Cameroon stunned by mass kidnap of children

A video of the children kidnapped on Monday was released on social media by self-described armed separatists. Six of the 78 children from a Presbyterian school in the village of Nkwen, near Bamenda, capital of the restive English-speaking northwest region, give their names on camera. The principal of the school, a teacher and a driver were also kidnapped. In the video, the kidnappers are seen forcing the children to speak.

The assailants, who call themselves Amba boys — a reference to “Ambazonia,” the state that separatists are trying to establish in Cameroon’s anglophone northwest and southwest regions — say they will only release the children if their demands for independence are met. 

Secessionists had previously decreed a boycott of all schools because of what they perceive as discrimination against English-speaking students. This was followed by the kidnapping of six students in Bamenda in mid-October, an event denied by authorities. At the start of the school year in September a principal was murdered, a teacher mutilated and several schools were attacked.

Call for a recount of votes

The kidnapping is bound to raise tensions already running high in the country as it prepares to swear in 85-year-old President Paul Biya to a seventh term of office on Tuesday. Over the weekend, protesters took to the streets of the western town of Bafoussam to support the opposition’s demand for a vote recount. The main opposition party, Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC), says 38 people were arrested. The authorities say they detained 19 protesters.

The press feels under siege in Cameroon

Among those arrested on Saturday was a journalist from the daily Le Messager, Joseph Olinga. The newspaper’s director, Jean Francois Channon, said in a statement that Olinga was manhandled by the police.

Also bearing the brunt of the government’s ire against the press is journalist Mimi Mefo, head of English news at the private television and radio station Equinoxe. After being targeted by a hate campaign on social media, which included threats against her life, Mefo was summoned to appear before the national gendarmerie in Douala on Monday to answer charges of propagation of false information and cyber criminality.

Death threats on social media

Mefo is well known in Cameroon for her reporting on the secessionist struggle going on in the Anglophone regions of the country. “The problem here actually are my reports, my debates, my social media reports, and my day-to-day, minute-to-minute reporting on political happenings in Cameroon,” the journalist said. She sees herself as besieged by both the freedom fighters and the military for doing her job in telling the country what’s going on the ground.

Hundreds have died in violence between the military and armed separatists in the northwest and southwest regions. The English-speaking minority there claims they are being marginalised by the French-speaking government.

Communications minister Bakary Tchiroma warns journalists to be “careful”

Clampdown on the press

Charlie Ndi Chia, president of the Cameroon Union of Journalists, sees an increased clampdown against those trying to disseminate information: “The government is just deceiving the world into thinking that there is press freedom in Cameroon,” he told DW.

Cameroon’s Communications minister Issa Tchiroma said journalists are not above the law and should be tried when they do wrong. The government sees the unity of the country as being under threat. The minister warned everyone to be very careful and to stop publishing information that could jeopardise the country’s unity. “What is unacceptable is the fact that the journalists would lie to the international community to exert influence on President Biya to get the journalist released,” Tchiroma told media. —Additional reporting by Moki Kindzeka 

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