“They Are Destroying Our Future”
Armed Separatist Attacks on Students, Teachers, and Schools in Cameroon’s Anglophone Regions
Sara was a 17-year-old high school student when separatist fighters occupied her school, causing her to flee her hometown in Cameroon’s North-West region out of fear. She decided to move to the capital, Yaoundé, to finish her education. On the way, she was stopped by armed separatists, who searched for items she had relating to education, tore up her schoolbooks and notebooks, and warned her that worse would befall her if she was found with such materials again. In Yaoundé, she could not afford the school fees, and had to seek work, which she found at a pineapple company. After working for two years, she abandoned her dream of finishing school.
In the South-West region, Clara the head teacher at a government school, refused to abide by the separatist-ordered education boycott. When separatist fighters broke into her home in March 2019 to extort and punish her, she paid 30,000 CFA (US$56) and more in blood: they inflicted wounds all over her body, cutting her right hand so severely it had to be medically amputated, and losing the use of her left hand.
The stories of Sara and Clara are unfortunately all too common experiences for students and teachers in Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions who, since 2017, have become victims of attacks by armed separatists on education.
These attacks have become a hallmark of the crisis in the country’s Anglophone regions, which has resulted from the post-independence political, economic, cultural, and social marginalization felt by the Anglophone minority, who live in Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions. Although Cameroon is a bilingual and bijural country, many Anglophones believe the government is trying to sideline and assimilate their education and legal systems into the dominant Francophone system.
Tensions escalated in October and November 2016 and again in September and October 2017 when Cameroonian security forces used excessive force against peaceful protests led by teachers and lawyers. Different Anglophone armed separatist groups have since emerged and grown, and education soon became a primary battleground.
Separatist fighters began to order and enforce school boycotts, including by attacking scores of schools across the Anglophone regions. They have also used school buildings, such as Sara’s school, as bases for storing weapons and ammunition as well as holding and torturing hostages. Separatist fighters have also attacked, intimidated, or threatened thousands of students, education professionals, and parents in their attempts to keep children out of school. These attacks, the resulting fear, and the deteriorating security situation have caused school closures across the Anglophone regions, denying students access to education.
While armed separatists bear full responsibility for their targeted attacks on education, the response by the Cameroonian government and security forces has been insufficient and is hampered by the fact that they have conducted many abusive counterinsurgency operations in the English-speaking regions which sewed deep distrust among the civilian population victimized in those operations. Sometimes the abusive operations have also had a direct impact on education. For example, the report documents security forces burning at least one school which was being used by armed separatists as a base. Therefore, while enhanced security should offer protection to students and teachers, in practice many students and teachers also fear abuses from the security forces.
Based on telephone interviews conducted between November 2020 and November 2021 with 155 people, including 29 current and former students as well as 47 teachers and education professionals, this report documents attacks on students, teachers, and schools, as well as the use of schools by armed separatist groups, in the North-West and South-West regions between March 2017 and November 2021. It also examines the impact of those attacks, which have denied approximately 700,000 students an education. After describing the Cameroonian government’s responses, it highlights gaps and, more importantly, potential solutions that the Cameroonian authorities, in collaboration with their international partners, should implement to stop and address attacks on education.
(c) 2001, Human Rights Watch