No School, Internet Bans, Ghost Towns, Kidnappings: Conflict in Cameroon
I can only assume much of the world is completely oblivious to the strikes that are currently happening in Cameroon. When you google it there are very few articles that appear despite the substantial affect these protests are having on the country. Sadly enough, Cameroonians think the rest of the world cares. They think the world is talking about this tremendous conflict, and that there is even a possibility of President Trump intervening. I feel this is something the rest of the world should care about, or at least be aware of, so I have done my best to summarize the events as I experienced them.
Children in the Anglophone regions have been out of school since November, and they say they will not resume this year. Some even say school is cancelled next year as well. Teachers and lawyers began this protest because of the marginalization of the Anglophones. The country is “bilingual,” yet the Anglophones feel they don’t receive equal treatment or opportunities. Francophone teachers are chosen to teach English over the native speakers, and lawyers have been angered by the use of French in their courts, despite a difference between the Anglophone and Francophone legal systems. This divide has existed since the formation of the Federal Republic of Cameroon and then the unlawful transition to a unitary state in 1972. Paul Biya, who has been President since 1982, is also a large part of the continual conflict.
The Thursday before my arrival (8th of December) I received word that the mother of the orphanage thought I should cancel my flight. Four people in Bamenda, the city where the orphanage is located, were killed by police due to the strike turning violent. Students at a University in Buea were raped and tortured a couple weeks prior due to protests, and other young protestors had been kidnapped. I wasn’t going to cancel my flight and they said if anything I could just stay in Douala until things got better. By the time my flight landed in Douala, Bamenda was calm again and it was safe for me to make the seven hour journey there.
For several weeks the strike ceased to exist. People wanted to enjoy their holidays without the stress. They were also awaiting President Paul Biya’s New Year’s Eve speech. The leaders of the movement had given him several options: he resign; they reestablish federalism; or separation. The consortium was prepared with a National Anthem and name for the new country: Ambazon. On New Year’s Eve he made his speech in French, and stressed that Cameroon is “One and Indivisible.” So, on the first of January word around the orphanage was that it would be our final day of celebration. “Tomorrow will be war,” was repeatedly stated. The following day was eerily quiet. I waited to hear gun shots or shouts from town below, but there was nothing. Nobody went to town that day for fear that something would begin. I anxiously waited for that Thursday when Sam would arrive, hoping she could make it to Bamenda before things got bad.
Thankfully war never came. Instead they announced a ghost town starting Monday. The protests before the holiday were more active, but leaders of the movement knew the only way to avoid violence would to change the way they protested. Sam was able to make it to Bamenda and I prepared us for survival. “We have to go to town Saturday and buy in bulk,” I told her, unsure of when shops would open again. Later I discovered that the ghost town was only to last a couple days. Communication here can be confusing, and so while I was made aware of the ghost town, nobody informed me of what that actually meant and everyone’s story is always different. Essentially it meant that for Monday and Tuesday, any taxi/taxi bike or shop open would be burned if seen since it meant those people were working against the protest. It also wouldn’t be safe to go to town because if seen by police they may assume you are planning something and would gas, shoot, or arrest you. One of the girls told me I shouldn’t even go outside as people had been killed on their doorsteps, though it was completely fine.
On Friday the 13th many government officials from the French region met with Anglophone teachers and leaders in Bamenda to try to form an agreement. A Cameroonian living above us in upstation messaged me that night:
They are shooting with tear gas.
What do you mean?
There was a meeting in upstation about the strike.
And what happened?
He never responded, but all night I heard shouting and what sounded like gun shots. Sam didn’t hear anything and claimed I was just delusional. The next morning I asked one of the older girls here what had happened. She said the French speaking government was trying to threaten the leaders here to sign a document making the strikes cease and schools to begin again. They of course refused and the French threatened to kill them. Fighting ensued, bikers surrounded the building in which they were meeting, tear gas was thrown, and it wasn’t until early in the morning when the French finally backed down.
The next week the ghost town resumed Monday and Tuesday. That Wednesday, when in town, Samantha and I discovered internet had been disabled. We hadn’t checked it since Saturday and had no knowledge that it was inaccessible. The government had revoked internet access from the Anglophone regions and up until now it still hasn’t returned. To be honest, I appreciated my forced Internet detox, but knew my family would start to worry if they didn’t hear from me. So when one of the boys here went to Douala he kindly messaged my Mother to explain the situation. Despite the little impact it had on me, not having access to Internet creates challenges for many businesses. Already the strike has had a huge impact on the economy. The orphanage, which makes money each year during Christmastime, had a huge setback because people weren’t buying their chickens. Weddings and other celebrations, which are popular around the holidays, were cancelled meaning those customers were lost. Other people just didn’t have the means. Since businesses have to close during ghost town days, people aren’t making money for at least two days each week. Even on other days, town is quieter. So this ban only furthered the resentment between the French and English speaking regions.
On January 22 I received my first text message. “Minpostel” shared that I could be imprisoned for two years and receive a 5–10 million franc fine ($7,000–14,00-) if I published anything on social media that I couldn’t prove. Five days later they sent another message, saying I could actually face 20 years in prison if found guilty of “slander or propogating false declarations on social media.” Others received threats of the death sentence.
I’m not sure how they expected anyone to make these “false declarations” seeing as access to social media was blocked. Some boys at the orphanage also said that all photos about the strike or Paul Biya should be erased from people’s phones. They explained that at any point the police may stop you in town and ask to look at your phone. If pictures against the government were seen, then they would arrest you.
In addition to all of this, it was then announced that if schools didn’t resume the next Monday, the government would close them for three years. Of course schools did not resume, except for the bilingual schools, some of which have remained open throughout this conflict because of their Francophone students. However, during Monday’s ghost town several of those bilingual schools were burned when protestors saw students attending. The next day I visited a bilingual school for my research and the headmaster explained that only half of the students were attending due to the insecurity. Again, the day before I departed Bamenda, schools in Ndop were burned because children were attending school.
The children of Cameroon want to be in school. Children were constantly begging me to carry my water, or help me clean, just because it gave them something to do. At home they mainly work, or sit around watching television. They don’t own excessive amounts of books like we do, free, public libraries don’t exist, and there is one play place in town, which for the average family isn’t affordable. It creates restlessness, which causes more theft and violence. One day, as some of our boys were returning from town after selling chicken, neighborhood teens attacked them and tried to steal the money they earned. Thankfully they escaped and returned later with the older boys to find the perpetrator’s, but they blamed the attack on the strikes and the boredom children feel. They said even our own neighborhood wasn’t safe because children and teens out of school needed something to do and turned to misconduct.
I left Cameroon on the 10th of February, the day before Youth Day. Youth Day happens every year on the 11th of February and is a celebration for all the students. Tassang Wilfred, a leader of the consortium, announced via video that the 11th of February would be a ghost town day, which the Anglophone’s hoped would send a powerful message to the government. As of now, the ghost towns still occur weekly and it seems the government and protestors are in a sort of standstill, neither making any drastic moves.
While my summary is more about the conflict through my own experience, I hope the links provide a more accurate image of what is happening there. Losing an entire year of school, maybe two, will set the children back by double that amount and downgrades the Anglophones even more. I believe it is really important to raise awareness about what is happening there despite the little impact it may seem to have on outsider’s lives. These are real people, with a very real struggle, and something has to change for them before things get worse.