Bellingcat Investigation Team, an award winning group of volunteers and full time investigators who make up the core of Bellingcat’s investigative efforts have published a details report on school boycott in Cameroon’s North West and South West Regions as the Anglophone Crisis persists.
In a report published on July 16, 2021, Bellingcat looks at “How Schoolchildren Became Pawns in Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis” and concludes that the ‘social and economic outlook for the next generation of Anglophone Cameroonians remains uncertain’.
The report catalogues several atrocities committed against schools, educators and schoolchildren. Prominent among them is the attack on a school in Kumba on October 24, 2020. Armed men killed seven schoolchildren in the attack on Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy Kumba. Many other children were injured as they ran to safety.
“This event was not the first attack on a school in Cameroon, nor the last. In early February of this year, a private school was torched, reportedly by separatists, in the village of Kungi, near the town of Nkambe in the North-West. How could the government have failed to protect children in what was supposed to be a government stronghold, asked local media,” Bellingcat reports.
Although COVID-19 has taken children around the world out of school for months at a time, in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, schooling has been restricted for nearly four years as a separatist-enforced school boycott and a harsh government response have jeopardised children’s right to a safe education.
Bellingcat notes that in this escalating crisis, kidnappings, extortion and killings of civilians have become widespread. Accusations have been levelled against separatist forces, but also against the government. For example, in February 2020 a group of Cameroonian soldiers and allied militias reportedly massacred over 20 civilians in the town of Ngarbuh, an incident for which the Cameroonian army eventually admitted some culpability.
“This is no easy country for reporting; Cameroon’s government itself is widely considered authoritarian, with a record of human rights violations,” says Bellingcat.
But as graphic images of attacks on civilians continue to surface, open source techniques have been used to piece together some of the story — telling how Cameroon’s schoolchildren, as well as their parents and teachers, have been caught in the crossfire of what is often described as one of the world’s most underreported conflicts.
Through analysing open source material from Cameroonian social media, Bellingcat has verified 11 further attacks against schools and children in the Anglophone regions starting in 2018 and continuing into the early months of this year.
These videos, collected by the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis Database of Atrocities and the Berkeley Human Rights Center, reveal the ongoing scale of Cameroon’s humanitarian crisis, of which Kumba is only the best known example.
The Anglophone crisis
“The latest iteration of the “Anglophone Problem” began in 2016 when Anglophone lawyers and teachers held peaceful protests against the government’s placement of Francophone judges and teachers in their regions’ courts and schools. The Cameroonian military responded by arresting protest leaders and cutting the internet.
With more moderate protest leaders in jail, a separatist movement emerged whose leaders unilaterally declared the independence of the Anglophone regions as the “Republic of Ambazonia” in October 2017.
“Today, a conflict rages in which the Cameroonian military battles dozens of non-state armed separatist groups, including opportunistic bandits. There is evidence of war crimes perpetrated by all sides including the state, such as torture, extrajudicial executions and the burning of villages. The UN estimates that 1.1 million of the Anglophone regions’ six million inhabitants have been internally displaced by this fighting, 60,000 of whom have fled to neighbouring Nigeria.”
The boycott of state-run schools started in 2016 as a tactic by Anglophone protesters, including some teachers, to bring the Cameroonian government to the negotiating table. As it has dragged on, demands have become increasingly radical and the safety of students and teachers has deteriorated.
Elvis Arrey Ntui, the International Crisis Group’s chief researcher for Cameroon, told Bellingcat in an interview that criminal groups with no clear affiliation had also taken advantage of the situation to extort teachers.
The prominent barrister Felix Agbor Nkongho, Founder and President of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), co-led the first peaceful protests in 2016 that started the Anglophone Crisis.
Nkongho was arrested and imprisoned for eight months by the Cameroonian government. Since his release, he has advocated against violence and called for schools to safely reopen. Speaking from the ground, he told Bellingcat, “Perhaps at a time the school boycott was good, but a school boycott cannot run for long. And you cannot sacrifice the well-being of kids for political reasons.”
He continued: “We are perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty, of under-privilegedness in such a way that the kids who cannot afford an education because their parents couldn’t afford an education, they’ll end up being the lowest of society.”
