YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Cardinal Christian Tumi, the Archbishop emeritus of Douala, has accused the Cameroon military of excessive use of force against unarmed civilians in Cameroon’s North West and South West regions.
The two English-speaking regions, that constitute 20 percent of Cameroon’s over 24 million people, have been in turmoil for over a year now over perceived marginalization and an assimilation drive by the predominantly French-speaking administration of long-serving President Paul Biya.
The current “Anglophone crisis” began in late 2016, when disgruntled lawyers and teachers began protesting the use of French in courts using the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition (practiced in the English parts of the country) and in Anglophone schools. The demonstrations soon spread to the general public, and the calls for outright secession started growing.
In a strongly-worded statement released on October 6, 2017, the Anglophone bishops condemned “the barbarism and the irresponsible use of firearms against unarmed civilians by the Forces of Law and Order” and called on Biya to stop “the bloodbath and genocide that has skillfully been initiated in the North West and South West Regions.”
In the absence of a dialogue initiative from the government, many English-speakers are now calling for secession, and the formation of a new state called Ambazonia.
The country’s president has promised to “eliminate the secessionists.”
Biya has deployed the military to the two regions, but their actions on the ground have met with severe criticism by Tumi.
During a visit to the country’s North West Region, the cardinal gathered harrowing tales of torture, destruction and killings.
“I was in Mbim village on 28 February and the military had visited the same village a day earlier,” Tumi told Crux.
“I saw and listened to people in their depression…I saw houses that had been reduced to ruins, to dust and ashes. I saw the house of a man who had fled with his wife and six children, reduced to dust and ashes,” the cardinal said.
Tumi described various signs of destruction in the village, including a destroyed water project, and a vandalized cooperative union.
He also said the military harassed the population and committed crimes against the people.
“I saw the house of an old man ramshackled and I was told that the army had made away with two generators of the family. I saw a man looking completely depressed from whom the military had made away with $1500,” the cardinal said. “I saw the bar of a young man running a small business from where hundreds of bottles of beer had been taken away by the army, and what could not be taken was broken to bits and pieces.”
He said security forces also burned the villagers’ crops, destroying the year’s harvest.
Tumi told Crux he was struck by the question an old man in Mbim asked him: “Cardinal, just what crime have we committed, that the army should be sent to treat us this way, as if we were foreigners who had come to ransack the village?”
Tumi said the lives of the “simple, innocent people” had been shattered by the actions of the military.
“If they are looking for a criminal, let them look for the criminal in all patience. They should not draw the conclusion that since the criminal was in this village, everybody in the village becomes a criminal. It’s not a logical conclusion,” the cardinal said.
Similar scenes of destruction are visible in many parts of Cameroon’s South West Region, where “Ambazonian” fighters have been engaged in hit-and-run attacks on security forces.
The attacks in both regions have so far left at least 24 members of the security forces dead. It is difficult to estimate civilian deaths, but UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has noted that “allegations of summary executions of civilians by members of the security forces have been reported, and are generating widespread resentment.”
The military action has been hard and decisive, with entire villages being burned to the ground, and several people being killed extrajudicially.
“An old woman who couldn’t flee was burnt to death in the South West,” Tumi said.
Bishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Mamfe – in the South West Region – said the destruction in Kembong village, where four soldiers had been killed by secessionists, looked like “a horror movie.”
“I saw more than 20 houses burnt down by soldiers and one dead body still lying there, being fed on by dogs and chicken,” said Nkea.
“Of the village’s 5,000 or so residents, only 30 remained, all huddled in the house of the area’s priest because they had nowhere else to go,” he said.
Tumi also claimed that the crisis could be serving to enrich some top-ranking people in the military.
“We are told that some high-ranking military people use the crisis to enrich themselves, because the state spends on these military operations, and the account on how the money is spent is not given,” he told Crux.
The cardinal blamed Biya for choosing a military solution for a purely political problem.
“The presence of the army is no solution. With a human being, you reason: You don’t use violence as if you are treating a beast. That is why the world is calling for dialogue. Nothing can be done without our meeting to talk about the problems. Many have called for what is called inclusive dialogue. The government should dialogue with everybody,” Tumi said.
Cameroon’s bilingual and bi-cultural status derived from its colonial heritage. Initially administered as a German Protectorate in 1884, Cameroon would later be shared with France and Britain as League of Nations Mandates after Germany was defeated in the First World War.
The end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations saw the two parts of Cameroon transition from mandated territories to UN Trust Territories.
In 1960, the northern part of Cameroon administered by France gained its independence. The southern part administered by Britain as part of Nigeria was in 1961 subject to a plebiscite in which they were offered independence by reuniting with their francophone Cameroonian “brothers” or by remaining part of Nigeria.
The results showed an overwhelming desire by English-speaking Cameroonians to reunite with the French-speaking part of Cameroon.
The “marriage” was guaranteed by a Federal Constitution that was meant to preserve and protect the minority Anglophones and their colonial heritage. But in 1972 then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo organized a referendum that dissolved the federation in favor of a united republic, thereby removing the protections Anglophones enjoyed.
As the current crisis worsens, several Anglophones have fled to Nigeria, causing a refugee crisis in Cameroon’s neighbor.
The United Nations has expressed “great concern” over Nigeria returning dozens of asylum seekers to Cameroon.
“We also urge the Government of Cameroon to ensure that the group is treated in accordance with human rights law and standards,” the UN refugee agency said in a statement.