The shutting down of schools in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon for a period of almost a year has not only been counterproductive, but was also particularly devastating for children of school-going age in the region. The recently released GCE Advanced and Ordinary level results, which showed a drastic drop in the percentage marks obtained by students in the two regions of Northwest and Southwest, bears testimony to the negative impact of the unfortunate closure of schools. Many have blamed the deterioration of events to the initial response by the security forces to the protests staged by teachers and lawyers. The brutal crack-down on peaceful protesters, the ill-treatment of protesting lawyers, the use of live ammunition resulting in the death of some protesters, the arrest and jailing of trade union leaders and others, all helped to bolster the efforts of the activists towards the closure and emboldened their stance which led to the eventual shutdown of the schools. The social media campaign initiated by these activists was characterised by manipulation, misinformation, threats, attacks on students, and burning down of schools, amongst others. The result has been the creation of an atmosphere of fear, distrust and lack of confidence amongst residents of the English-speaking regions. However, the security establishment has since failed to re-instil confidence in the school proprietors to re-open their doors and for students to feel safe going back to school.
The picture I paint here is only a simple narration of what is actually a very complex set of situations engineered by a web of actors and events that have culminated in the disruption to the smooth running of the 2016/2017 academic year. The government, politicians, school proprietors, parents, social media activists, the clergy and more, having found themselves trapped in a complex political conundrum, knowingly or otherwise, because of ignorance and manipulation, which led to them resolving to sacrifice an entire academic year to the detriment of helpless children. The various actions and inactions – in particular the inability by the government to ensure a safe learning environment – amount to an interference with the inalienable right to education especially for vulnerable groups such as children and girls.
The importance of education to the individual child and society at large cannot be over-emphasized. Education is the foundation for the growth and development of the full potentials of every child, and is a tool for the empowerment of less privileged groups and the elevation from a life of poverty. Very few in our 21st century civilization will remain indifferent to the plight of young children (in particular girls) who have been kept out of school against their will for an entire academic year and counting. No entity or party in any conflict is likely to gain credibility in the eyes of the international community for depriving such young ones their rights to education. It is a noble duty to protect children and girls when adults fight. It is dishonourable to mortgage the education of children to score political points. Advocates of the right to education don’t hesitate even in situations of armed conflicts or other instabilities to call for the absolute protection of children’s right to education. Malala Yousafzai, a staunch advocate of the right to education for young girls in the Swat Valley of north-western Pakistan, braved threats from the local Taliban terrorist group, to push for the right for these girls to attend school, even sustaining life-threatening gunshot wounds in the process.
Access to education is a universal human right – meaning it is guaranteed legally for all without discrimination – and states have an obligation to protect, respect and fulfil this right in totality. It is stated in the Universal declaration of human rights, and upheld by many international human rights instruments today. In fact, the right to education for children is enshrined in the Convention on the Right of the Child, boasting 196 state parties to the Convention.
Each of these states have the primary obligation to protect the enjoyment of this inalienable right by among other things, putting in place the appropriate measures to prevent the interference with it. The presence of violence and unrest should not be a limitation on the part of the state to fulfil its obligation The inalienability of the right to education demands that even in the current dispensation, the state of Cameroon must put in place measures including both diplomatic and operational, to guarantee a safe and serene education environment.
Parents also play a vital role in the education of their children. Key amongst their responsibilities is to ensure their children attend school and not deny them access to education. Parents in Cameroon are called upon to exercise this responsibility by giving priority to the education of their children. They should consider the best interest of the child in matters of their education and development of their full potentials.
The best interest of the child in matters of education, an important gateway to guarantee a bright future, should be considered, duly assessed and taken into consideration. In so doing, it is important for the voice of children to be heard and given due consideration; for their development and aspirations to be given priority; and for their right to education to be protected. It is my conviction that children of school-going age in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions will wish for nothing better than to be in school – just like their counterparts in the other regions of Cameroon – to play, learn and continue their journey of developing their full potentials.
To the young students, I implore you to be emboldened by the courage of young Malala Yousafzai, to stand up, raise your voices and fight for your right to education. Fight to guarantee your future and not depend on anyone else. To quote Malala’s famous words, “Let us pick up our books and our pens… they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”
Written by Gilbert Ajebe Akame