Ambazonian Separatists Loose The Moral High Ground With Escalating Attacks On Church Targets

 

Formerly two separate countries (French Cameroun and British Cameroon) – French Cameroun became independent in January 1960. Nigeria was scheduled for independence later that same year, which raised the question of what to do with the British territory. After some discussion (which had been going on since 1959), a plebiscite was agreed to and held on 11 February 1961. The Muslim-majority Northern area opted for union with Nigeria, and the Southern area voted to join Cameroon. Although a form of federalism had been agreed to, this did not happen. Decades of underdevelopment and neglect by the central government and creeping Francophonization led to mass protests in the capital of the Anglophone territories (Bamenda) in 2016. The military responded harshly, killing many. Resistance followed, with separatist groups calling for an independent state called Ambazonia. The military cracked down brutally, arresting leaders, attacking civilians and burning down villages. Separatist militias (known as Amba Boys) attacked military targets with some success. Although there was (and still is) very little international awareness, those who knew supported the separatists. This was, after all, the result of years of repression and impoverishment.

But it seems as if the tide is turning. Separatist militia began kidnapping civilians, to extort ransom. With extreme brutality they began enforcing sit-at-home protests, depriving their own people of livelihoods, and forcing them deeper into poverty. On 24 October 2020 armed gunmen stormed a school in Kumba, killing a number of school children in cold blood. Pro Independence groups immediately denied responsibility, claiming that the atrocity had been committed by government forces posing as separatists. This has become the standard response of pro- independence groups after every subsequent atrocity.

Since then, attacks against churches and kidnapping of church personnel (including Priests and Nuns) have been increasing. Three months ago, 30 Seminarians were kidnapped from the Seminary in Mamfe by separatist militants. Vehicles belonging to Caritas have been hijacked by separatists in Bamenda.

On 16 September 2022, St Mary’s Catholic Church in Nchang, Diocese of Mamfe, was attacked and burnt down. Five Priests, one Nun and two lay Church workers were kidnapped. Thy have not been heard of since then. Archbishop Andrew Nkea, President of the Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference, issued the following statement:

 

Despite never actually saying that the separatists were responsible, the letter generated immediate reaction. Mr Dabney Yerimba, the Vice President of one of the “Interim Governments” issued a statement condemning the attack. On other social media, pro-independence activists called for the banning of the Catholic Church, and the expulsion of Priests and Nuns, with hate speech often reaching fevered pitch.

The Bishop of Mamfe has since ordered the Blessed Sacrament to be removed from all Churches in Mamfe Diocese. October is to be a month of praying the Rosary and repenting. The Blessed Sacrament will be brought back at the end of October. A stronger statement by a Catholic Bishop can hardly be imagined.

Where to from here? In 2017 the population was united in favour of independence. The most recognized pro-independence leader, Julius Ayuk Tabe, was imprisoned, but continued to enjoy widespread support. Since then, infighting amongst pro-independence groups has resulted in breakaway “Interim Governments” – at last count there were no less than six, with each one claiming to be the legitimate representative of the Ambazonian people. The various factions often engage in armed attacks on each other. Atrocities against civilians by the Cameroonian Army hardly happen anymore – kidnappings and attacks on villages are now mostly committed by separatists. Grassroots sentiment is now turning against the separatists, with many locals saying that if these are to be the military and police force of an independent Ambazonia, then they are probably better off under the Biya government. It is now also clear that the leaders of the various self-proclaimed “Interim Governments” have no control over their own fighters.

The pro-independence movement now faces two choices. Either unite, abstain from attacks and kidnappings against local people and Churches and win back the hearts and minds of local communities. Or end up like Somalia, Eastern DRC or South Sudan, trapped in an endless cycle of internecine warfare and killing.

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