so-called community schools, which are run by volunteers in separatist-controlled areas.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting between separatist militias and Cameroon’s security forces. The conflict has killed about 6,000 people, displaced more than 500,000 and severely disrupted access to government services in the Anglophone regions. Attempts by Anglophone peace campaigners and foreign facilitators to resolve the conflict peacefully have stalled. Sadly, as Cameroon’s conflict parties repeatedly use access to education to push their political objectives, children are paying a disproportionately high price. The UN estimates that two of every three schools in the North West and South West have closed indefinitely.

The Anglophone crisis began in 2017 when lawyers and teachers staged peaceful protests aimed at preserving the two regions’ distinct legal and educational systems. At the time, unions and civil society organisations called for a school boycott in order to push for negotiations with the government and demand the release of detained Anglophone activists. A heavy-handed army crackdown on protesters calling for the two regions’ secession from Francophone Cameroon then hardened the resolve of many Anglophones, triggering armed rebellion.

Yet, though popular at first, the school boycott quickly lost support as separatist militias began destroying schools and killing teachers who continued working. Tens of thousands of children were denied the chance to go to school for months on end, sometimes years. By 2018, an estimated 4,000 Anglophone schools had shuttered, eventually depriving over 700,000 children of regular classes for almost four academic years.

Some died in the mayhem, too. In October 2020, suspected separatists stormed a private school in the town of Kumba, slaughtering at least seven children and injuring thirteen others. In 2021, separatists killed four students and a French language teacher in Ekondo Titi.

The lack of access to quality education is worsening the already dire socio-economic crisis plaguing the Anglophone regions. Pressure from Anglophone civil society prompted some separatist groups to formally call off the school boycott in 2020, but attacks on schools continue unabated. Overall, the conflict has severely harmed the education system. Schools that are still operational are often damaged or overcrowded. Teachers have fled, without being replaced. Parents who can afford to do so are now sending their children to schools in the Francophone regions.

Disproportionate struggles

The targeting of schools has had a particularly pernicious impact on girls. Parents who have seen their incomes dwindle prefer to send their boys to school, keeping girls at home to help with chores or small trades. Yet others who have fled to Cameroon’s Francophone regions have to fend for themselves, sometimes leaving their daughters out of school and vulnerable to recruitment into sex work.

Despite successful campaigning against the school boycott by Anglophone communities and women groups over the past two years, the latest tug of war over education risks robbing thousands of children of the chance to learn yet again. More critically, it could set the scene for another military escalation by raising tensions ahead of 1 October, when separatist sympathisers typically hold anti-government protests.

Instead of calling for a school boycott or threatening to close voluntary learning centres, Cameroon’s conflict parties should use the start of the school year as an opportunity to mitigate the suffering of children in the Anglophone regions and build trust with local communities. Separatist activists in Cameroon and abroad should unconditionally call off all school boycotts. If they do so, the government in Yaoundé should acknowledge the gesture as a de-escalating measure.

For their part, international partners who are committed to resolving the Anglophone conflict should urgently remind the two sides of their obligations to protect civilians and ensure children’s right to education. By keeping classrooms open and children safe, the government and separatist leaders could

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