University faces more strikes as instability continues

The vice-chancellor of Cameroon’s English-speaking University of Buea has declared that she is determined to soothe tensions on campus that have led to a series of violent strikes by students. Buea is one of two public English-speaking universities in the majority-Francophone country.

Speaking to University World News, Dr Nalova Lyonga expressed dismay at a week-long strike at the university in May, which saw eight people wounded and university property and cars destroyed.

The strike only ended after Pro-chancellor Professor Maurice Tchuente was asked by Higher Education Minister Jacques Fames Ndongo to help soothe tensions. There is now an uneasy calm on campus.

The May action followed a February wildcat strike provoked by claims that university security staff had held and physically assaulted a group of students. That strike led to the university launching court action against student leaders.

Since then students have accused Lyonga of postponing scheduled student union elections, and have called on her to drop legal charges against the February strike leaders and hold fresh exams for students who missed tests because of the unrest.

Lyonga called on all parties with an interest in the state-owned university to find peace: “Strive for it, find it and consolidate it.”

She told University World News: “It takes just one raving mad person with a flaming weapon to scatter everyone away from this campus. That is why the importance of dialogue cannot be over-emphasised.”

But dialogue between the vice-chancellor and students has been deadlocked, Ronald Minang, acting student union president, recently told local newspapers: “The vice-chancellor has made it clear she is not ready to grant any of our requests.”

Part of the problem is that the students are far from united, with some groups condemning the student union and saying it does not represent them. They insist that students would be happy with improved standards at the university restaurant and more hygienic conditions generally.

Another problem is relations between the university management and the lecturers’ union SYNES. At the request of the university administration, police in May questioned 10 lecturers alleged to have been behind the strikes.

SYNES threatened to join the student strike as a result, but ultimately did not. Relations were soured anyway and SYNES denounced as “inexperienced, outdated, outmoded and old-fashioned” the governing style of Lyonga.

But the vice-chancellor believes the instability has been caused by 'undesirable elements' who oppose reforms she wants enacted, motivated by egoism, support for cliques, and even phobia regarding adoption of information and communication technology on the part of some staff.

“Some are resistant to reform certain practices even when the need imposes itself,” she told University World News.

The vice-chancellor said she wanted to improve communication between management, students and lecturers by using “different channels of dialogue – apart from departmental and faculty boards like the [university] congregation and student welfare board”.

She also wants “the right quality and quantity of staff, the right student-teacher ratio, adequate infrastructure and independent control” by management of some teaching standards and courses.

Yet her critics accuse her of being closed to students and the media.

The university has long been divided by discord. When the vice-chancellor took over in 2012, she held a September meeting with students, where they demanded the reimbursement of caution fines upon graduation, and complained about frequent strikes by lecturers, marking delays, poor campus lighting, a lack of lecture hall microphones and student ID cards.

The University of Buea was established in 1992 to serve Anglophone Cameroonians from the English-speaking south-west and north-west of the country. They are in a minority in Cameroon, as these provinces were run by the British from 1919 to independence in 1961, when they were united with the larger part of the country run by France during those years.

But south-westerners and north-westerners sometimes clash, and north-western students have accused university administrators of serving the interests of the south-west, even though the university was supposed to teach students from across Anglophone Cameroon who had previously sought higher education in Nigeria.

Buea’s growing student population of 17,000 has held a series of violent strikes in the past, during which some people were killed.

A new English-speaking university is now open – the University of Bamenda in the north-west region. It was founded by the government in late 2010 and has thus far been untroubled. The university this month signed cooperation agreements with other Cameroon universities in a deal brokered by the Higher Education Ministry.