Catholic Bishops from around the world have signed an open letter to the Cameroonian president asking that he participate in proposed peace talks meant to bring an end to conflict between the government and Anglophone separatists.
“We are motivated by our concern about the suffering of unarmed civilians, and the stability and prosperity of Cameroon,” 16 Catholic bishops from outside Cameroon wrote in a Feb. 17 letter coordinated by the Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon. Among the signatories, Bishop Siegfried Jwara, Vicariate Apostolic, Ingwavuma, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Bishop John Keenan, diocese of Paisley, Scotland, Bishop Terence Drainey, diocese of Middlesborough, England, Bishop Ray Browne, diocese of Kerry, Ireland, Bishop Noel Simard, diocese of Valleyfield, Quebec, Canada, Bishop Thomas R Zinkula, diocese of Davenport, Iowa, USA.
“We believe the proposed Swiss-led talks offer the best path to an appropriate political solution through inclusive negotiations,” the bishops continued. “The success of these talks will be critical in Cameroon’s journey towards ensuring peace and your legacy as an effective leader in a troubled region. It is our sincere hope that all interested stakeholders will join these talks and show a spirit of cooperation, pragmatism, and realism to ensure these negotiations succeed.” They added that “only true peace will allow Catholic dioceses, clinics, and schools to once again minister safely to the blessed congregants and citizens of Anglophone Cameroon.”
The Cameroon crisis is rooted in conflict between the English- and French-speaking areas of Cameroon. Unrest has been ongoing since 2016, when the country’s Anglophone community began protests to demand the return of federalism after the government increased the use of French in schools and courts.
Some 3,000 people have died since the fighting began. According to the UN, there are an estimated 679,000 internally displaced people in Cameroon, and 60,000 Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria.
At least 600,000 children have been unable to attend school in the Anglophone Southwest and Northwest Regions, with most schools having been shut down.
The bishops told President Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon for 37 years, that “there will be no military victory for any side. A lasting solution to Cameroon’s problems must come from a mediated process that includes Anglophone armed-separatist groups and non-violent civil-society leaders. If all parties treat each other as they wish to be treated, a solution is possible.”
They noted that a Major National Dialogue held in October 2019 was laudable, but had not stopped the violence. The dialogue had proposed that the Anglophone regions be given greater self-government, and the election of local governors. In addition, Biya had ordered that charges against some 300 people held in connection with the Anglophone conflict be dropped, and opposition leader Maurice Kamto was released after nine months of imprisonment.
The area that is now Cameroon was a German colony in the late 19th century, but the territory was divided into British and French mandates after the German Empire’s defeat in World War I. The mandates were united in an independent Cameroon in 1961.
There is now a separatist movement in the Southwest and Northwest Regions, which were formerly the British Southern Cameroons.
Cameroon held parliamentary elections Feb. 9, which the local bishops noted took place in a calm atmosphere, but with low turnout.
The Cameroonian bishops noted that “four months after the holding of the Major National Dialogue, which proposed solutions for ending the crisis” in the Anglophone regions, “we are still not satisfied with the situation in these regions.”
They added that “insecurity persists in spite of everything and has prevented many citizens living in these areas from exercising their civil rights.”
Meanwhile on February 17, armed men carried out the massacre in the village of Ntumbo in the Northwest Region. Up to 22 civilians were killed, including 14 children – nine under age five – were among the dead. Nine houses were also set ablaze and an unknown number of villagers displaced.
One of the country’s two main opposition parties, the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC), accused “the security and defence forces are chiefly responsible for these crimes.” An army official denied the allegations saying simply: “False.” No other official comment was immediately available.