YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Cameroon’s Cardinal Christian Tumi was released on Friday after being kidnapped on Thursday, along with the traditional leader of his home village of Nso in the country’s troubled North West region.
The 90-year old retired archbishop of Douala has been an advocate for a peaceful resolution to the Anglophone crisis, an ongoing civil conflict in the English-speaking regions of the majority French-speaking nation.
“I can confirm that he has been released and he has gone for medical check-up at the Shisong Catholic Hospital,” said Bishop George Nkuo of Kumbo.
“I still do not know the circumstances under which he was released,” the bishop told Crux, but confirmed the traditional ruler was not released.
“Nobody for now knows where the Fon [village chief] has been taken to,” Kumbo said.
The cardinal and the traditional ruler, along with nine members of their delegation, were traveling from the capital Yaoundé to Kumbo when they were abducted.
“He was going back to Kumbo with the Fon and the boys [a local term for the separatist fighters] took them to the bush, and they spent the night there with them,” Nkuo said.
The bishop said he didn’t know how many gunmen were involved in the kidnapping.
Upon learning that the cardinal had been abducted, people took the road to Babessi, where the abduction took place, in and effort to pressure the kidnappers to release their captives.
“Catholic Christians, Muslims and the general population all mobilized and were marching to the camp where they suspected the cardinal and the village chief were held,” Nkuo told Crux.
Janet Ngwang, one of those taking part in the march, said when they got to Sop, 10 miles from Babessi, they were told to wait there, since there were “developments.”
“An hour after that, the cardinal arrived. He looked tired and exhausted,” she told Crux.
The cardinal was accompanying the village chief to the village after the latter fled the fighting months ago. Two of the Fon’s children were killed by suspected separatists, and his life was threatened.
“The cardinal spent several weeks in Kumbo negotiating for the Fon’s return. It was during this return journey that both the traditional leader and the cardinal were taken,” Nkuo told Crux.
The bishop said he believes the traditional ruler was the target because separatist fighters have tagged him as a “black leg” in their separatist struggle, and the cardinal was only taken because the two were travelling together.
But Elie Smith, a close associate of the cardinal, said she believes that Tumi was a target because he has opposed many of the issues advocated by the separatists, including independence for the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. The cardinal has also strongly opposed a school boycott that has denied an education to children in the area for nearly four years.
“He could be a target because he is a person who wants peace and who promotes tolerance. The other bone of contention is that the Cardinal promotes education. He has told the separatists on several occasions that you cannot deny your children the chance to go to school, but obstructing education is the only tool they [the separatists] can explain to the world that they are controlling the situation,” Smith said.
Thee cardinal’s kidnapping comes in the same week that eleven schoolteachers in Kumbo were kidnapped by separatists; they were later released. Kumbo was also where seven children were killed at the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy on October 24.
Ngwang told Crux it was “deplorable” that the separatists kidnapped Tumi.
“I feel really sad that the cardinal – a man of 90 years – should be taken and forced to stay in the bush. I feel too bad because the Bible says: Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm,” she said.
“I think those separatists have no conscience. How do you do that to a top cleric, a man as old as the cardinal and all the health issues he has? No matter the crime he might have committed, those fellows had no right to give him that kind of treatment. We are happy he is now freed, but those kidnappers are fundamentally evil,” said Victor Suika, a church elder in Kumbo.
Tumi is a known government critic who believes that the solution to the Anglophone problem is a return to a federal system of government.
But he has also played and conciliatory role, with the government choosing him to lead a “peace caravan” to the troubled North West region.
The Cameroon conflict results from decades of marginalization of English speakers in the country and exploded in 2016 after Anglophone lawyers and teachers took to the streets to protest the use of French in Anglophone schools and courts.
After the government responded to the protests with violence, a separatist rebellion erupted, seeking to establish an independent country called “Ambazonia.”
The fighting now in its fourth year has left at least 3000 people dead and forced over a million people from their homes.