University campuses become battleground in growing conflict

Uneasy calm has returned to the University of Buea in the south-west of Cameroon after separatist fighters invaded the institution’s campus on 8 July and disrupted ongoing examinations.

The separatist fighters invaded the building of the faculty of engineering and technology where students were busy with their re-sit examinations.

“Some ‘strange men’ armed with machetes and guns stormed the hall in which we were writing exams,” said Ebong James, one of the students.

“They ordered everyone to lie on the floor. One of them asked the exams supervisor to come with him,” said Flore Ebangha, another student. She explained that, after 20 minutes, the fighters asked them to vacate the room within three seconds.

The University of Buea incident follows another at the University of Bamenda where, according to Human Rights Watch, separatists stormed the Bamenda campus in the north-west region, shooting in the air, causing panic among students and teachers, and leading to a stampede that injured at least five people.

The report said fighters attacked the university for not observing a lockdown imposed by separatists.

Separatist fighters have been imposing a ‘ghost town’ strategy, which is the shutdown of societal activities reminiscent of COVID-type lockdowns. It has become one of their weapons to express their disenchantment with the government, which they believe is pro-French.

The students, however, say the separatist-imposed lockdown in the town of Bambili, which hosts the University of Bamenda, was not observed.

“We continued with classes in spite of the ghost town order by separatist fighters,” said Ako Justine, a history student at the university.

Escalating conflict affects HE

Worsening violence in Cameroon’s anglophone regions, involving separatist fighters and the government army, is taking an increasingly heavy toll on civilians, including students at the universities of Buea and Bamenda.

With renewed attacks against educational institutions and a spate of incidents involving explosive devices and extrajudicial killings documented in recent months, university students have become particularly vulnerable and many are fleeing to neighbouring countries.

These attacks are the latest escalation in the nearly five-year conflict between government forces and armed separatists which has displaced about 700,000 civilians and forced another 63,800 across the border into Nigeria, according to the United Nations (UN).

Overall, the UN estimates three of the four million people in Cameroon’s north- and south-west have been impacted by the conflict.

It began in late 2016 when government forces used lethal force against lawyers and teachers who were protesting peacefully against their perceived marginalisation by the country’s majority francophone government.

In response, more than 30 armed separatist groups have been formed to fight for an independent nation they called Ambazonia.

A self-declared interim government of Ambazonia also emerged and is run largely by anglophone Cameroonians living in Europe and the United States.

At least 4,000 civilians, including students, have, so far, been killed in the anglophone regions, a toll that surpasses that of the country’s far north region where Boko Haram has been waging an armed campaign since 2014.

In the first years of the conflict, there was a clear “cycle of violence”, according to Chris Fomunyoh, a senior associate and regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute.

“Every time the armed groups attacked the military and someone in uniform was killed, the military goes into that vicinity or that neighbourhood ‘in pursuit of the boys’ and mows down civilians,” he said.

However, during the past year, the number of clashes between separatist groups and security forces has declined while there has been an uptick in attacks against civilians, according to data collated by the UN and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

Worsening situation

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in June 2022 says separatists in Cameroon are increasingly brutal in their attacks.

The separatists also torched at least two schools, attacked a university and kidnapped people, including 33 students and five teachers, according to HRW. Two incidents involved lecturers of the University of Bamenda.

Ilaria Allegrozzi, HRW’s Central Africa researcher, said an escalation in attacks on civilians, education and health has exacerbated an already dire human rights situation in Cameroon’s anglophone regions.

In April, armed separatists kidnapped 33 Roman Catholic seminary students for ransom in Bachuo-Ntai, in the south-west region, HRW said.