With Cameroon facing both internal and cross-border crises, it is education and the school-age population in particular, which has suffered the most. Whilst the central African country is impacted by conflict to the far north and east, civil conflict between its anglophone and francophone regions has led to the closure of several schools. This is particularly the case in the English-speaking regions to the north-west and south-west, where the United Nations estimates that over 80 percent of schools have faced closure due to violence between the francophone government and militia groups.
According to UNICEF spokesman Toby Fricker, around half of the 1.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Cameroon are children, many of whom are internally displaced due to the ongoing conflict. But it is the forced closure of schools due to bans implemented by armed groups which has led families to send children away from home. Although this measure is often taken so that children can find work to support their families, Fricker acknowledges that the militia-led violence – such as burning schools and abducting students – puts “the future of an entire generation of children at risk.”
Indeed, with a majority of schools shut down, the reality faced is the potential perpetuation of the conflict by the younger generations – who make up almost half of Cameroon’s population. Not only are children forced from home as a consequence of the closure of schools, but they must often work in conditions of near slavery. The education of young girls is often the first to be sacrificed, with many facing the choice of domestic service or sex work, and many suffering abuse and sexual harassment from their employers. Fricker is clear in his understanding of the ‘future of an entire generation’ but it is the future of the entire country which is put into jeopardy by the violence of armed groups. The very existence of such groups depends on an ideology which strongly opposes education and integration. Targeting schools demonstrates a belief that the future of the separatist claim depends on the disruption of educational establishments.
Of course, the question of whether the anglophone and francophone elements should integrate at all, is disputed. Cameroon itself was formed by the imposition of artificial boundaries, as in other countries in Africa, and was created from former British and French colonies. Yet the violence which has been pursued by militia groups and the state military demonstrates that, despite the defensiveness of separatist claims, the path of least resistance would be one of integration. Whilst the UN and humanitarian organisations should continue their work in supporting the rebuilding and reopening of schools, there should be a longer term plan of language integration. This should involve teaching English and French equally in schools so that younger generations no longer define themselves and divide their country in terms of language, something also witnessed in Ethiopia.
This goes against the policy pursued by the francophone government, and the ideology pursued by armed groups. Yet, ultimately, both factions would benefit from a truly bilingual population that unites the country behind a common identity.