Civil society groups in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon are urging the Vatican to join a Swiss-led peace process, as the security situation in the central African nation deteriorates further. Local activists believe that Pope Francis has more influence over the Cameroon leadership than any other leader or country. Their plea follows a recent visit by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin to Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, and the Anglophone North West and South West.
The International Crisis Group estimates that the Anglophone conflict has claimed 4,000 lives, while local NGOs believe as many as 12,000 civilians have been killed. Attacks by Cameroon armed forces, including the burning of villages, has forcibly displaced an estimated 700,000 people out of an Anglophone population of six million. The violence and a school boycott have kept more than a million children from school for years. The Norwegian Refugee Council has described it as the world’s most neglected conflict for the second year in a row.
Cardinal Parolin met President Biya on January 29th, followed by a visit to the Anglophone region. The Papal envoy celebrated Mass with Archbishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya in the mainly Anglophone Bamenda archdiocese in the North West and South West.
The Cardinal also attended a meeting at which local people described the atrocities being endured by unarmed civilians. He told the audience, “How can the body of Christ be neutral in the midst of injustice?” He conveyed Pope Francis’s concern, offering to mediate negotiations.
Anglophone journalist Mimi Mefo writes, “By this very act, the Holy See has departed from the condemnations made by the international community for the last four years, to take concrete action on the ground.”
The Swiss NGO, Humanitarian Dialogue (Swiss HD), is trying to bring the Yaounde authorities and Anglophone representatives together in peace talks. Initially, Yaounde denied the country was in crisis. More recently, the government has refused to negotiate with armed groups which it labels terrorists. Africa Intelligence reports that officials around Biya continue to believe their military strategy will prevail. Consequently, the government is transferring weapons from the Far North, where Cameroon is fighting Boko Haram, to the Anglophone regions (as reported in Foreign Policy). This policy leaves civilians in the Far North vulnerable to attack by Islamist militants.
Local civil society groups (who must remain anonymous for their own safety) are calling on the Vatican to join and actively support Swiss HD in offering to mediate inclusive peace negotiations. In addition, the Ambazonian Coalition Team has written to the Vatican, urging The Holy See to engage fully with the Swiss HD mediation process.
In 2019, Catholic bishops from around the world lobbied Biya to stop the bloodshed and enter talks. The government has previously declined an offer by local bishops to mediate. According to Anglophone media sources, Christians are no longer free to attend Mass in some mission stations, and all sides are accused of harassing the church and priests. Anglophone priests have been kidnapped, and several have been killed.
Judith Nwana, co-chair of the Coalition for Dialogue and Negotiations, comments, “The Cameroon government has never committed in good faith the willingness to negotiate. They will only accept international mediation and negotiations if pressured by the international community. The Vatican can leverage its influence within the international, political and diplomatic arena to make that happen because the atrocities being committed on Southern Cameroonians is no other than a genocide. The Coalition for Dialogue and Negotiations is hopeful that Southern Cameroonians and armed leaders would accept a multilateral mediation initiative led by the Vatican, the United States, and other allies for a negotiated settlement to be reached, one that is credible, without any pre-conditions and addresses the root cause(s) of the civil war.”
Background to the conflict
The Anglophone area is also known as the former British Southern Cameroons, because of the UK’s colonial legacy. The unrest began in 2016 when the Francophone government tried to impose French law on Anglophone courts practicing English common law. Yaounde officials also sent French-speakers to teach a French curriculum in Anglophone schools which traditionally teach a UK curriculum.
However, Anglophone grievances stretch back to independence, when it is alleged that promises to ensure the British Southern Cameroons remained a separate entity were broken. In a subsequent referendum, English speakers were not given the option of forming a sovereign country. In the 1970s, the Francophone government dissolved the federal system, leaving the Anglophone regions (20% of the population) marginalised.
Research by impartial human rights groups confirms that the Cameroon armed forces are implicated in atrocities, including destroying villages, and killing and torturing civilians, while Anglophone militia are accused of intimidating and killing civilians who defy them. Evidence of the mass rape of twenty women in Ebam by government troops has just been published by Human Rights Watch. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reports that state security forces killed nine people, including children and the elderly, in Mautu in SW, and shot dead four teenagers in Meta Bamenda, in January.
The Biya government’s refusal to engage with moderate English-speaking civil society is thought to have contributed to increasingly violent tactics by Anglophone militias fighting for international recognition of a sovereign nation called Ambazonia. UNOCHA reports allegations that a school principal was killed by non-state armed groups in January, and that schools and teachers continue to be attacked and threatened.
In January, the US Senate passed an unprecedented bipartisan resolution condemning the violence and empowering the Biden administration to apply individually-targeted smart sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans on those on all side who are implicated in human rights abuses. Despite pressure from Lord Alton, among others, the UK has resisted calls to follow the US Senate lead.
Source: Independent Catholic News