YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – One of the world’s leading conflict-resolution organizations says the Catholic Church is the only institution that can mediate the “Anglophone crisis” in Cameroon.

In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says other than the Catholic clergy, “there are few prospective peacemakers.”

“If no one fills that role, the separatist sentiment already voiced by many Anglophones will continue to grow, fueling further violence and exacerbating the ongoing insurgency in the Anglophone regions, with elections in late 2018 a flashpoint,” the rights group says in a report.

Since 2016, English speakers in the Central African country have been protesting against what they say is gross marginalization by the Francophone-dominated administration. They have also been complaining about the use of French in Common Law courts and Anglophone schools.

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The two English-speaking regions – in the northwest and southwest of the country – constitute 20 percent of Cameroon’s over 24 million people. The Catholic Church is the largest religious group in the country, representing about 40 percent of all Cameroonians.

The government has been accused of razing entire villages and extrajudicial killings in their hunt against separatists, who are calling on the English-speaking areas to form a new country, called ‘Ambazonia.’

Separatists have also been accused of atrocities, and have attacked Cameroonian security forces, and kidnapped opponents for ransom.

On April 30, separatists kidnapped Father William Neba, the principal of a Catholic college, in the middle of Mass, although he was released later.

The International Crisis Group estimates at least 100 civilians and 43 soldiers have been killed in the conflict in the last seven months, with the number of militants killed remaining unknown.

In addition, some 34,000 refugees are “sheltering in precarious conditions in Nigeria and about 40,000 persons are displaced in the Southwest Anglophone region.”

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Opposition parties, the United Nations, and the nation’s Catholic bishops have called on the government and separatists to dialogue, but the Francophone-dominated government has long rejected the historical grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians, and the separatists say any talks should be overseen by an independent external body.

In the face of the escalating violence, the International Crisis Group says the Catholic Church remains the only institution with the moral authority to broker a peace deal.

Noting that “the Catholic Church could help break this dangerous stalemate,” the organization said the Catholic Church remains to be the only institution present in all ten regions of the country and claims a plurality of the population as adherents.

“Cameroonians take its views seriously,” the report says.

The Church must repair its own divisions first

Although the bishops have been united in calling for dialogue to end the crisis, there is a contrast to how the Anglophone bishops and Francophone bishops view the origins of the situation.

Anglophone bishops have described the killings as “a growing genocide” and published a long and detailed statement Oct. 4, 2017, in which they decried a “warlike atmosphere” of killings, looting and arson carried out by “young people” and acts of “brutality, torture, inhuman and unjustified treatment meted out” by the “forces of law and order.”

However, the Francophone bishops have been more measured in their statements and avoided terms such as “genocide.”

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Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, is the president of the bishops’ conference, and avoided inflammatory language when he recently called for peace.

“In the name of our common citizenship, brotherhood and humanity, the defense of legitimate interests must go hand in hand with social harmony, which is what is being sought … Violence, regardless of its source, does not build, it destroys,” he said.

The archbishop pointed out that all regions of Cameroon face problems which, he said, can be resolved through dialogue, arguing that decentralization would resolve many regional problems in Cameroon, including the Anglophone problem.

His statement was criticized by many clergymen in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, who insist the Anglophone problem is unique.

Father Gerald Jumbam said that by including the ‘Anglophone Problem’ with all other problems in the country, Kleda was ignoring a key historical fact: That English and French-speaking Cameroons were two countries that had decided to come together and that they had done so under agreed terms which have been jettisoned to the disadvantage of Anglophones.

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In a lengthy response to Kleda, Jumbam wrote that by virtue of their history, Anglophone Cameroonians “cannot be loyal subjects to the despicable and tyrannous Yaoundé government. Archbishop, you speak of decentralization and you offer us it as the best gift you think fitting for the resolution of this crisis? We are determined to decline a gift so laden with spurious promises and deceitful propensities.”

Jumbam was referring to the nation’s colonial history, which involves 3 different European countries.

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 ostensibly 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.

Church leaders in Anglophone Cameroon have accused Kleda of failing to acknowledge that the ‘Anglophone Problem’ exists.

They also complained that he didn’t condemn the arrests and detention of Anglophone leaders and the “grotesque campaign of human savagery and barbarism perpetrated on the people of Southern Cameroons by the government,” and by lumping the issue with other problems in the country, the archbishop was following the government line.

Despite these tensions within the episcopate, the International Crisis Group still thinks the bishops are the best hope for peace in the country.

“It is not too late for the Church to bridge these divides. Anglophone and Francophone bishops should come together in a public statement to affirm their neutrality on the issue most contentious in the crisis – that of federalism versus decentralization – and state their willingness to mediate,” the organization said.

The Group said that if the clergy are able “to project neutrality and win trust on both sides,” it “might play a behind-the-scenes role to allow for indirect communication” between the separatists and the government.

It said such a unity of purpose could be useful in pushing for the release of Anglophone leaders now locked up in Cameroonian prisons, and for amnesty to be granted to those who have fled the country.

Both measures, according to the International Crisis Group, are necessary prerequisites for talks.