After more than six years of war pitting his country’s English-speaking minority against its French-speaking majority, Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Bamenda in Cameroon says the Anglophones are weary of the conflict.
“Our people are tired of the war, and our people need peace,” Nkea said January 14.
“In the northwest and southwest regions of our country, we have seen Cameroonians exhibit wickedness against fellow Cameroonians: Homes burned, schools shut down, the destruction of goods and obstruction of the circulation of people and goods…we have seen Cameroonians torture other Cameroonians,” he said.
Nkea was speaking in the St. Anne and Joachim Cathedral in Abang, Ebolowa, in Cameroon’s southern region, during a closing Mass of the 46th annual seminar of Cameroon Catholic Bishops.
In the presence of some thirty bishops from all five ecclesiastical provinces in Cameroon, as well as representatives of bishops from neighboring Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, along with several government Ministers, Nkea spoke at length about the conflict that has so far left at least 6,000 people dead.
Over a million others have been forced to flee from their homes, and more than 70,000 others have sought refuge in Nigeria, according to the International Crisis Group.
Conflict erupted in 2016 when English-speaking teachers and lawyers took to the streets to protest, amid perceptions that the educational and legal systems in the two Anglophone regions were being overwhelmed by French-speakers with scant knowledge of local realities.
The government took a hard line, and what was initially a peaceful protest mutated into a political crisis. A separatist movement developed and took up arms demanding independence for Cameroon’s English speakers, and the formation of a new state to be called “Ambazonia.”
According to many analysts, the current conflict is a consequence of Cameroon’s colonial legacy. Initially colonized by Germany following the Berlin Conference of 1884, the country would be divided between Britain and France following World War 1.
France claimed four-fifths of the country in the post-war settlement, while Britain was given one-fifth which it administered as part of Nigeria. The two colonial powers would administer the two parts of the country, first as a League of Nations Mandate and then as an United Nations Trust Territory.
In 1960, the French part of Cameroon got its independence to become “La Republique du Cameroun.” The English-speaking part of Cameroon, otherwise known as the British Cameroons, got theirs in 1961, but both sides decided to reunite following a February 11, 1961, plebiscite.
The political elites of the two territories agreed on the formation of a federal State, with considerable autonomy for the English-speaking regions.
In 1972, however, then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo organized a controversial referendum, dissolving the federal structure of the state and replacing it with a united republic. In 1984, President Paul Biya removed the word “united” from the name of the state and Cameroon became known simply as “The Republic of Cameroon,” the name the French-speaking part of the country had adopted at independence.
Cameroon’s English-speakers saw this as an act of assimilation, and the 2016 uprising was therefore the culmination of decades of pent-up frustrations.
While the country’s Catholic bishops, especially from Cameroon’s English-speaking regions, have long called for a revision of what they see as these historical injustices, Nkea believes that everything should be done for peace to return.
“We are inspired by what we have seen in the last six years in some regions of our country,” Nkea said.
“One of the greatest negative effects of war among us is that we lose the fear of the Lord and respect for authority,” the cleric said. He said once people don’t have the fear of the Most High in them, “it is difficult to live in peace.”
The archbishop said the country’s bishops will never rest until hostilities are brought to an end.
“As we leave Ebolowa, we are determined, as individuals and as a conference, to continue working for peace, reconciliation and justice, convinced that these will bring sustainable harmony to our country.”
He then warned against efforts at political manipulation of the church.
“The Catholic Church isn’t a political party where anyone can militate according to its political manifesto,” the cleric said.
“The Catholic Church is the mystical body of Christ,” he noted and explained that both clergy and laity “must make Christ present in our world and in different societies.”
It is only when Christ is present in the different communities and in each individual, the archbishop argued, that there can be peace in the world.
“We have prayed for peace in our entire country, hoping that all the problems we are having will be resolved, and our people will once again live in peace.”