Cameroon’s bishops have called for urgent action to deter a “growing genocide” in the country after large numbers of protesters in the Anglophone part of the predominantly French-speaking nation demonstrated in favor of independence.
Since Sept. 29, the bishops said “various forms of violence and atrocities” have occurred in the north west and south west parts of the country, mostly perpetrated by government forces.
In a long and detailed statement published Oct. 4, the bishops 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.” The violence was precipitated by a government ban on access to the internet.
Between 10 and 20 people have so far been killed; the United Nations human rights high commissioner has called for dialogue and a peace resolution, saying some of the deaths resulted from “excessive use of force by the security forces.”
A researcher with Amnesty International Ilaria Allegrozzi has said the violence has reached “crisis point” adding that about 20 persons have been killed (as against 10 stated by the government), dozens left with gunshot wounds, and hundreds injured, according to CNN.
The U.S. State Department also said it is “deeply concerned” about the violence on both sides, calling it “unacceptable” and urging the government to “respect human rights and freedom of expression” and to pursue dialogue.
Areas once controlled by Britain and France joined to form Cameroon after the colonial powers withdrew in the 1960s. As a result, the country now has 10 semi-autonomous administrative regions; eight are Francophone, while the north west and south west regions are home to approximately five million English-speakers.
Anglophones in the country have long complained of discrimination, saying they are excluded from state jobs as a result of their limited French language skills. They also complain that official documents are often only published in French, even though English is also an official language.
Bishops' Warnings Not Heeded
In their statement, the bishops said the government did not heed their calls for restraint, nor did President Paul Biya grant the bishops an audience they requested last December to discuss solving the socio-political impasse, known as the “Anglophone Problem.”
The bishops noted that “a very significant turning point” was reached on Sept. 22, when a “huge” number of people in the north west and south west regions peacefully demonstrated to express “their right to self-determination.”
They said some police shot live bullets at the protestors and have chased Anglophone Cameroonians out of the territory. In an attempt to restore order, they added that the the security services imposed a curfew in those regions, which prevented some priests and lay faithful from attending church and, in some areas, led to Christians being teargassed as they left Mass.
The bishops condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the “barbarism” of the police using firearms on unarmed civilians. Some, they said, were even “shot to death” from helicopters. They said they were also “sad and disturbed” by reports that some Christians were “pursued into their houses” and others arrested.
They further decried the “enthronement of lies” on all sides and the government, and condemned some in the government for calling Anglophone Cameroonians “terrorists.” Such a label, they said, was a “subtle call for what can be described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or a genocide” as, being classified as terrorists, they “qualify for elimination, just because they are Anglophones.”
The bishops said the Anglophone Problem “can no longer be taken lightly or ignored” but needs “urgent attention to avoid the growing genocide.”
The heart of the matter, they said, is that the government has “failed to address” the problem “adequately,” resulting in “deep and mounting resentment and bitterness among the population.”
As well as strongly condemning the violence, they called for the release of those arrested in connection with the crisis, demilitarization of the two regions, and the cessation of intimidation and false propaganda.
They also called for “honest and meaningful dialogue” and urged all Christians to “intensify their prayers” for peace, especially during this month of the Rosary. This Saturday they will hold a Day of Mourning for those who have lost their lives.
“Let us pray for a true change of heart,” the bishops said, “so that as a reconciled people we may build a country wherein truth, justice, reconciliation and peace reign.”
Pope Francis received President Biya in private audience in March but has so far not commented on the violence.