Southern Cameroons: Pope Francis Dispatches Special Envoy to Bamenda Archdiocese amidst Rising Tensions between Gov’t Forces and Pro-Independence Armed Groups

Catholic Christians in the Bamenda Archdiocese are getting set to welcome Pope Francis’ Special Envoy to Bamenda. The Secretary of State of the Vatican City, Pietro Cardinal Parolin will be in Bamenda on January 30 for a visit that will end on January 31, according to a release issued by the Archbishop of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Bamenda, His Grace, Andrew Fuanya Nkea.

“...He (the Pope’s envoy) will celebrate a Pontifical Mass at the St. Joseph's Metropolitan Cathedral on Sunday 31st January 2021, during which he will place on the shoulders of my unworthy person, the Pallium which is the insignia of the Metropolitan Archbishop within the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda”, Nkea said in the release.

The pallium symbolizes the plenitudo pontificalis officii (i.e., the “plenitude of pontifical office”).

Worn by archbishops, it typifies their participation in the Supreme Pastoral Power of the Pope, who concedes it to them for their proper Church provinces.

Archbishop Andrew Nkea, Bamenda Archdiocese (C) KAMERCONNECT

But Pietro Cardinal Parolin’s visit to Bamenda comes at a time the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons is witnessing an uptick in violence, as government forces intensify fighting with pro-independence armed groups intent on restoring the independence of their state and renaming it Ambazonia.

It’s not lost on anyone that the Pope’s Envoy will obviously talk about the need for the conflict to end, given that Pope Francis himself, has expressed concern at the bloodletting in the region, a former UN Trust Territory under British Trusteeship.

Last May, Pope Francis and the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres mounted pressure on Cameroon’s Octogenarian “President for Life,” Paul Biya to declare a ceasefire and to open a space for peaceful discussions.

Two years ago, the government-initiated what it called “a Major National Dialogue” in a ditched attempt to halt the fighting. The National Dialogue made a number of recommendations, including the adoption of a special status for the former UN Trust Territory, the restoration of the House of Traditional Chiefs, the election of local governors, the immediate relaunch of certain airport and seaport projects in the region, the rapid integration of ex-combatants into society, the name of the country be returned to the former name, the United Republic of Cameroon, and the  implementation of  the law that government officials declare their assets, in order to tackle corruption.

But in a recent outing on the state-controlled radio, the Archbishop of Bamenda blasted the National Dialogue as a non-starter, although he took part in the dialogue.

“The people’s hope is in dialogue,” he said.

“What we did last year, if the government considers that that was dialogue, then the government does not understand dialogue. And if the boys who were fighting considered that that was dialogue, it means they do not understand dialogue,” he said.

“Dialogue is a discussion between a small group of people, opposing parties who look at the things that divide them and look for common ground. You cannot do this with a thousand people,” the Archbishop explained.

He made a dire prediction: the fighting in the region will take decades to end.

“Look at Ethiopia and Eritrea. It took at least forty years of fighting and talking before they came to a conclusion. For South Sudan, it was 48 years of fighting and talking before they came to a conclusion. I don’t understand what is wrong with Cameroonians. You start a fight, and you want results the next day. Whoever started this war has plunged our country into something that the effects will follow us for at least 50 years,” Nkea said.

The Archbishop called on Cameroonians to be ready for the long haul, saying the fighting won’t just magically go away anytime soon.

Nkea said both government soldiers and pro-independence armed groups have violently affected the civilian population on a daily basis, noting that he has been asking both sides to be more humane as they fight.

“We have tried to talk to the soldiers: don’t treat the population as if they were a foreign and conquered people. After this thing is over, we are going to sit down again as brothers and sisters as we were. On the other hand, we are saying to the boys, (pro-independence armed groups) don’t go targeting soldiers and killing them and making them to unleash their venom on the population,” he said.

On September 22, 2017, millions of Southern Cameroonians flooded the streets waving peace plants to show support for calls to restore the independence of the former UN Trust Territory (C)

The Anglophone crisis might have erupted in 2016, but it had been simmering for decades, with Southern Cameroonians complaining they were being marginalized and removed from decision-making spheres by the predominantly Francophone administration in Yaounde.

Just about 20% of Cameroon’s population is Anglophone. The linguistic divide dates back to colonialism.

Initially colonized by Germany, Cameroon was later shared out to the allied powers, Britain, and France, following the defeat of the Germans in 1916. The two parts of Cameroon were thus administered separately until 1961 when the already self-governing UN Trust Territory under British Trusteeship, known as the Southern Cameroons, gained independence by joining an already independent French-speaking Cameroun under French Trusteeship.

The federalist system of government they agreed upon would last just a decade. The mainly Francophone central government scrapped it with the 1972 constitutional referendum installing a centralized system that rested power firmly in the capital, Yaounde. Southern Cameroonians say they suffered further marginalization as a result.

In 2016, frustrations boiled over. Common-Law lawyers and Southern Cameroons teachers went on strike in Bamenda and Buea, the capitals of the northwest and southwest regions, the administrative structures the authorities in Yaounde divided the territory into.

It all started in 2016 with Lawyers leading the charge and being brutalized (C) Voice4Thought

They said the majority French-speaking government was trying to destroy the Common Law system and Anglo-Saxon system of education practised in those parts of the country. Bishops of the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda described what was happening to Southern Cameroonians as “genocide”.

The heavy-handed government response to the strikes led to calls for the restoration of independence from Southern Cameroonians, and the administration of President Paul Biya responded with more violence, driving many English-speakers to back pro-independence movements.

The fighting is now in its 5th year, and the United Nations says at least 3,000 people have been killed and over a million forced from their homes. Pro-independence groups and some international rights groups estimate more than 12,000 people have been killed.

Christians in Bamenda hope the Pope's Envoy will come with a message that soothes their bleeding wounds.