Bishops are risking their safety as they try to head off a civil war

When shots were fired one night in May at the residence of Archbishop Samuel Kleda, president of Cameroon’s bishops’ conference, the incident highlighted growing tensions in this west African state. The Actualité du Cameroun news agency branded the attack an “attempted assassination”, and linked it to Archbishop Kleda’s demands for President Paul Biya’s government to negotiate with rebel groups. If it was meant to intimidate the Church, however, the outrage failed, since Cameroon’s bishops have pressed on with their demands for dialogue.

Army units have been deployed since 2016 against separatists in Cameroon’s English-speaking south-west and north-west regions. Last October the separatists declared an independent state, “Ambazonia”.

Although the rebels have agreed to talks, Biya’s government has opted for a draconian show of force. This has raised alarm in the Church, whose five archdioceses ­– four Francophone and one Anglophone – account for 38 per cent of Cameroon’s 20.4 million inhabitants.

In a television interview in April, Archbishop Kleda called for the election of regional presidents and some decentralisation of powers. “Peace through armed force is never a true peace,” the 59-year-old archbishop said. “Since we’re all in the same country and all brothers, our message is to stop the violence immediately at all costs, without vengeance, and accept others who don’t think like us.” Meanwhile, the bishops’ conference’s news agency, L’Effort Camerounais, urged the international community to “open its eyes” to human rights abuses by government forces in “Ambazonia”, where 160,000 people have been displaced.

It said that young men had been rounded up, summarily shot and “dumped in public squares as a deterrence to others”, and accused the army’s spokesman, Colonel Didier Badjeck, of justifying “dehumanising acts” and ignoring “evidence of military atrocities that lie scattered far and wide like autumn leaves”.

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