YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon Crux | Cardinal Christian Tumi is a known critic of the Cameroon government, yet he was one of those chosen by the regime to lead a “peace caravan” to the West African country’s troubled Anglophone regions.
After weeks meeting with various stakeholders, the cardinal now believes peace is gradually returning to the two regions, which contain about 20 percent of the country’s population that has often felt marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
In a wide-ranging interview with Crux, Tumi talks not only about the peace process, but he also examines the historical trajectory of the Anglophone problem in Cameroon, the 2017 death of Bishop Jean-Marie Benoît Balla – which authorities have said was a suicide but the nation’s bishops say was murder – as well as the life of the Church in the country.
Crux: Is the Christian faith still embedded in the hearts of Cameroonians who you meet daily?
Tumi: I think so. When a Christian goes through a difficult situation, it’s at such a time that his faith is tested. Sometimes, when God allows for difficult situations in the life of a Christian, it is to put him in a situation of persevering prayer. It is also to put him in the school of patience.
What do you mean by “the school of patience”?
We tell our Christians every year that no matter the situation, no matter the difficulty, they should always have faith in the Lord who knows our past, our present and our future, and who knows all that is good for our spiritual life and even for our material life, because he is the one who created us.
During the celebration of the Feast of Nativity, the Archbishop of Yaoundé, Jean Mbarga, called on Cameroonians to “take their destiny into their hands.” That seems to contradict your insistence that people should pray and wait for God to decide their fate?
I am not contradicting what the archbishop of Yaoundé said. To wait doesn’t mean to do nothing by oneself. First, the fact that one can take the initiative to ask God to get us out of our difficulties, it’s already something. He himself has said, despite the fact that He already knows our needs, he asks us to pray without ceasing.
Pope Francis during his Christmas message condemned violent uprisings across the world, and went forward to comfort persecuted Christians. Is this message relevant to Cameroon?
Of course! It depends where we find ourselves. In the north of the country – I spent twelve years in the North of the country – and I am convinced that there are Christians in the north of the country who lived their Christian lives like martyrs and I am not only thinking of Catholics. I am thinking also of Christians from other denominations who suffered, who lost their jobs because they were Christians.
And we know many priests have been killed, with many believing Bishop Jean-Marie Benoît Balla was murdered.
Don’t forget that my predecessor in Garoua, Archbishop Yves Plumey was assassinated, and up to now, we don’t know who did it and why. There are people abroad who thought it was Cardinal Tumi who was assassinated. If it were me, there would have been a reason at the time. Archbishop Plumey was cold-bloodedly murdered on his bed. So Bishop Balla’s assassination was not the first case. And know that in the past 20 years, I think about 400 priests have been killed in Africa, because of their positions against authorities in their countries, and those are positions you take in conscience. Jesus told us: do not be afraid. When it comes to condemning evil, no matter its origin, priests and bishops don’t have to be afraid … besides, all the Apostles were killed.
Have you ever been fearful for your life?
No, not at all. Ever since I became priest, I have always been threatened. In Yagoua I was threatened. In Garoua, I was summoned to the military courts. In Douala, I was threatened after denouncing the assassination of 9 people in Bepanda … up to now, we are not told what happened. The Church must condemn with all its force such killings.
And there is a feeling that as a result of all this, the Church has a conflictual relationship with the state?
No, there is no conflict between us. All we want is that they should explain to us why this or that priest was killed …we are not at war with the state.
Cardinal, let’s talk about the Anglophone problem. What in your opinion are the fundamental causes?
Remember that before President Paul Biya called the major national dialogue to resolve the Anglophone problem, some retired clerics from other denominations and I had initiated an Anglophone General Conference to examine the root causes of the conflict. It did not take place, but we carried out a research to determine the causes, and to make proposals.
So, we produced a 400-page document with a 10-page summary.
For the causes, they are many: Bad government in the management of public affairs. At the time we were carrying out that investigation, the majority – 69 percent – said separation was the only way forward. But the problem escalated because the government intervened late, and the people became radicalized. But the problem started way back in 1972 when the name of the country was changed from the Federal Republic of Cameroon to the United Republic of Cameroon.
Why did the change in name constitute a problem?
Because we began to forget all that was specific to Anglophones-their heritage. Do not forget that from 1961-1972, we had a government there, [in Anglophone Cameroon], with a Prime Minister and his ministers. Anglophones had a system of governance that they inherited from the British.
We were raised in a democracy because the British governed by ‘indirect rule.’ They governed us through traditional rulers. They listened to the people. There was so much self-development, for instance, the roads. The roads that linked villages were dug by the people, for free. They were not paid. And they did that with so much joy … In Anglophone Cameroon, the policeman was a friend, all he had was a baton. We never saw the army. The army was in the barracks, because they were not there to attack the population. I saw an armed policeman for the first time during the reunification.
So how did the change in name affect all of that?
