Cameroon children stay away from school as separatists threaten attacks

Unicef says 80% of schools in English-speaking region have been shut down

A Cameroonian policeman and a gendarme at a polling station in southwestern Cameroon, during last October’s presidential election. Insurgents have been fighting the West African country’s francophone government in a bid to carve out an independent state they hope will be named Ambazonia. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

A Cameroonian policeman and a gendarme at a polling station in southwestern Cameroon, during last October’s presidential election. Insurgents have been fighting the West African country’s francophone government in a bid to carve out an independent state they hope will be named Ambazonia. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

 

Hundreds of thousands of children in Cameroon’s English language-speaking region are staying out of school this week, after separatists called for a boycott and threatened attacks on those who attend.

Insurgents have been fighting the West African country’s francophone government in a bid to carve out an independent state they hope will be named Ambazonia.

Though Cameroon’s school year officially began on Monday, Unicef says that 80 per cent of schools have been shut down in the anglophone region, in Cameroon’s northwest and southwest, many for the past three years. About 600,000 children have been affected, and at least 74 schools destroyed, the agency said.

This is “putting the future of an entire generation of children at risk, children who with the right support and opportunities can build a more stable and prosperous future”, said Unicef spokesman Toby Fricker.

Schools were originally closed in 2016, after anglophone teachers and lawyers began to protest an enforced increase in how much French had to be used in courts and schoolrooms. In the fighting that has escalated since, more than half a million people have been displaced and thousands killed.

Embedded

“Schools have been at the heart of the conflict since it began,” Emmanuel Freudenthal, one of the only journalists who has been embedded with Cameroon’s separatist forces, told The Irish Times.

“For both the state of Cameroon and separatists, the schools have become a symbol to demonstrate their control over the two anglophone regions.

“Nevertheless, the separatists are divided on this question, some arguing that schools should be allowed to function, while others say that the education offered is of low quality and that the yet non-existent country of Ambazonia will offer a schooling, which has not materialised.”

Parents who can afford to have sent their children abroad, Mr Freudenthal said.

On August 20th, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, one of the leaders of the separatist movement, was sentenced to life imprisonment in Cameroon, along with nine others.

This process has been plagued by pre-trial abuses and serious allegations of fair-trial breaches

On Monday, New York-headquartered Human Rights Watch announced that the 10 imprisoned men had lodged an appeal against the convictions.

“It appears that the military court handed down a hasty verdict and sentence without giving the accused any meaningful opportunity to defend themselves,” said Lewis Mudge, Human Rights Watch’s central Africa director. “This process has been plagued by pre-trial abuses and serious allegations of fair-trial breaches that warrant independent and impartial judicial review, which we hope will happen under appeal.”

Torture

The men were arrested in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, in January 2018. According to Human Rights Watch, they were then held without contact for six months, in a Cameroonian detention facility where torture and abuse is believed to be rampant.

The human rights organisation said the evidence used against the men was only shown to them during a 17-hour overnight hearing, which began on August 19th. Defence lawyers said they were not able to challenge it, or even discuss what was presented with their clients, and eventually withdrew from proceedings in protest.

The trial was also carried out in French, according to the organisation, and there was no proper translation for the defendants.