Kidnap of 79 school kids highlights growing insecurity in restive Anglophone Cameroon
Local residents who don’t support the separatist movement say they fear for their safety
The video has a grimly familiar feel: on a wobbly hand-held camera, a kidnapper questions dozens of children abducted during a raid on a school in West Africa. As the lens pans onto their terrified faces, he warns that they won't see a classroom again anytime soon.
This latest kidnapping, however, is not the work of Boko Haram, the Nigerian terror group notorious for using school abductions as a weapon of war.
Instead, it took place in Nigeria's French-speaking neighbour Cameroon, where a campaign by armed English-speaking separatists is now spiralling out of control.
The 79 children were abducted along with their headteacher and a driver from a school in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon's English-speaking North West region on Monday. It was blamed on local members of Cameroon's Anglophone separatist movement, who want independence from the Francophone-majority government.
Unlike Boko Haram, which wants to create an African "Caliphate" by force alone, the separatists are actively courting the backing of the West and the UN. But even their own supporters have been alarmed by Monday's mass kidnapping, which has echoes of Boko Haram's infamous abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014.
The pupils were released again on Wednesday morning in the nearby town of Bafut, after negotiations with church leaders. But moderate Anglophones fear it is yet another sign that the conflict is plunging Cameroon's English-speaking enclaves into all-out lawlessness.
One resident of Bamenda, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told The National he now lived in daily fear of separatists scoping out further abductions.
"Just a few hours after the abduction we had someone suspicious-looking knocking on the family's door and asking if the school next door to ours was a government-run one or not," he said. "People in my neighbourhood are hiding children in their houses for their own safety".
An estimated 600 people have already died in the fighting, which has seen more than 245,000 people flee their homes and a further 20,000 more have crossed the border and are now refugees in Nigeria. While troops have been accused of burning down scores of villages and arbitrary killings of military-aged men, the separatists have been accused of kidnapping and beheading soldiers, and intimidating locals into supporting their campaign.
Schools have long been in the frontline of the violence, which was sparked partly by plans to two years ago by Cameroon's French-speaking president, Paul Biya, to increase the number of Francophone teachers in Anglophone areas.
Since the proposal, separatists have tried to enforce a mass school boycott, threatening and occasionally abducting teachers who open their schools in Anglophone areas. Monday's mass abduction is the first time, though, that large groups of schoolchildren have been targeted.
In the video, the students repeat the phrase: "I was taken from school last night by the Amba boys, I don't know where I am."
The "Amba boys" is the nickname for the separatists, a mix of dozens of rag-tag militias whose goal is a separate state called "Ambazonia". Last night Mr Biya, who has just won elections securing him a seventh term in the office he has held for the last 36 years, appealed to the rebel groups to lay down their arms.
“They need to know that they will face the rigour of the law and the determination of our defence and security forces,” he warned.
Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, said he had been mediating with the kidnappers, who had told him that they wanted all schools shut down. In the hostage video, the kidnapper also tells the pupils that rather than staying at school, they should "fight the struggle in Ambazonia".
In the Anglophone regions, where support for independence is now high, many are convinced the kidnapping has been staged by Mr Biya to discredit the separatists. Reports circulated on social media claim to have identified the kidnapper shown in the video as a member of the Cameroonian security forces.
Chris Anu is "secretary of state for communications" with the self-declared independent Ambazonia government, a movement based in the US that supports the separatists. Speaking to The National from Texas, he said: "This was not the work of our boys, why would they be naive enough to do something like this?
"It is right that we have campaigned for schools to be shut down over the last two years, but at the start of this new school season, we decided that it would be best to let children go back for the sake of their education."
His claims did not convince some Cameroonians, who, despite supporting the separatist cause, say that the armed wing of the campaign has been hijacked by criminal gangs and jobless youths looking to make money. A number of other kidnappings by separatists have already led to ransom demands.
"To my mind, this kidnapping looks like the work of the Amba Boys themselves," said another Anglophone resident, who again asked not to be named. "There is good and bad in their ranks, but many of them are illiterates without any educational background, and they are being controlled by people from abroad who have no grip on their activities on the ground. In the cities at the moment, the security is not too bad, but in the countryside it's completely lawless. Right now, it's getting very difficult to tell who is a genuine Amba fighter and who is a criminal operating under their banner."
He added that despite the claims of some separatist groups that the boycott on schools was now over, the sliding security situation meant that many parents still felt it unsafe to send their children to school. His son, who was at secondary school in Bamenda, had not attended all term, while his three younger children, who were at primary, had been absent for the last two years.
"The brunt of this war is being suffered by those on ground zero," he added. "This whole principle of stopping people from going to school has to stop - otherwise, we will end up with a free Ambazonia where every educated person has fled."
Updated: November 7, 2018 08:53 PM