YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Catholic Bishops in the English-speaking region of Cameroon have called for an end to the boycott of schools which was a leading factor in the flareup of the “Anglophone crisis” which has paralyzed parts of the country since last year.

The ecclesiastical province of Bamenda, which covers much of the English-speaking part of the bilingual nation, has instructed schools to begin registering students for the 2017/2018 academic year that begins in September.

The boycotts began in October 2016, when lawyers and teachers went on strike in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon over what they saw as the erosion of their educational and legal systems by the Francophone-dominated administration in Cameroon.

English-speakers make up about 20 percent of Cameroon’s population.

Teachers, in particular, were concerned about the erosion of the use of English, and they came up with eleven points that they said need urgent attention.

These included the increasingly prominent use of French in schools based in the Anglo-Saxon tradition; the marginalization of Anglophone students when it comes to admission to professional schools; the francophonization of Anglophone universities; and the use of French-style exams – usually poorly translated into English – in the nation’s technical schools, leading to a high failure rate from Anglophone students.

On December 29, 2016, memorandum addressed to Cameroon President Paul Biya, the bishops of the Bamenda province gave their support to these complaints, and noted there has been a systematic refusal on the part of the government to develop human resources in the two regions.

RELATED: Questions surround Cameroonian bishop’s reported suicide

In their statement, the bishops said Anglophone Cameroonians were not allowed to “compete on a level playing field” in the country’s education system, and that the Anglophone candidates “are hardly, if ever, protected.”

They also pointed out that out of five government ministries concerned with education, no Anglophone serves even at the deputy minister level.

“This gives the impression of a calculated attempt to kill Anglophone culture,” the statement read.

But after nearly a year, the bishops are now saying a school boycott may be counterproductive.

Bishop George Nkuo, Vice President of the Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference (BAPEC), said the education of the children was the priority, and a chief mission of the Catholic Church.

Bishop George Nkuo (Credit: Kumbo Diocese.)

The local Parents’ and Teachers’ Associations, PTA, had also called for an end to the boycott, saying it had placed a disproportionate burden on school teachers, students, and parents.

“For teachers of lay private and confessional schools, staying away from school for a year has meant that they have not been paid any salary for close to a year,” the PTA said in a July 7, 2017 statement.

The organization said while private school teachers have been paying the price, their colleagues in public schools “are not making a comparable sacrifice or anything next to it.”

The parents and teachers further complained that the school boycott had led children to “pick up bad habits,” leading to “high rates of unwanted pregnancies, a growing crime wave, a rise in drug abuse, and an increase in household expenditures.”

The PTA said it was untenable for schools in Cameroon’s English-speaking northwest and southwest to remain closed, when Anglophone institutions located in the country’s French-speaking regions remained functional. This meant Anglophone parents with the financial means were relocating their children to schools in the French-speaking regions, leaving the poorest people to bear the brunt of the school shutdown.

“This is a situation of injustice both to the children and the parents which we do not want to contribute to, or to perpetrate,” the PTA said.

“We think that using schools and school children as hostages in this struggle should be reconsidered and other ways of making our voices heard on the Anglophone problem be sought. If losing a school year has not made the point, we don’t think that losing a second year will. Besides, using schools as a weapon in the struggle places a disproportionately heavy burden on the poorest and most vulnerable persons in our communities,” the statement said.

Public officials welcomed the move as a “step in the right direction.”

The Cameroon Minister of Secondary Education, Jean Ernest Ngalle Bibehe, said “the education of children is a fundamental right, and no one for whatever reason, should tamper with it.”

The Genesis

Cameroon’s bilingual and bi-cultural status derived from its colonial heritage. Initially administered as a German Protectorate in 1884, Cameroon would later be shared with France and Britain as League of Nations Mandates after Germany was defeated in the First World War.

The end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations saw the two parts of Cameroon transition from mandated territories to UN Trust Territories.

Map showing English-speaking region of Cameroon. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

In 1960, the northern part of Cameroon administered by France gained its independence. The southern part administered by Britain as part of Nigeria was in 1961 subject to a plebiscite in which they were offered independence by reuniting with their francophone Cameroonian “brothers” or by remaining part of Nigeria.

The results showed an overwhelming desire by English-speaking Cameroonians to reunite with the French-speaking part of Cameroon.

The “marriage” was guaranteed by a Federal Constitution that was ostensibly meant to preserve and protect the minority Anglophones and their colonial heritage. But in 1972 then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo organized a referendum that dissolved the federation in favor of a united republic, thereby removing the protections Anglophones enjoyed.

What now?

Anglophones feel that they are being marginalized and their culture is being eroded.

Even as they call for schools to reopen, the bishops of the province are insisting that the struggle for the dignity of Anglophone Cameroonians has to continue.

Government attempts to solve some of these problems have floundered as the strike action suddenly turned highly political, with the general population in the English-speaking regions asking for a return to a federal system of government.

The National Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multi-culturalism was set up earlier in the year as part of government measures to resolve the long-standing problem.

The bishops have questioned the effectiveness of the commission, and are now calling for genuine dialogue between the government and Anglophone Cameroonians as the only way forward.