YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Catholic bishops in the African nation of Cameroon, which has been gripped by civil conflict since 2016, have warned that ethnic differences are being “manipulated” and “weaponized” to foment division.

In an August 22 statement from the Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference, which brings together the bishops of the largely English-speaking northwestern region of the country, the prelates condemned what they called “the attempt to manipulate and weaponize ethnic differences for the disruption of social cohesion.”

Given that Cameroon, despite a population of just 27 million, contains 250 different ethnic groups, examples of such tensions abound. One of the most prominent at the moment is a clash between supporters of the main opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, and longtime President Paul Biya.

Kamto, an ethnic Bamelike from the western region of Cameroon, insists he won the 2018 presidential election, although Biya, a member of the Beti people, was declared the victor by the country’s Constitutional Council. Supporters of both men, mostly drawn from their respective ethnic groups, have developed a fractious relationship.

“Ethnic strains are rising alongside hate speech, trends which, if they escalate, could endanger Cameroon’s stability,” states a December 2020 report from the International Crisis Group titled, Easing Cameroon’s Ethno-political Tensions, On and Offline.

In 2019, people of Bamelike origin along with Bamouns, also from the western regions, were targeted in Sangmelima, Biya’s home town, with shouts that they should “go back to their villages.”

Within the context of the crisis in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions, there are already concerns that French-speaking citizens could become objects of attacks, and there could be reprisal attacks on English-speakers living in Francophone regions.

Catholic bishops in the Anglophone regions, where a separatist struggle has already killed at least 6000 people and forced over a million from their homes, are worried that the continued use of hate speech based on ethnic differences in the country eventually could degenerate into a Rwanda-type genocide.

Father Humphrey Tatah Mbuy, Communications Secretary of the Cameroon Bishops’ Conference, said that one of the greatest threats to peace is hate language.

“If you read the Bible, St. James will tell you that you can control the biggest machine, you can control the biggest ship, you can even control the most sophisticated weapon, but there’s one thing that’s very small but very difficult to control, and that’s language,” Mbuy said.

“Language can cause all kinds of trouble, and language has caused many wars,” he said.

The priest said that hate speech has worsened the situation in the disputed regions.

“For example, people call government officials working in the two regions ‘colonial masters’, and the government calls the separatists ‘terrorists, bandits’, and so on. These words arouse anger,” he said.

In their statement, the Bamenda bishops said they were worried about “the continuing and unfortunate situation of wanton killings, destruction of property, and the attempt to manipulate and weaponize ethnic differences for the disruption of social cohesion.”

“No one should be misled,” they said, and warned that killing another human being violates one of God’s ten commandments. They also condemned “vandalism, the deliberate destruction or damage of public or private property,” which they qualified as “an offense against charity.”

The clerics called on Cameroonian citizens to exercise openness towards their compatriots, urging “fraternal openness for us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each other, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he/she was born or lives.”

During the roughly seven years of fighting, thousands of children in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions have not been able to attend school. That’s due not just to the violence, but because separatists have made a school boycott a cornerstone of their war for the independence of the two regions, and the birth of a new nation to be called “Ambazonia.”

In their statement, the bishops said children have a fundamental right to education, even in times of war.

With the 2023/2024 academic year set to begin in about two weeks, the bishops called on all communities to work towards reopening their schools “so that our children are not left behind while the world evolves.”

“Those who in the past have prevented the pupils and students from going to school should know that they are doing an irreparable damage to humanity and to their communities, and should reconsider their decision and ‘let the little children’ go to school,” the bishops said, quoting a phrase from the Gospel of Matthew.

At the same time, the educational system should stand up to scrutiny, the bishops said, in reference to reports of gross examination malpractices in the 2023 national testing cycle.

A board overseeing the tests recently suspended nearly 2,000 candidates who took the exams over allegations of cheating and fraud, and their results were cancelled.

“We need the collective efforts of teachers, parents, religious denominations and the ministries in charge of education for the reinforcement of education integrity, the establishment of discipline and a culture of hard work and merit,” the bishops said.