Interviewed by Grace Ongey, Ireneaus Chongwain Chia and Augustine Wendung
A February 7 and 8, 2014 conference that will be organised in Garoua to complement lobby efforts to repatriate President Ahidjo’s remains is taking off on a toddling note as one of its announced guest speakers, Douala Emeritus Archbishop Christian Cardinal Tumi, has said he will not take part in the conference. Why? Find out his reasons and more on the Church’s life in Cameroon. Excerpts:
I knew President Ahmadou Ahidjo very well and I am one of many Cameroonians who would have loved to see his body brought back to Cameroon. Whatever might have been his fault, he was the president of this country for about twenty-five years. We can do nothing about that historical truth. So when somebody came from Garoua and told me that they will be reflecting on bringing back the body of our first President to Cameroon, I did not see any political move in that. But from the way newspapers have willingly or unwillingly presented the matter, I will not take part in the forum because it has taken a political turn. Newspapers placed my photograph alongside that of Professor Maurice Kamto and Ben Muna who are politicians. People might be taking advantage of this forum to carve out their political future. I have therefore decided not to be part of it because I do not want to be seen as supporting any political party, either the party in power or those in the opposition.
Do you not think your absence is going to deprive Cameroonians of your personal perception of who President Ahidjo was?
I initially understood it as a forum where a small number of Cameroonians of the civil society will meet to see the President and try to convince him that the body of President Ahidjo should be brought back to Cameroon. It was as simple as that. I did not see in that any political intention. If the conference is being organised by politicians, I will not be part of it because I do not want to be linked with any political tendency.
Newspapers have been writing things about you which you say are not true, yet you have never taken any action to stop them. Does this not only encourage inaccurate or misleading reporting?
Recently a newspaper forged an interview which it attributed to me. I did not react publicly. I called them and told them I will not like that to happen again. It is not the first time. It is about the eleventh time. But I do not like going public and creating arguments about my person. I will not take any young person to court.
If the organisers were to come back to you to redefine the objectives of that conference, will you participate?
I will no longer participate because I have seen what they want to do.
President Paul Biya just paid a visit to theVatican where he met Pope Francis. One would have expected a Church, not a state official to take the lead in visiting a new Pope. Is the State now the pacesetter as far as the Church is concerned in Cameroon?
Not at all! He visited the Pope as two Heads of State meeting one another. He is quite free to ask for a visit to the Holy See. It is not the first time that President Paul Biya is doing so. He was there, as far as I know, during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, his funeral and the coronation of Pope Benedict XVI. He also invited them to Cameroon. I do not see anything wrong with that. Some people even think that a bishop should have accompanied him, but we asked what for. They are two Heads of State and we have nothing to do with it. If such a visit touches the Church, the Pope cannot talk to the Head of State without Church officials. The Pope has his representative in Cameroon, the Nuncio, who dialogues with the State and the local Church. He was not in the Vatican either.
As an influential personality in the Church, were you privileged to know anything that filtered out of the President Biya-Pope Francis encounter?
Not at all!
Newspapers have also published letters from people who termed themselves “les laics et les prêtres engagés” from Yaoundé Archdiocese depicting a conflict-ridden Church in Cameroon. They have even accused you of taking sides as you have always been outspoken, but when Archbishop Tonyé Bakot resigned you did not say anything. What do you say about this accusation?
That is what they are saying, but they are ignorant of everything. Archbishop Tonyé Bakot’s resignation is not the first in Cameroon. When a Bishop was put in prison in Cameroon for years, who spoke? Bishop Ndongmo was in prison for years and was exiled, who spoke? When late Bishop Thomas Nkuissi of Nkongsamba resigned, who spoke? It is not the first case. The problem is that some people in Cameroon have very short memories. They do not know the Church’s history in Cameroon. Why should I intervene? The reason why a bishop resigns is known only to the Holy See and the person who resigns and nobody else.