For its part, the Cameroonian government has launched an aggressive drive to restart education, proposing military convoys for students and teachers to schools in the war-torn regions. The government is a signatory to the Safe Schools Declaration which restricts the use of schools for military purposes during conflict situations. However, it has been accused of using a school in another conflict zone in the country’s the Far North region as a torture site for detainees, even while students were present.
Separatist leaders justify unending school boycott
Separatist figures believe that the boycott is a logical tactic which offers leverage over the government. If the situation in the Anglophone regions returns to normality, they say, then there will be no impetus for the government to negotiate with them. This is a strategy that was detailed to Bellingcat by Ebenezer Akwanga, leader of the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF) separatist group.
“I want a blanket boycott. Because I think if there is a meaningful blanket boycott — not attacking schools, not burning down schools — but a blanket boycott where every school is actually shut down from private to government institutions, it will compel the state to come to the table as soon as possible,” Akwanga said.
Cho Ayaba — the leader of another of the main separatist political bodies, the Ambazonia Governing Council as well as its military wing the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) — told Bellingcat that children could go to school, but only if it was in territory under their control and under a separatist-approved curriculum.
“We are defending independence, and I don’t think you would want a foreign curriculum of education to be imposed within your country. The enemy must withdraw from our country […] and let us set up our own institutions to oversee the educational system”, Ayaba said.
Dabney Yerima is acting Vice President of the self-declared Interim Government of Ambazonia. “We have been consistent and have publicly observed that only parents can determine if the conditions are conducive and safe for their children to return to school”, he explained in an emailed statement.
“The Interim Government wants children to study in a calm and peaceful environment and, therefore, supports community schools as a provisional measure all over the state of Ambazonia.”
The Cameroonian government did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the challenges facing education in the country’s Anglophone regions. After four years of the school boycott, UNICEF estimated in recent statements that one million children in Cameroon, including in the Anglophone regions, now urgently require protection from violence.
The Blame Game
With attacks on schools, teachers, and students ongoing, the fear of violence surrounding education runs high. A December 2019 estimate from the Global Education Cluster found that 83 percent of schools in the Anglophone regions were closed.
“Actually restoring the system to the levels of schooling they had before the crisis is going to take a lot more time. Some of the areas are insecure and have been abandoned for three, four, five years. And it’s difficult without massive investment to get schools there going again”, remarked Arrey Elvis Ntui, the International Crisis Group expert on Cameroon.
In comments to Bellingcat, separatist leaders speaking from the diaspora where they reside, largely denied claims that separatist forces have attacked schools. They also stressed that not only had criminal elements taken advantage of the lawlessness to harass civilians — but it has allowed the Cameroonian government to portray the separatist movement as bandits who oppose schooling to the international community.
“They are fully aware that no matter what they do, the end result is that separatists will be accused because they did not call for a boycott. So when any incident occurs which affects a school, the first suspicion would be that it’s an Ambazonian group”, said Akwanga.
However, on justifying the boycott, Cho Ayaba said: “We know basically that there would be a lapse. This generation is paying the price for the next generation to have a better future. That’s what has happened in every country that has fought for their freedom”.
The separatist sources quoted in this article attributed the Kumba massacre, Nkambe school burning and kidnapping of students from PSS Nkwen to the Cameroonian government. This version of events stands in stark contrast to the position of the Cameroonian government, which has previously blamed separatists for what happened in Nkwen, Kumba and Nkambe.
Cameroon’s Ministry of Communication did not respond to emailed requests for comment before publication; neither did a spokesman for the military nor the country’s embassies in the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and the USA. Reporters contacted Cameroon’s Minister of Secondary Education shortly before publication, though she declined to provide a prompt response.
With no end to the conflict in sight, Bellingcat concludes that a safe and full school resumption may prove elusive. Until it comes to pass, the social and economic outlook for the next generation of Anglophone Cameroonians remains uncertain.
But as the warring parties play the blame game, children pay the price. As Esther Omam Njomo asks, “The children are our tomorrow. What tomorrow are we building with uneducated children?”