NEWS BRIEFING: Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis: How the Catholic Church Can Promote Dialogue

The Anglophone crisis in Cameroon is growing deadlier. The Catholic Church could mediate between Anglophone militants and the state, but clergy have espoused clashing views on key issues. The Church should heal its divides so as to be a neutral arbiter that can broker peace.

Pope Francis talks with Cameroon's President Paul Biya during a private audience at the Vatican on 23 March 2017 Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

What’s new? Fighting is spreading between security forces and militants from Cameroon’s English-speaking minority. The government largely rejects Anglophone grievances, while armed militants appear inclined to continue fighting. The Catholic Church, representing nearly a third of Cameroonians, could be an arbitrator, but its clergy have taken divergent positions on the crisis.

Why does it matter? Other than the Catholic clergy, there are few prospective peacemakers. If no one fills that role, the separatist sentiment already voiced by many Anglophones will continue to grow, fuelling further violence and exacerbating the ongoing insurgency in the Anglophone regions, with elections in late 2018 a flashpoint.

What should be done? The Church should bridge its divides and state its impartiality on the thorniest question facing Anglophone regions – federalism versus decentralisation. A clergy able to project a position of neutrality could work with other trusted actors to mediate between Anglophone leaders and the state, and stem a dangerous and growing crisis.

I. Overview

Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis, which began in October 2016, has morphed into conflict between security forces and increasingly well-armed separatists fighting in the name of the country’s marginalised English-speaking minority. The separatist impulse among Anglophones is growing as President Paul Biya’s government shrugs off the community’s historical grievances. Violence has spread: more than 100 civilians and at least 43 members of the security forces have reportedly died in the last seven months, as have an unknown number of armed militants.

Some evidence suggests that separatists control territory; 34,000 refugees are sheltering in precarious conditions in Nigeria and about 40,000 persons are displaced in the Southwest Anglophone region. Many militants apparently believe they are better served by fighting in order to negotiate with Biya’s government from a position of strength. The African Union and Western powers have called for dialogue. The government agrees on the need for talks, but refuses Anglophone activists’ calls for outside mediation and opposes any discussion of federalism. It has jailed Anglophone leaders with whom it was formerly talking.

The Catholic Church could help break this dangerous stalemate. Present in all ten of Cameroon’s regions, the Church is one of the country’s strongest institutions. Almost a third of Cameroonians are Catholic, and the Church operates a dense network of schools and hospitals. Cameroonians take its views seriously. At present, however, its public divisions, particularly between Anglophone and Francophone clergy, stand in the way of it playing a constructive role. It is not too late for the Church to bridge these divides. Anglophone and Francophone bishops should come together in a public statement to affirm their neutrality on the issue most contentious in the crisis – that of federalism versus decentralisation – and state their willingness to mediate.

The Church also should renew its calls for an end to violence and for Anglophone leaders and the government to enter negotiations. Given that, for now, direct talks between the two sides appear unlikely, the Church, if it is able to project neutrality and win trust on both sides, might play a behind-the-scenes role to allow for indirect communication between them. It could usefully push for prisoner release and some form of amnesty for Anglophone leaders who have fled the country, both likely prerequisites for talks. It could continue working together with other religious institutions, such as the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, which in January 2017 stated its readiness to mediate, and the Cameroon Baptist Convention, as well as credible civil society associations and traditional rulers. As violence appears set to escalate, particularly ahead of Cameroon’s 2018 presidential election, potential mediators and peacemakers are few. The Church should overcome its divisions, position itself as a neutral arbiter and help resolve an increasingly deadly and worrisome crisis.

II. A History of Political Engagement and Divisions

Cameroon’s Catholic clergy have often been divided at times of political turmoil. The best-known case dates to the 1970s, involving a split over the fate of Archbishop Albert Ndongmo, whom the government claimed supported the insurgent Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (Union des peuples du Cameroon, UPC).

The government at the time, headed by President Ahmadou Ahidjo, asked Ndongmo to negotiate with the insurgents, but then arrested him for collaborating with them, and in 1970 condemned him to death (a sentence later commuted to life in prison). Although priests drafted a memorandum denouncing Ndongmo’s incarceration, Jean Zoa, the archbishop of the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé, who was close to the regime, refused to sign it. When Ahidjo pardoned Ndongmo in 1975, Zoa’s archdiocese declined to join the rest of the Church in celebrating his release.

Conflicts within the Catholic Church often have an ethnic dimension, pitting priests from the influential Bamiléké community against those hailing from other groups. Rivalries over postings and promotions are common. In 1987, a group of mainly ethnic Bassa priests in the Douala archdiocese wrote a memorandum to the Vatican criticising the appointment of Bamiléké bishops to dioceses outside their region of origin.

Among the appointments drawing their ire was that of Christian Tumi, who comes from the Northwest region and is a member of the “grasslands” ethnic groups to which the Bamiléké are related, to the position of archbishop of Garoua, in Cameroon’s North region. The memorandum described Tumi, in barely disguised pejorative terms, as “Anglophone Bamiléké”.

A few years later, the Catholic Church was divided once more as Cameroon began a turbulent transition to multiparty politics, replete with crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters. In 1990, the Cameroon Peoples’ Democratic Movement (which had been ruling since 1960, albeit under a different name) organised nationwide rallies against what it termed the “precipitous” introduction of multiparty politics. In Yaoundé, the rallies ended on 30 March with a mass held in the cathedral led by Archbishop Zoa. Tumi, by then a cardinal and figurehead of the democracy movement, objected to what he considered an authoritarian manoeuvre.

The Church has established itself as a leading actor in Cameroon’s politics, but [internal] divisions continue to undermine its potential to play a positive role.

On 26 May 1990 oppositionists launched a new party in Bamenda named the Social Democratic Front. After police killed six of its supporters that same day, the Anglophone archbishop of Bamenda, Paul Verdzekov, organised a memorial service in his cathedral. In response, Archbishop Zoa convened a counter-mass in the Yaoundé cathedral to, as he put it, “cleanse the image of the Catholic Church from the unholy service” in Bamenda.

The Catholic Church, or individual clergy, have continued to express political views since the 1990s, notably concerning the conduct of elections. And differences have persisted between conservative clergy close to the authorities in Yaoundé and those more willing to speak out.

The Church has established itself as a leading actor in Cameroon’s politics, but such divisions continue t