YAOUNDE, Cameroon – Only one high school student out of 4,000 showed up on the first day of Cameroon's new term in Bamenda, the English-speaking city at the heart of a deadly conflict over language in this bilingual West African country.
Teachers have joined a strike led by lawyers resentful over the official use of French in the English-speaking part of the country. Recent protests have called for "ghost town" strikes in major cities. The government shut down the internet in the English-speaking region, digital advocacy group Access Now has said.
Tensions are so high that 10 people were killed in demonstrations over language discrimination in Bamenda in December. The government sent in 5,000 troops to stabilize the city.
Two officials with the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium have been charged with terrorism and rebellion against the state for their role in the recent protests and face the death penalty if convicted. The government has banned the consortium's activities. Another activist, Bibixy Mancho, faces the same charges.
Amnesty International has called for the release of Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla and Fontem Aforteka'a Neba, saying that "this flagrant disregard for basic rights risks inflaming an already tense situation."
Hundreds have been arrested, including protesters who stopped the singing of the Cameroonian national anthem, dismissing it as a foreign song. Some hoisted a new flag, declaring that they are no longer part of French-speaking Cameroon.
Longtime President Paul Biya has said he is open to negotiations but will never accept any attempts to destabilize national unity.
Over the weekend, state media reported that teachers' union leaders had agreed to suspend the strike and that classes would resume Monday, though opposition outlets said the report was incorrect.
As the strike continues, one student, 17-year-old Oben Ashu, said he's afraid his education — and his future — will be compromised. "They should give us the room to go back to school and be studying while the government and the teachers sit down in a table and discuss how the problem can be solved," Ashu said.
Cameroon is made up of areas that were once colonies of France and Britain until the early 1960s. English speakers constitute only 20 percent of Cameroon's population, though the constitution says English and French should be equally important. But most official documents are still available only in French, and teachers with little English ability are often sent to English-language areas of the country.
The protests began late last year when lawyers asked that French-speaking judges be transferred out of English-speaking regions, saying justice cannot be rendered when the judge, the lawyer and the suspect cannot communicate. When the lawyer's requests were not granted, they went to the streets and refused to defend clients in court.
Teachers also got involved, saying there is an overbearing influence of French in schools in the English-speaking regions. The impasse is frustrating students and parents who feel caught in the middle.
"I am just pleading, government help us, so that our children, Cameroonians of tomorrow, should go back to school so that this country should be stabilized and peaceful," said parent Ndip Victor.
Bernard Okalia Bilai, governor of the southwest region, has warned the striking teachers that they will not receive their salaries unless they return to the classroom.
In response, Cameroon's government has ordered the recruitment of 1,000 bilingual teachers and the transferring of teachers out of the English-speaking region if they are not fluent in the language.
Still, the chairman of Cameroon's main opposition political party cautioned the president and his government against taking the situation too lightly, saying that "if this thing stretches out ... it might be a little too dangerous for our country."