BAMENDA, Cameroon (Reuters) - Cameroonians in the English-speaking west of the country boarded up their shops, stayed home from work and boycotted the start of the school term on Monday, in protest at what they say is their marginalization by the government.
Security forces were deployed on largely deserted streets to prevent a repeat of violent protests last year that galvanized opposition to President Paul Biya, in power for 35 years, and provoked a crackdown in which dozens were arrested and the internet shut off for three months.
“The Anglophones have always been mistreated and disrespected,” Iran Chi, a carpenter with four children, said on a street in central Bamenda, the main town in the western region in which most citizens communicate in English.
Shops, banks, market stalls and petrol stations were all shut.
The rest of Cameroon speaks French, which is also the language in which government business is conducted.
The division is a legacy of World War One, when the League of Nations divided the former German colony of Kamerun, in central Africa, between allied French and British victors.
The general strike, which follows other stoppages last year, comes after an apparently conciliatory move from the president, who freed dozens of activists on Friday to ease months of tension in its minority regions.
Biya ordered a military court to drop its prosecution of detainees arrested following the protests launched late last year.
Others, including well-known radio broadcaster Mancho Bibixy, remain in jail, however, with their cases due to be reviewed at the end of this month. He is accused of threatening the integrity of the nation by demanding secession of the English-speaking region.
Not everyone sympathetic to the English speakers’ cause agreed with pulling children out of school, however.
“The Cameroon English speaking community feel aggrieved, feel marginalized,” said Professor Ernest Molou at the university campus in the southwestern town of Buea.
“But it is unwise for us to (keep) ... children at home. How else will be bridge the gab between the elite and the marginalized if we don’t send our children to school?”
Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams