Cameroonian Prime Minister Philemon Yang's recent weeklong mission to the Northwest has failed to resolve a protracted schools' crisis.
Schools remain closed in one of the two English speaking regions, where lawyers and teachers have remained on strike since late last year.
During his five-day sojourn, Mr Yang held talks with traditional rulers, parents and other education stakeholders and administrative authorities in a bid to effect the re-opening of schools.
At all his stops, Mr Yang told the people that the prolonged school boycott was an embarrassment to the entire nation.
“The greatest empowerment you can ever have is education. Don’t give it away for anything. It is a wrong place to go,” he said in the city of Bamenda during the visit, his second official mission to the region since the beginning of the strike.
The PM’s latest back-to-school mission followed an announcement that the government had “exceptionally extended” registration for the 2017 national examinations—to lure teachers and learners back to the classrooms and avert a wasted academic year.
The council of the Cameroon General Certificate of Education (GCE) Board declared it had “exceptionally authorised” its registrar to “exceptionally re-open registration” across the country till March 20.
The deadline that was initially fixed for December 30, 2016 was moved to January 27 and later to February 28, because of the persistent strike.
The board’s decision, according to Dr Humphrey Ekema Monono, the GCE registrar, was because of the embarrassingly low numbers for the 2017 exams.
According to the board’s statistics, just slightly over 70,000 candidates had registered to sit for the 2017 examinations as of February 28—a figure estimated to be about three times lower than last year's.
As at the same time last academic year, over 183,000 candidates had registered for the exams.
The chairman of the examination board, Prof Peter Abety, said the decision to extend registration was part of resolutions of “an important” extra-ordinary session of the examination board held on March 3.
He said besides regular members of the board, representatives of teachers’ trade unions, private and religious institutions and those of the teachers’ associations of the two English speaking regions also attended the session.
They “unanimously called” on teachers and learners to resume classes latest March 7.
There were about 800,000 learners (from kindergarten to university) in the two regions, according to estimates by Mr Semma Valentine, the acting National Executive Secretary General of Cameroon Teachers Trade Union (CATTU).
The authorities also reached a decision to adjust the examination calendar.
“There would be some minor adjustments on the examination timetable, but all examinations organised by the Cameroon GCE board will be held in 2017,” Prof Abety said in reaction to popular opinion that the teachers’ work boycott had jeopardised examinations organised by the board.
But details of the minor changes had yet to be made public.
However, the Minister for Secondary Education, Mr Jean Ernest Massena Ngalle Bibehe, announced the ministry had published a new schedule to make up for the already lost teaching and learning hours.
He said teaching hours had been increased to 17 per week, from March 6 to May 13, 2017.
In addition, students of examination classes would have to attend lessons during the two-weeks Easter holidays from March 31 to April 17, while those in other classes would attend for one of the two weeks.
He appealed to all the education stakeholders “to put all hands on deck” for the full implementation of the above measures.
“We are in school but there are no students to teach,” a teacher in Bamenda said on phone last Thursday.
There are fears that Unesco may declare a blank school year if the education stalemate continues.
The Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the Catholic University of Cameroon (CATUC) in Bamenda, Prof Paul Nkwi, welcomed the government’s move but feared “students would be psychologically disadvantaged” should the schools eventually resume this week.
He said students in the “heavily militarised” Northwest and Southwest regions were “like those in war zones” whose psychology and reaction to things may not be the same.
Besides a heavy deployment of troops, especially to the opposition stronghold of Bamenda, the Yaoundé government had also disconnected internet services to the protests-hit regions.
Should schools eventually re-open in the regions, Prof Nkwi said, educators would have an uphill task of knowing “how to adapt the learning process to a situation of students who are coming out from a war zone, because that’s what they are”.
Lawyers in the two English speaking regions of the Central African state began a strike in October 2016 and teachers joined a month later, protesting against alleged longstanding marginalisation by the predominantly French speaking Yaoundé regime.
Demonstrators have been calling for a return to the federal system of government as obtained in the country before 1972.
Several people have been killed and many others arrested in the wake of the protests—a situation that has attracted worldwide condemnations.
According to Prof Nkwi, the lawyers’ and teachers’ protest had just opened a Pandora's box.
“It is not only teachers and lawyers. There are other groups coming up. I don’t want to cite one group which told me that they are also going to table their own grievances,” he said.
Was an option
Some other groups in Cameroon have long been advocating an outright secession by the two English speaking regions, even before the lawyers’ and teachers’ strike.
But government that had recently admitted there was an Anglophone problem, maintains that Cameroon is “one and indivisible” and neither federalism nor separation was an option.
“Anglophones are not seeking to secede; they are seeking to be part of Cameroon with a voice,” Prof Nkwi who is also a seasoned English speaking Cameroonian Socio-political Anthropologist, said.
Cameroon’s Anglophones have held grudges against their Francophone brothers for duping them in a post-independence reunification deal where they expected to be equal partners. They often complain of being treated as second-class citizens.
In 1961, a vote was held in the then Southern Cameroons—today's English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, over whether to join Nigeria, which had already obtained independence from Britain, or the Republic of Cameroon, which had obtained independence from France. Voters elected to become part of French speaking Cameroon, and the country practised a federal system with equal status until 1972.
But observers think the French speaking part has failed to uphold this equal status.
“Francophones have failed to understand that before the unification we came from two different backgrounds; one group that had enjoyed indirect rule where the British gave them the capacity and the leeway to govern and to develop their own culture and the other one was indirect where the French imposed on them,” Prof Nkwi intimidated.