Ngomba Lucas has given up on his education this year.
The 18-year-old has not attended school since January, when teachers walked off the job to protest the central government’s treatment of Anglophone Cameroonians in the largely French-speaking West African country. He’s missed so many classes, he couldn’t pass national exams anyway.
“My parents spent a lot of money at the beginning of the school year to enroll my three little brothers and I,” said Lucas, who attended Salvation College in Buea in the southwest region. “Now they have nothing left. I told my father, ‘If you can find a little money, send my brothers to school. I will manage to sell snails in the market to raise the money I need to register in the next school year.’”
Lucas is trapped in an ongoing rift between English and French speakers in Cameroon, where around one-fifth of the country’s approximately 22 million citizens speak English. Anglophones say the Francophone majority treats them like second-class citizens. They claim they have little political representation, are shut out from economic opportunities and suffer reprisals for standing up to the government.
For many young Cameroonians like Lucas, shuttered schools and universities can make the struggle for opportunities even more desperate. And while many English speakers have joined together in recent months to protest their treatment, the unrest has led others to leave the country. Some have even made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean alongside refugees fleeing Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Late last year, English-speaking lawyers protested the government’s use of French for court business and called for British-style common law in local courts. That complaint ballooned into larger demonstrations among Anglophones seeking recognition of English in the public sector that turned into civil strife after President Paul Biya’s security forces cracked down violently on rallies in November and then killed four demonstrators in December.
After teachers walked out of schools and many businesses closed their doors at the start of this year — a tactic locals call a “ghost town” action — the government arrested high-profile opposition figures and hundreds of demonstrators. It also shut down newspapers and turned off the internet in the country’s two English-speaking regions.
“We cannot send our children to school while other children are still incarcerated. The forces of law and order deployed everywhere do not reassure us.”
The authorities restored internet service on April 25 at the urging of UN officials but warned it would be shut down again if necessary.
“The internet will be disconnected again if the extremists calling for secession use it again to call for violent demonstrations,” Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakari said in a statement.
Given the government’s hard line, some English speakers say they have little choice but to migrate elsewhere in search of security and opportunity.
Geremy Tah, 22, fled to Mexico to escape the violence. He’s living in Cancun, working odd jobs and learning Spanish. He hopes to attend law school one day.
“My friends were beaten up and arrested by police officers at the university,” he said. “I was saved because I was able to hide when the police started to get the first students out of their rooms. I had never dreamed of leaving my mother and my family in these conditions. But I had no choice. When you’re young, you think about your future.”
While there are no official statistics on English-speaking migration out of Cameroon, the country will feel the exodus, according to Charles Etumbe, an English-speaking political analyst and attorney in Douala.
“The crisis of confidence that is gradually taking place pushes many young people … to leave the country to find El Dorado elsewhere,” Etumbe said. “This is not a good sign for a country that intends to develop.”
The conflict between English and French speakers dates to the early 20th century, when Britain and France took control of the region after World War I. When Cameroon achieved independence in the 1960s, the English-speaking enclaves near the Nigerian border opted to remain with Cameroon rather than join their larger neighbor to the northwest.
Since then, Cameroon’s English-speaking minority has struggled.
Biya, who has held office since 1982 amid frequent accusations of election rigging, maintains that the Cameroonian constitution grants English speakers the same rights as French speakers. He has rejected activists’ calls to create a federal system that would give the country’s Anglophone regions more power over local government.
“Our people are committed to two fundamental principles: the unity and diversity of the nation,” Biya said during a visit to Italy last month. “Inscribed in our constitution, they have an intangible value. My government remains open to any dialogue that does not call into question the unity and diversity of the country.”
Elumbert Bleise, 27, said Biya’s regime is oppressing Anglophones — and mishandling Cameroon’s oil wealth — despite what the president says about equality in public.
Bleise is now in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. There are at least 30 other Cameroonian English-speakers in the camp with him. For years, Lesbos has been a waypoint for migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa making the dangerous sea journey across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Thousands are living in overcrowded camps on the island, facing uncertain futures after a March agreement between Turkey and the European Union that makes it much harder for migrants who reach European shores to move on to other EU countries. More than 1,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year.
Before fleeing Cameroon, Bleise was a high school teacher and member of the Southern Cameroons National Council, a group that advocates for independence for the country’s two majority English-speaking provinces. He spent a week in jail last year after he and fellow council members were arrested during a demonstration. After he was released, he headed north and left the country. Other council members are still imprisoned, he said.
“You need to be French to have a job,” said Bleise, who hails from the southwest region. “Our lawyers aren’t recognized in Francophone Cameroon — this is not what our forefathers agreed on.”
“We’re fighting for equality and independence,” he added. “We don’t want the north [part of Cameroon]. They’re like thieves.”
Other English speakers say they’ll settle for much less than independence. They simply want conditions to improve so their schools might open.
“We cannot send our children to school while other children are still incarcerated,” said Thomas Mbah, a 61-year-old farmer who is the father of two primary school children in the northwestern town of Wum. “The forces of law and order deployed everywhere do not reassure us.”
In the meantime, Etumbe fears for the future with so many young people out of school and others migrating out of the country.
“Some parents have one child in jail, another free but without school,” he said. “The government should understand that as long as this crisis persists, young people in these regions, who cannot go to school, for the most part, will become delinquents.”
Still, Mbah is willing to continue confronting Biya’s regime, even if means his children’s education remains on hold.
“We accept losing a year or two,” he said. “Our children will have a better education when we are free.”
Christian Locka reported from Yaounde, Cameroon. Nikolia Apostolou contributed reporting from Lesbos, Greece.