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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 to undermine its potential to play a positive role. The Anglophone crisis is no exception.

III. The Church in the Anglophone Crisis

In addition to ethnic divides, the Church suffers from fissures between Anglophones and Francophones. There are five ecclesiastic provinces in the country, all under the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon (NECC). Four of them are French-speaking, while the ecclesiastic provinces of Bamenda administers the predominantly English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, under the aegis of the Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference (BAPEC). Not surprisingly, the six bishops of the Anglophone regions express more concern about the crisis than do those in Francophone areas, reflecting anger among the Anglophone flock at the central government’s actions and the sympathy of the clergy in Anglophone regions for Anglophone grievances.

Two issues related to the crisis are particularly divisive among the clergy. The first concerns the structure of the state, namely whether to advocate for decentralisation, federalism or even independence for a new Anglophone state. The national ecclesiastical hierarchy supports decentralisation within a unified state. Touring the affected regions in May 2017, Archbishop Samuel Kleda, president of the NECC, asserted that the conference had asked the government to implement decentralisation, as stipulated by the 1996 constitutional law.

Some Anglophone priests have gone so far as to call for the creation of a new state.

In contrast, some Anglophone priests have gone so far as to call for the creation of a new state. In April 2017, for instance, Father Wilfred Emeh of the Kumba diocese called for the restoration of the statehood of Southern Cameroons (he proposed federalism as a step toward achieving independence). The next month, Father Gerald Jumbam of the Kumbo diocese wrote an open letter to Archbishop Kleda supporting full independence for the Anglophone areas and calling federalists “cowards standing on the fence”.

He was joined later in May by Father David Fomanka, former Catholic education secretary of Mamfe diocese, who advocated for independence in an open letter to “Southern Cameroonians”.

These three priests all now live abroad. Their stance undoubtedly reflects the frustrations of a section of the Anglophone population. But the vast majority of Anglophone Cameroon’s 350 priests are more cautious, saying little in public and privately supporting either federalism or effective decentralisation – not independence.

Furthermore, most respect the Church’s hierarchy and the principle that the voice of the Church should be heard through the bishops.

The second division is over whether to support a school boycott declared in January 2017 by Anglophone militants, along with a general strike (they vowed to turn cities into “ghost towns”). The boycott continued throughout 2017 but, in 2018, classes have resumed at many schools, especially in cities. Fomanka, Emeh and Jumbam support the boycott, while Bishop George Nkuo, president of the BAPEC and effective head or spokesperson of the Anglophone part of the Church, disagrees, arguing that children’s education must be respected as a primordial mission of the Church.

In this he agrees with the national Church.

Still, some disagreements remain at the level of the bishops. In May 2017, Archbishop Kleda pressured Anglophone bishops to ensure that classes resume immediately. Bishop Immanuel Bushu of Buea had a different opinion. Without supporting the boycott, he did say that it expressed the wish of parents and that progress toward resolving the crisis, and thus reopening schools, could better be made if the government released detainees.

The position of leading figures within the Church against the boycott has provoked the anger of Anglophone militants and prompted them to threaten clergy. They also have set fire to schools not taking part in the boycott. Militants burned down two Catholic primary schools in Tobin and Kumbo on 5 August 2017 and badly damaged the Sacred Heart Catholic College in Bamenda on 18 September.

Despite the polarisation, Anglophone and Francophone bishops share some views, and important Church figures are trying to find middle ground.

For the most part, Francophone bishops have remained silent about the crisis, allowing Archbishop Kleda to speak on behalf of the national Church. Nor did they speak out when a government-fabricated consortium of parents filed a series of lawsuits against Anglophone clergymen, accusing them of aiding the school boycott. In April 2017, the Bamenda Court of First Instance summoned several Anglophone bishops, as well as the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and the executive president of the Cameroon Baptist Convention, in connection with this case, with state prosecutors adding their own charges of endangering national unity, accusing the bishops of making statements that had paralysed the schools. A court in Buea summoned bishops from the Southwest shortly thereafter. Charges have since been dropped, but the government has proved itself willing to put clergy on trial for political reasons.

As in the past, the Church is caught between the Yaoundé government and its opponents on the ground. The top-down pressure came even from the papal nuncio (recently replaced), who pushed Anglophone bishops to reopen schools, but expressed no concern about either the schools’ safety from arson or the politically motivated prosecution of bishops.

