By Ngala Killian Chimtom
“It was like I was watching a horror movie” is how the bishop of Mamfe diocese in Cameroon’s South West Region described the scene he saw in the village of Kembong village.
Mgr Andrew Nkea had visited the village in the wake of the deaths of four soldiers late December, killed by unknown assailants (although the government claimed they were secessionists). In a retaliatory move, Cameroonian soldiers had incinerated the whole village.
“I saw more than 20 houses burnt down by soldiers and one dead body still lying there, being fed on by dogs and chicken,” said Nkea. Of the village’s 5,000 or so residents, only 30 remained, all huddled in the house of the area’s priest because “they had nowhere else to go.”
The December attack is the latest in an ongoing crisis – pitting Cameroon’s English speakers (who make up 20 percent of Cameroon’s estimated 24 million people) against the Francophone-dominated government – that now risks exploding into a full-scale civil war.
With Anglophone Cameroonians having long complained that they are being marginalised, resentment burst into the open a year ago with teachers and lawyers in the English-speaking part of Cameroon taking to the streets to protest against the use of French in their schools and courts.
What started as a teachers’ and lawyers’ strike has escalated into a full-blown political crisis, with many in the English-speaking regions now calling for secession.
In fact, on October 1, 2016, secessionist leaders in the English-speaking part of the country announced a nominal declaration of independence, provoking a muscular reaction from Cameroon’s security forces, with the ensuing clashes leaving at least 17 people dead according to the government (although opposition leaders claimed at least 100 died).
Rift between Anglophone and Francophone bishops
The crisis has drawn sharp lines between Catholic bishops from the English-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country.
Anglophone bishops described the killings as “a growing genocide” and published a long and detailed statement on Oct. 4 in which they decried a “warlike atmosphere” of killings, looting and arson carried out by “young people” and acts of “brutality, torture, inhuman and unjustified treatment meted out” by the “forces of law and order”.
But the characterisation of the crisis as genocide was not shared by the bishops from the other regions of the country.
Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, who is president of the country’s Episcopal Conference issued a statement condemning the violence, but refusing to use the inflammatory language of his Anglophone colleagues.
“In the name of our common citizenship, brotherhood and humanity, the defence of legitimate interests must go hand in hand with social harmony, which is what is being sought … Violence, regardless of its source, does not build, it destroys,” said Kleda.
The archbishop pointed out that all regions of Cameroon face problems which, he said, can be resolved through dialogue, arguing that decentralisation would resolve many regional problems in Cameroon, including the Anglophone problem.
That drew sharp criticism from the clergy in Anglophone Cameroon who have always seen the ‘Anglophone Problem’ as one that is unique.
Father Gerald Jumbam said that by lumping the ‘Anglophone Problem’ with all other problems in the country, Kleda was ignoring a key historical fact: that English and French-speaking Cameroons were two countries that had decided to come together and that that they had come together under agreed terms which have been jettisoned to the disadvantage of Anglophones.
In a lengthy missive to Kleda, Jumbam wrote that by virtue of their history, Anglophone Cameroonians “cannot be loyal subjects to the despicable and tyrannous Yaoundé government. Archbishop, you speak of decentralisation and you offer us it as the best gift you think fitting for the resolution of this crisis? We are determined to decline a gift so laden with spurious promises and deceitful propensities.”
Church leaders in Anglophone Cameroon have also accused the president of the National Episcopal Conference of failing to as much as acknowledge the ‘Anglophone Problem’, let alone condemn the arrests and detention of Anglophone leaders and the “grotesque campaign of human savagery and barbarism perpetrated on the people of Southern Cameroons by the government.” Instead, they said, the Prelate seems to be toeing the government line by reducing the ‘Anglophone Problem’ to just another Cameroonian problem.
Cardinal Christian Tumi, one of Cameroon’s most revered clerics who comes from the English-speaking part of Cameroon, says that such corrosive representation of the problem must be discontinued. “I would say that the others should keep quiet when the bishops of [English-speaking] Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province write because they know better what is happening.”
Genesis of a crisis
French-speaking Cameroon obtained independence from France in 1960, with British Cameroons obtaining independence in 1961. Both sides agreed to reunite following an 11 February 1961 plebiscite, but they did so under a federal system of governance that guaranteed the survival of the political, cultural, educational and judiciary legacies of both sides inherited from the colonial masters.
Just three years after that reunification, English speakers began feeling they were being marginalised.
In a confidential letter to Cameroon’s first President, Ahmadou Ahidjo, Professor Bernard Fonlon, a senior official of the ruling KNDP party in the then Southern Cameroons (now the English-speaking part of Cameroon) summed up this feeling: “Since we came together, the KNDP has hardly done more than stand by and look on. For, talking sincerely, can we name one single policy in any field – economics, education, external affairs – that has been worked out jointly by the two parties? Can we point a finger at one idea that took birth in the KNDP and was welcomed and implemented by this government?
“There is disillusionment; discontent and frustration are sinking and spreading. There is nothing so calculated as to wring and crush the human spirit, before a lofty enterprise, as to know what should be done and yet to have to stand by impotent and see the opposite taking place. This desperation has become explosive.”
Even then, a controversial referendum scrapping the federal system in 1972 meant that whatever protections the federal constitution gave English speakers were simply destroyed.
Anglophone Cameroonians believe that the agenda has always been that of annihilating their identity as a people, which is why their simmering discontent exploded in late 2017.