Cameroon: Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi, not just ‘passing through’

A fierce opponent of the regime of Paul Biya, he energetically promoted dialogue between the central government and Anglophone separatists. Last November he was the victim of an as yet unexplained kidnapping.

They called him Wiyghan, which means ‘one who is passing through’ because his mother had lost her first two children. Born on 15 October 1930 in Kumbo, in North-East Cameroon, Cardinal Tumi is the first Cameroonian to wear the purple. He was Bishop of Yagoua and Garoua, in the north of the country, before becoming Archbishop of Douala in 1991. He resigned in 2009, having reached the age limit.

Aged 91, he is still a credible figurehead and a unique leader in the recent history of Cameroon, not only within the Church but also in the social and political life of the country, besides being a moral authority recognised even by his enemies.

A Paladin of democracy and freedom, the scourge of widespread malpractice and corruption, he has always been a thorn in the side of the president Paul Biya, 88 this February. In power since 1982, he is one of the last ‘dinosaur-presidents’ of Africa of whom the Cardinal has always been an outspoken opponent, to such an extent that some local media proposed him as a presidential candidate.

The Cardinal consistently denied any such rumours but did not remain silent: “If I were to keep quiet – he said on more than one occasion – I would not be faithful to my mission. The situation of the country is grave and we cannot remain silent. There is no respect for basic human rights, poverty is spreading, many families cannot afford to send their children to school while a small elite live according to European standards a few steps away from people who find it hard to get food to eat every day, not to mention the corruption that has at times reached intolerable levels.”

In the years since he handed over the reins of the archdiocese of Douala to Archbishop Samuel Kleda, the influence of Cardinal Tumi is still considerable. In particular, he has been the first to promote dialogue and peace-making in the Anglophone regions of the country, the North West and the South West, where he comes from. Since November 2016, they have been in the grip of a terrible civil war that has caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: there are said to be more than 680,000 displaced people and almost 50,000 refugees in Nigeria; a million people are faced with starvation and 2.5 million require humanitarian assistance.

The rebellion which broke out due to the marginalisation of the Anglophone regions of the largely Francophone country – due to colonial partition, the serious consequences of which are still being felt today – has often been guilty of extremism, even proclaiming the Republic of Ambazonia, while alienating the sympathy of much of the population. On the other hand, the security forces have often committed and used violence against civilians.

Cardinal Tumi tried to come between the parties. A promoter of dialogue and a peaceful solution to the conflict, he has always declared himself to be against secession, while supporting many of the causes presented by the rebels, especially in terms of respect for human rights and the specific nature of these lands, but also of economic development and the promotion of education and public health. “Where there is dialogue, problems are solved. The problem is that we have not created a forum for dialogue”, the Cardinal said in an interview in 2017.  It was not until the end of September 2019 that a great national debate was organised on the Anglophone crisis, to which the Cardinal contributed with a document of 400 pages. He was satisfied with the debate: “Everyone could express their points of view”, he said, happy to see the freeing of more than three hundred political prisoners, an important sign of distension on the part of President Biya.

Nevertheless, it is true that little progress has been made. Some very serious episodes occurred in recent months that made the Cardinal intervene again. In particular, there was the massacre of eight children in their school in Kumba on 24 October and the kidnapping of 11 teachers from Kumbo Presbyterian School causing disdain on the part of much of public opinion and moved Tumi to intervene in person. It was while he was on the road from Bamenda to Kumbo, in the North West region that he was kidnapped, on 5 November, by some separatists, together with Sehm Mbinglo II, the traditional head of the Nso with another ten people.

The person behind the kidnapping is thought to have been one of the leaders of the rebellion who disagrees with the Cardinal for opening the school. News of the kidnapping has shocked people and provoked demonstrations by the faithful who demanded the liberation of the Cardinal. On the morning of 6 November, Tumi and his driver were freed but not the others. The episode throws a dark shadow over the Anglophone crisis and especially the prospects for its resolution. However, Cardinal Tumi will still be involved in that matter. He is not just ‘passing through’.


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