Officials in Cameroon are calling on parents in English-speaking areas to send their children back to school, as the Central African country grapples with a continued divide over language.
Schools in English-speaking areas have been closed since teachers went on strike November 21, mainly over what they and allied lawyers consider the overbearing use of French in Cameroon.
In a show of sympathy for the strikers' concerns, many parents have resisted government attempts to lure students, as well as the teachers, back to class. VOA English to Africa spoke to five parents who said they were preventing their children from going to school. The parents did not want their names used for fear of reprisals.
Information Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said it was unacceptable for parents to stop their children from attending school just to score political points.
"We deplore, we condemn the fact they prevent tomorrow's leaders of our nation to acquire the necessary knowledge to be at the helm of this nation tomorrow. It is wrong to do it," Tchiroma said in a phone interview Thursday.
Tchiroma said the government was ready to negotiate with displeased residents in the English-speaking parts of the country.
Solution 'always possible'
"The government says that no matter what the problem is, it is always possible to find a solution, provided that people of good will team up together to sit at a round table to examine the problem to find a right solution. The government is ready to play the music," he said.
Civil society groups and political leaders from the English-speaking parts of Cameroon have expressed concern about what they say has been a plan by the government to force institutions, including schools and the legal system, to use only French. This, they said, undermines the constitution.
Internet connections appear to have been cut in the major towns of the English-speaking regions over the last three weeks — an action that Tchiroma indirectly confirmed and directly defended.
"If you are a member of the government and you are listening to people who are advocating and inciting people with hatred, inciting people into political upheaval, they [destroy] property of people, what would you want the stand of the government to be?" he said.
"Because they use the internet to incite people. This is not democracy, this is not freedom, and the responsibility of the government is to take whatever measure to prevent this from taking place, to enable Cameroonians of good stead to enjoy all what the constitution allows."
Strategy of intimidation
English-language activists have said they are being arbitrarily arrested by the country's security agencies, detained without charges and beaten despite assurances from the government that its officials are ready to hold talks.
This, they said, forms part of the government's strategy to intimidate, harass and to stall any talks to resolve their concerns.
Tchiroma sharply denied the accusations as without merit. He also said assertions that the government was forcing French on the whole country were a calculated attempt to make longtime President Paul Biya and his administration unpopular.
"When they claim they are being harassed or intimidated, it is completely wrong," he said. "All of those who have been arrested, they would be brought to book, because they were arrested red-handed, burning, inciting and doing this and that. … When they are brought to court, they would have their own advocate, the trial would be open. If they are not guilty, they would be released, no problem."
About 80 percent of Cameroon's 22 million people speak mainly French.