(Nairobi) – The kidnappers of a school principal in Cameroon’s Southwest province should immediately release her unharmed, Human Rights Watch said today. The abductions of two principals took place on May 25, 2018, during heightened violence and abuses in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, just days before national school exams began.
The principals, abducted in separate locations, are Georgiana Enanga Sanga, of Government High School Bolifamba Mile 16-Buea, and Eric Ngomba, of the Cameroon Baptist Academy Yoke-Muyuka. Ngomba was released with machete wounds on May 29, but Georgiana Enanga’s whereabouts are unknown. Groups advocating independence for Anglophone regions should stop all threats and violence against students, teachers, and schools, and the government should uphold human rights standards in its response.
“Enanga’s kidnappers should release her immediately, and separatist groups should put a decisive end to all attacks meant to obstruct children’s education,” said Philippe Bolopion, Deputy Director for Global Advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “Attacks against students, teachers, and schools inflict long-term harm on children, and sully the reputation of those who carry them out.”
In November 2016, Anglophone teachers went on strike to protest perceived discrimination against English-speaking teachers and students in the majority French-speaking country. The majority of teachers’ unions called off their strike in February 2017. But separatist activists continued to pressure the local population to keep their children out of school as a tactic to exert leverage against the government.
Some have sought to enforce this boycott by threatening teachers and parents through letters and over social media, and by raiding and burning schools. Thousands of children have been excluded from an education for almost two academic years.
Enanga was abducted in the morning of May 25 while riding in a taxi about 50 meters from her school’s campus. Assailants forcefully took control of the car and drove away with her. Ngomba was abducted on the same day at around 7:30 p.m. at his home, on the school’s campus.
In a video circulated online after the abduction, Ngomba is seen sitting on the ground with at least three armed men pointing their weapons at his head as he is questioned. A voice off camera says that Ngomba was detained because he is the principal of a functioning school. The men prompt Ngomba to call on his fellow teachers and principals to close all schools “in this Amba region” – a reference to the English-speaking regions of Cameroon – and advise his colleagues not to administer the national exams.
The video ends with a voice off camera saying: “So, it is an advice, it is an advice, it is a warning, and it is a warning….Be careful, be careful, be careful.”
The video includes identifiable people in the background who might either be witnesses to, or participants in, the incident. Local authorities should ensure that the people responsible for the abductions are identified and prosecuted in civilian courts, in a transparent manner and in accordance with international human rights standards.
The government has responded to the Anglophone crisis with counter-insurgency operations in which forces are alleged to have carried out serious abuses against civilians in the region, further escalating the situation. In confronting this situation, the government of Cameroon is bound by international human rights law and should ensure accountability for any security force personnel involved in human rights violations.
Separatist groups and leaders should publicly announce an end to their school boycott, Human Rights Watch said. They should immediately stop attacking schools, teachers, and education officials and allow for the safe and unfettered return of all students to class. These groups should disseminate among all members a clear prohibition on threatening students or teachers, attacking schools, or interfering with schools or children’s education in any way.
The government should immediately establish, with international cooperation and assistance if required, alternative forms of access to education for children unable to attend traditional schools, and remedial programming for students who have been out of school.
Cameroon should also join the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political agreement currently supported by 75 countries that contains practical commitments to better protect students, teachers, and schools during times of conflict. The Peace and Security Council of the African Union has called on all its member countries to endorse the Declaration.
“Attacks on students, teachers, and school are tactics that have no place in any conflict or political struggle,” Bolopion said. “Separatists should end such attacks immediately, so that all children can learn in peace.”