In Yaoundé diplomatic circles, the pope’s emissary was seen as having taken the government’s side in the crisis.

Despite the polarisation, Anglophone and Francophone bishops share some views, and important Church figures are trying to find middle ground. For example, despite differences in tone, both Anglophone and Francophone bishops condemned the heavy military crackdown on civilians between September and October 2017.

This precedent indicates that greater coherence, and a more constructive role for the Church, are possible.

IV. The Church’s Potential as Mediator

In order to play a more effective role and help stem an insurrection and counter the risk of civil war in Anglophone Cameroon, the Catholic Church must overcome its internal divisions or at least find enough common ground to project a position of neutrality. Several commentators have called upon the Church to mediate between the warring sides, as it has done in neighbouring countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

If it is to play that role, the Church should avoid taking firm positions on the main issues that divide the protagonists.

To this end, bishops, Anglophone and Francophone, could usefully come together and issue a public statement, declaring that they remain neutral on the main issues of concern, especially federalism versus decentralisation, underlining that Anglophone feelings of marginalisation have some justification, denouncing human rights abuses and calling for restraint by all sides. They could then state their interest in mediating the crisis. The details of such mediation would have to be worked out away from the public glare. Such an approach would potentially boost public trust (especially in Anglophone areas) in the church, while helping to remove the spotlight from the more radical and polarising positions taken by some priests.

Ultimately, direct talks between the main protagonists are the most promising way to avoid escalation. But the current violence and polarisation suggest that their prospects, even with mediators involved, are slim at present.

Instead, the most logical step for the Church, if it is able to position itself as a trusted arbiter, would be to talk separately to both sides to understand their differences in opinion and their red lines. According to Crisis Group sources, such parallel consultations may already be happening, albeit in a dispersed way. They should be strengthened through better coordination between bishops, so that those involved can speak for the Church as a whole, and potentially developed into shuttle diplomacy, with the goal of increasing understanding and reducing the distance between the sides in preparation for direct talks. To do so, the Church could usefully team up with other denominations, especially the influential Presbyterian Church, which has indicated its willingness to play a role and which already collaborates well with the Catholic Church.

It could also involve the Cameroon Baptist Convention, as well as credible civil society associations and traditional rulers.

Even ahead of direct talks, the Church likely will have to address the exile of Anglophone activists. Many want to return home but are understandably frightened by the government’s continued imprisonment of Anglophone militants. It could push for some form of amnesty, prisoner releases and guarantees for returnees, perhaps in exchange for a ceasefire from the Anglophone armed militias.

Without talks and the devolution of power in some form to Anglophone and other regions, separatist sentiment is very likely to continue growing.

The precise agenda of eventual talks between Anglophone leaders and the government cannot be determined in advance. But even preliminary discussions need to take account of the Anglophones’ deep feelings of alienation. The government cannot continue to dismiss this sentiment and should be open to discussions of federalism, even if that is not the only option for addressing Anglophone concerns (decentralisation that devolves real authority to regions likely would go a long way in that direction).

The issue of separatism is trickier. A growing number of militants, tired of what they see as Yaoundé’s bad faith, are attracted to this option (which they tend to term “restoration of statehood”). But it remains a red line for Yaoundé, and supporting secession remains a treasonable offense.

At the same time, separatist movements have established themselves on the ground and cannot simply be ignored. Whether the government’s engagement in genuine dialogue with Anglophone leaders and either meaningful decentralisation or federalism would suck the oxygen from those movements remains uncertain. But without talks and the devolution of power in some form to Anglophone and other regions, separatist sentiment is very likely to continue growing and the conflict to escalate further with a risk of mutating into civil war.

V. Conclusion

Cameroon faces critical risks going into this electoral year. Boko Haram remains active in the Far North, instability prevails along the eastern border with the Central African Republic and popular discontent continues to roil large cities. But the insurgency in Anglophone areas, and the clumsy government response, is now the main threat to the country’s stability. A negotiated solution is vital. The Catholic Church, if it can resolve or keep under wraps its internal divisions and project neutrality, would be well placed to help bring it about. International actors should support Church initiatives and encourage greater unity among the clergy. But the onus is also on the Church itself to display greater coherence.


(c) 2018 International Crisis Group

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