We had the impression that the goal of that change in 1972 was to assimilate the Anglophones; to abolish all that was Anglo-Saxon. I remember a Frenchman who told me that he was surprised that just months after the abolition of federalism, he visited Cameroon and discovered that all public notices and signboards were in French, so he thought he was already in a francophone country. And I have never ceased to recount a story that I lived in Rome with a French diplomat. We were invited to the French embassy in Rome, and one of the employees there approached me and asked me which country I came from. I told him I was from Cameroon. He told me: “Thank you for all you are doing to assimilate the Anglophones. That was a French diplomat.”
What effect did that have on you?
It all dawned on me: that is the goal. That is the source of the problem. When I told this story to some Frenchmen, they said, that’s not possible, because it was not diplomatic for him to say that. It revealed everything.
Should all of that frustration lead youths to take up arms?
No, I condemn that. Nothing can be resolved through violence. It’s always good to come together and dialogue.
Cardinal, after the national dialogue, you and the Bishop of Mamfe [Andrew Nkea Fuanya, who was named Archbishop of Bamenda on Dec. 30] were designated to lead “peace caravans” to the two regions. You have said the situation on the ground is changing for the better. What makes you say that when we still see daily killings on the ground?
And I still hold that opinion. You know, my mother’s house was attacked, and the doors broken. I stand to repeat exactly what I said: The situation is changing. What are the proofs today? The proofs are some people are going back to their communities. That is a simple example.
Yesterday, somebody was here to tell me that his mother was kidnapped in the Ndop plains and they were asking for money. The mother said: ‘I prefer to die.’ Thirdly, there is contradiction now between the separatists and the population. There are some cases, like in Bamenda … I got a letter from a priest in Bamenda who said there are tracks which are thrown in the town of Bamenda which say: “No school, no amba.” This means if the amba boys do not allow children to go to school, there will be no amba. [Editor’s note: The amba boys is the common name for separatist rebels.]
Some parents are ready to fight back, so that their children go to school. And the Bishop of Mamfe said almost all his schools are functioning now. So we can cite examples to show that what was happening yesterday is changing. And finally, many of these boys are coming now to see us. They don’t go to see those people who are contradicting me…
What justifies this change in attitude?
There are 29 separatist fighters in Boyo who want to come to Douala. There are 15 in the Ndop plains. They trust us, and I think that is why the state got us involved in all of this. There are four right here with me, and the Prime Minister is aware.
There may be many reasons. First of all, the prayers of the faithful that this crisis ends. Those who have come here say they heard about me and they agree with my positions …. believe them. One of the reasons is that they don’t have the means anymore … I received an amba boy, married, and university student who told me when he came to see me, that they were fooled by the diaspora. The diaspora was saying that the UN would intervene, and they would have salaries of over 400,000 CFA [around $675] per month. In the last pastoral letter by the Bishops of the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province, they say not even one quarter of the promises made by the diaspora had been attained.
What is pushing the young people out of the forests?
First, they have got nothing to eat. Secondly, many are dying from disease. I can tell you that in Cameroon and out of Cameroon, no one has been in contact with the heads of these armed separatists. It’s only the Bishop of Mamfe and I. And they want an end to the crisis. They want to create a political party. They don’t have a political party. How would they conquer political power without a political party? The Bishop of Mamfe and I are encouraging them to create their political party, to fight politically. It’s the only means by which they can get to power.
One recommendation to resolve the Anglophone problem emanating from the grand dialogue was the special status for the English-speaking regions. Are you comfortable with the contents?
I was among the first to make a proposition for the content. I was clear, and the Prime Minister’s office too, said that I was the clearest: I proposed a government, I proposed a house of parliament, I proposed a house of elders, the independence of the civil service … the civil service is to serve the government, not a party; so therefore, during campaigns, civil servants should not be seen campaigning. The independence of the educational and legal systems. We should be in the Anglo-Saxon style that we inherited …To be frank, what will satisfy Cameroonians is a sort of federalism. But the present political authority doesn’t want to hear about federalism. I’ve told people that federalism is in my blood. That is what we voted for at reunification.
What is lacking in the special status?
Even though there is a regional council – an assembly of representatives of the region – they cannot vote a law, they cannot initiate a law.
Personally, I am not satisfied with the contents of this Special Status.
Be it as it may, what do you think is the way forward for a Cameroon, now described as “sick” by some?
Truth. The truth will save Cameroon. How many billions have been stolen from our coffers? Don’t forget, when Paul Biya came to power, he said that economically and financially, we were faring well, and that we will not go to the Bretton Woods institutions to borrow. No sooner after that – in two or three years – we were on our knees begging to be accepted as a poor and heavily indebted country.
And what message do you have for Cameroonians as they go into a new year?
Let’s love our country. Let’s love each other, and to love your neighbor means you do to him what you would love to be done to you. Do not do to your neighbor the evil that you won’t want done to you. And we should love the other virtues, like living together so we fall in line with our communities, as citizens and as brothers and sisters of the same nation.