Just before dawn on Monday, November 5, unknown gunmen abducted around 79 school children from dormitories at Presbyterian Secondary School Nkwen in Bamenda, a town in Cameroon’s Anglophone North-West region. This horrific kidnapping is the latest escalation in the country’s spiraling violence.
Over the past two years, a political standoff between Cameroon’s Francophone dominated government and the country’s Anglophone minority – some of whom are seeking independence – has become a full-fledged human rights crisis. Hundreds are thought to have been killed, over a thousand homes burned, and dozens of schools attacked. An estimated 250,000 people have fled their homes.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for Monday’s mass kidnapping. One government official blamed Anglophone separatist groups, but the largest separatist groups have denied involvement and condemned the attack, insisting that they do not attack civilians. Others have accused pro-government forces of kidnapping the children in order to sully the separatists’ reputation. Neither the government nor the separatist groups provided evidence to substantiate their accusations.
The government has pledged to investigate the kidnapping, but its own forces have committed grave abuses in the conflict, including attacks on villages and extrajudicial killings of civilians, without any investigation or anyone being held responsible.
Yesterday’s kidnapping may only be the tip of the iceberg, and without swift international action, the crisis will likely worsen. International actors – especially the African Union, the United Nations, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States – should unanimously condemn violence against civilians and make clear that no political objective justifies tampering with the right to education and abducting sleeping schoolchildren from their beds. But they should also ensure that this horrific event doesn’t become a justification for further abuses by any of the parties to this crisis.