Cameroon is in the midst of a political and social conflict between the English and French-speaking areas. What was a German colony in the late nineteenth century was divided into British and French mandates after the defeat of Germany in World War I. Both joined in an independent Cameroon in 1961. However, the population of the anglophone regions – in the southwest and northwest of the country- have felt marginalized by the French-speaking authorities. They accuse them of imposing the French language and traditions and demand greater autonomy and respect for their customs.
The level of unrest in Cameroon has been growing since 2016, when the country’s English-speaking community began to demand a return to federalism. There have been violent confrontations between government forces and secessionist militants, who have sought independence of the self-proclaimed republic of Ambazonia from the Republic of Cameroon. The army has not refrained from using force in its repression of Anglophones, which has led to more than 500 deaths and some 200,000 displaced persons.
Maria Lozano from the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need speaks about the situation with Auxiliary Bishop Mons. Michael MIABESUE BIBI of Bamenda, a mostly English-speaking archdiocese in northwestern Cameroon.
Maria LOZANO: Please fill us in on the background to the current situation in Cameroon: What happened in 2016? What triggered the crisis?
Mons. Michael MIABESUE BIBI: The Crisis began in 2016 when the common law lawyers of the anglophone regions in Cameroon requested that the Ohada Law be translated from French into English so that they too could apply it properly in a language they understood. This was accompanied by peaceful demonstrations but the military was sent out to stop them. The lawyers boycotted work in court and requested that French lawyers should not be sent to English courts and also that in the Anglophone courts cases should be handled in English and not French.
In November 2016, teachers called for a strike to begin on the 21st to protest the fact that French teachers were being sent to work in the English Regions and they were not teaching children in proper English since they were not anglophone. They requested that such teachers be transferred and in their stead English speaking teachers be sent to work in the anglophone regions. These demands also met with repression and herein lies the root causes of the present problem.
Some media talk about the threat of a civil war in Cameroon. Do you think that the situation is so serious?
The situation is very serious. Since it started in 2016, it has been steadily degenerating. What began as a matter of translating documents, transfer of teachers and reinstating the English subsystem of education, grew into the request for a two state federation and finally to a request of secession from the French speaking Cameroon. Since February 2018, there has been serious lost of human life on the side of the military and the boys fighting for the secessionist cause. We are living in a situation of grave insecurity and if the conflict is not solved quickly, there will be even worse ahead.
The recent elections of 7 October will have some effect on the crisis? Do you think that positive and productive steps can be taken?
In my opinion, the president can solve this problem if he decides to bring the people together and dialogue with them. What has happened so far is that government officials have been sent out on a good number of occasions but it has not helped to solve the problem. In my opinion, the silence of the president has been one of the reasons why people have been radicalized. If he comes out and speaks to all Cameroonians as his children I am sure they will listen to him. We need frank and sincere dialogue to solve the problem and this demands humility from both conflicting parties.
The Cameroonian Episcopal Conference has said that there were serious irregularities in the English-speaking regions” and many voters were not able to participate in the vote due to insecurity. How is the situation now regarding security?
Nearly every day in the English speaking region especially from Bamenda where I come from, there are gunshots fired either by the military or by the boys fighting for the cause, known as “ambazonian boys” (short amba boys). There is insecurity in the region and it was the reason why the elections could not take place in certain areas. In some areas where few people voted, they were heavily guarded by the military in order to be able to do so. Yes, there is insecurity in the region. Almost 95 percent of voters in both regions could not vote because of the lack of security.
Can you travel everywhere? How about the pastoral work of the Church, how is this influenced by the crisis?
Mobility in both regions is difficult. In the North West Region, roads are constantly blocked by the boys, bridges destroyed and trees felled on roads to restrict movement. Some days the roads are opened and on other days they are not. This makes it difficult for people to travel. This has greatly affected pastoral work since most priests in parishes cannot leave the main mission to go to other missions for pastoral work. It has become difficult for the bishops to carry out pastoral visitations since June. The pastoral week of the Archdiocese that was to run from the 13th to the 20th was canceled because people could not come to town. In Bamenda, travel is possible on some days, although from the 1st to the 10th October it was not possible to move about at all. On Mondays, the city turns into a ghost town and shops and business are all closed. No movement is possible even though some isolated people try to move about.
On October 4th, shortly before the elections, Gérard Anjiangwe, a seminarian from your archdiocese of Bamenda, was killed in front of the parish church of Bamessing in Ndop commune, Ngo-Ketunjia department. What happened?
Around 9:30am, at the end of the Holy Mass, after some of the Christians had left, Gerard Anjiangwe and some readers were still in the Mission preparing for the liturgy of the following day. A military van coming from Ndop stopped at the entrance of the road leading to the Church. Some of the military alighted from the van and started shooting. Some altar servers who were returning home after the mass ran back to the Church and others to the nearby bush. The readers who were with Gerard near the sacristy, seeing the military coming, ran into the sacristy and closed the door whereas Gerard, who was still outside, prostrated on the ground while praying the rosary. The military men tried to open the Church door but did not succeed. They approached Gerard lying prostrate on the ground and asked him to stand up, which he did without hesitating. After interrogating him, he was asked to lie down again. Then, he was shot three times on the neck and he died instantly. His father is a catechist and Gerard was the only son of the family.
Why do you think he was killed?
It is difficult to say exactly why Gerald was killed. But one can easily conclude that he was taken to be one of the ambazonian boys. This is the only reason I can think of for his being killed. There is a systematic attempt to kill all the young boys in the area since there is fear that they might be part of the ambazonian boys promoting the crisis.
There were already two priests killed in July this year in Cameroon, one in the north (Batibo) and one in the south (Fr. Alexandre Sob Nougi), and several church properties were also destroyed. Are these all collateral damages? What is the role of the Church in the conflict?
Only one priest has been killed, namely Fr. Alexander Sob from Buea. According to our information, the person killed in Batibo was not a priest but a Ghanian pastor. In an attempt to flush out the amba boys, the military burns down and destroys property and as a result the Church too has been affected with many Church buildings, presbyteries and other material goods being destroyed. The role of the Church is simply to speak the truth and encourage dialogue. But the Church is sandwiched between the government and the amba boys. Whatever the Church says, it is accused by one camp or the other. When the Church says that children have a right to go to school and should not be stopped from schooling, the amba boys think that the Church has been bribed by the government to say that. Some government officials have out rightly accused the Church of fueling the crisis through the various write ups that we have produced. The Church believes in peace. But there can be no peace without justice. Justice and truth must prevail and that is what the church stands for.
According to different reports 160,000 people fled their homes within Cameroon, and 34,000 have fled to Nigeria. How is the situation of the refugees in Bamenda?
We have internally and externally displaced persons. The Archdiocese has formed an ad hoc committee to take care of the internally displaced persons living in Bamenda. They have identified all these persons, noted their names and where they live. Some people of good will and some parishes make contributions, which they forward to this committee who use it to buy food, drugs, mattresses and some other basic needs to assist them.. As for those who are externally displaced in Nigeria, assistance is given to them as regards health, food and other basic necessities through the diocese of Mamfe.
What is your message to the benefactors of ACN? What can we do to support your people in this difficult time?
During this difficult time, I would like that ACN should keep us in their prayers so that this crisis may be resolved as soon as possible. The amount of human life being lost, properties destroyed and persons displaced is a reason for real concern. ACN can also assist us in caring for the internally and externally displaced persons and also assist some of our parishes where priests suffer greater difficulty in carrying out their pastoral work.