Schools at stake in Cameroon's separatist crisis
A solitary teacher has just two pupils in his class in west Cameroon, where thousands of schools have closed down altogether because of kidnappings and threats by radical separatists.
Since a crisis erupted in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon late in 2016, schools have been a prime target for breakaway groups angered by the teaching of French, used in most of the central African country.
On November 9, 2016, "hordes of people staged an assault on the classrooms in Excel College, wielding machetes and telling everybody to leave the premises or risk a bloodbath," a teacher in the private school recalled.
Known as "Mr Tseke", the teacher said the raid on the premises in Buea, capital of the Southwest region, led senior staff to arrange to move the whole school to a site in Clerks quarter, an administrative district with high security.
"Not far from us, you'll find a gendarmerie contingent (paramilitary police), behind us you've got the police and down to the left, you have the 21st BIM (Motorised Infantry Brigade, an army unit with formidable firepower)," Tseke noted.
Home to most civil servants and police and army top brass, the Clerks district is a haven of peace in Buea.
Separatist attacks are frequent elsewhere in the town, which sprawls over the eastern flank of Mount Cameroon.
In two years, the conflict by English-speaking separatists demanding independence in the Northwest and Southwest regions has claimed more than 2,500 lives. UN agencies say that more than 530,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
'We're really safe'
The Excel College had to move into a building that is only accessible via pebble-strewn paths winding between residential housing, while school routines are rung out by a bell wired to the roof.
The teacher alone with his two students occupied one of nine classrooms. "The place is cramped, but we're really safe," Tseke told AFP, though such statements are not enough to reassure parents and their children.
The inscription rate has dropped from 1,350 in 2016-2017 to less than 400 today and fewer than half of those remaining have turned up since the academic year began on September 2, according to school data.
The French-speaking section has been closed, since many parents decided to send their children to towns in francophone territory, which makes up eight of the 10 regions in Cameroon.
Jeannette Benga, a prominent figure in local civil society who has lived in Buea for 25 years, is among the parents who resist threats from the separatists and keep their children in town.
"My daughter was kidnapped coming out of school in 2017," then released three days later, Benga said, giving no further details. In spite of the incident she's still sending her four children to school in the town.
"It's a permanent worry to see them leave for school," she acknowledged. "We live in perpetual insecurity."
"We're in a hurry to see an end to this crisis," she added, with a hopeful eye to the "Great National Dialogue" due to be held in the capital Yaounde for five days from September 30.
The forum was announced by President Paul Biya, who has ruled for 37 years and is intransigent about the secessionist demands, but some separatist forces and opposition parties plan to boycott the talks while they have leaders and members in jail.
Education 'that suits us'
In the past three years, more than 4,400 schools have closed in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, according to the UN Children's Fund.
The closures directly affect the education of more than 700,000 youngsters. More than 300 students, pupils and teachers have been kidnapped since 2018.
State schools in Buea have tried to maintain a semblance of business as usual since the start of September, but private schools are feeling the pinch.
"The separatists force schools to close to draw the attention of the international community to the problems we face here," said a parent named only as Mr Agbor, who was one of the rare people openly to express support for the breakaway movement.
"I want separation," he said. "It will enable us, for instance, to have an educational system that suits us."
It was a strike by anglophone teachers and lawyers three years ago that eventually led to the armed conflict in the two regions, which joined with French-speaking Cameroon in 1961, a year after independence.
The teachers notably protested that francophone colleagues were giving lessons in French inside schools regarded as anglophone. Once they and disgruntled lawyers went on strike, the movement turned into a popular uprising.
After months of repression by police and the army, armed separatist groups took shape. They have fought government troops for almost two years and demand outright independence, which is a major step up from proposals for a return to a federal Cameroon.