Separatist fighters in Cameroon have carried out systematic and widespread attacks against students and teachers in the country’s conflict-hit Anglophone regions, with a “devastating impact” on children’s right to education, according to a new report by a global rights watchdog.
Released on Thursday, the 131-page report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) said separatist groups in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions since 2017 have killed, beaten, abducted, threatened and terrorised students and education professionals.
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“These criminal attacks don’t just cause immediate physical and psychological harm to victims; they jeopardise the future of tens of thousands of students,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, a senior researcher at HRW and author of the report.
The rights group interviewed 155 people over the phone between November 2020 and November 2021, including 29 current and former students, 47 education professionals and other witnesses to attacks.
It documented in detail 15 attacks during which separatist fighters ordered schools closed and destroyed school infrastructure and property. According to the World Bank, at least 70 schools have been attacked since 2017.
Education in the Anglophone regions has been a battleground since late 2016 when Cameroonian security forces used excessive force against demonstrators protesting against the perceived marginalisation of the country’s minority Anglophone education and legal system.
Although Cameroon is a bilingual and bi-jural country, many Anglophones believe the government is trying to sideline and assimilate their education and legal systems into the dominant Francophone system.
Armed separatist groups seeking independence for the English-speaking regions have since emerged and grown. The five-year conflict has killed some 4,000 people and forced more than 700,000 to flee their homes, according to monitors. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
In 2017, separatist fighters began enforcing a school boycott and began attacking dozens of schools across the Anglophone regions.
“Leaders of separatist groups should immediately announce an end to the school boycott and ensure that their fighters end all attacks on schools, teachers, and students,” Allegrozzi said.
HRW documented 268 abductions of students and education professionals since 2017. Separatist fighters have also used school buildings as bases for storing weapons and ammunition as well as holding and torturing hostages, the New York-based organisation has found.
In responses published in the HRW report, separatist leaders did not directly address accusations their groups had attacked schools. They said that people living in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions had willingly rejected the formal education system in favour of an English-centric, community-led curriculum.
Clara, a head teacher at a government school and one of the report’s interviewees, refused to abide by the separatist-ordered education boycott. Separatist fighters broke into her home in March 2019, forcing her to pay 30,000 Central African francs ($56) and inflicting wounds all over her body. She told HRW they cut her right hand so severely it had to be medically amputated, and she lost the use of her left hand.
The Cameroonian authorities have taken steps to respond to the attacks, including by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration – an intergovernmental political agreement to protect students, teachers, and schools during armed conflicts – in September 2018.
However, HRW said the response is hampered by many abusive military operations in the English-speaking regions which sowed deep distrust among the civilian population victimised in those operations.
The organisation has called on Cameroon’s international partners, such as France, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Commission and the United Nations Children’s Fund to provide financial and technical support to Cameroonian authorities.