They said you should have reacted because you also wrote a seven page letter when the Bishop of Bafoussam was appointed to ELECAM. If you reacted in one situation, why stay silent in another?
I did not react as such. Who told them about my letter because it was confidential? They do not know what was in the letter. You think I will write a seven page letter because of someone in ELECAM? Not at all! I only mentioned that in passing. It is not necessary to appoint bishops to political positions because there are competent and committed lay people in Cameroon. It is difficult for a bishop to perform the two jobs effectively. That is, to belong to ELECAM and still direct his diocese that demands his permanent presence. As an ELECAM member he is usually very busy especially during election periods. To be pastor of a big diocese like Bafoussam and do something else is difficult. In fact, that was just a point among other points that I discussed with the Nuncio.
Is the opinion of the local Church sought before a bishop is appointed to a political position?
I believe the Nuncio must have had the consent of the Holy See. There are cases where bishops have been ministers in Europe. The laity was not as qualified then as it is today. I also know a bishop who is the head of a country. I met him in Rome with some of his ministers. A priest can take part directly in politics with the permission of his superior, the bishop. A bishop can do the same with the permission of his superior, the Pope. It is not forbidden absolutely for clerics to take part in politics. We encourage Christians to be involved in politics to serve.
The afore-mentioned group in Yaoundé Archdiocese also accused the Church of what it termed a neo-colonial mentality and of external interference in the running of the Church in Cameroon? What do you say about such claims?
The Church is universal in nature and her visible head is not in Cameroon. The Church’s decisions are taken by the bishops of that country. It is late and out of place for these people to make such claims. They would have said that when the majority of bishops and priests in Cameroon were missionaries, but now about 99.9 percent of bishops and priests in Cameroon are Cameroonians.
Are you therefore saying the hands of bishops in Cameroon are not tied and that they do not take orders from Rome?
Those who say these things do not know how the Church is run. I have never asked Rome before doing anything in my diocese. I informed Rome and this is normal because the Pope is the pastoral head of the universal Church and every five years every bishop visits the Pope. Before that he writes a report on his diocese which he submits to the Holy See. This is normal as it is not a bishop who appoints himself as the head of a diocese. It is the Pope. It is true that the bishop is the direct Vicar of Christ in his diocese. He neither seeks the Nuncio’s nor the Pope’s opinion when taking pastoral decisions in his diocese. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ as far as the universal Church is concerned, he directs his diocese, Rome, and the universal Church.
Your Eminence, are you satisfied with the state of affairs in the Church in Cameroon today?
Yes, the Church is growing by leaps and bounds. The Church is divine, but at the same time human. As the people running the Church on earth we have our weaknesses, but people should never forget that Christ has said, “I am with you till the end of time and the forces of evil will do nothing to you.” Since I became a bishop, I have never allowed anything to worry me. I did my best as a human being and left the rest to Christ who founded His Church. Christ has said “Do not be afraid”. This saying is used in the Bible about 366 times and the longest year is 366 days. So Christ is telling us everyday “Do not be afraid”, I have conquered the world. There will always be problems but the Church will continue to grow because She is divine.
What is your appraisal of the just ended twin elections in Cameroon?
For a long time, I have never seen any election in Cameroon as fairly transparent as the last one. I am not saying that there were no setbacks. Some people are actually regretting that they did not register. I am encouraging the youth to start registering from January 1, 2014. Taking part in the political affairs of one’s country is an obligation.
How do you see Cameroon’s political future?
It lies in the hands of Cameroonians. Nobody from outside can do anything. That is why I was disappointed that many Cameroonians did not take part in the elections, especially the youth who are the majority.
Let us not also forget that quite a good number of young people have been disenfranchised as those who are 18 cannot vote….
Even those who are 20, and are the majority, did not vote.
There are fears among students and parents of the medical faculty of the Catholic University of Bamenda in Kumbo that the faculty will be closed. As a pre-emptive measure some parents are already withdrawing their children from the faculty. What accounts for this situation?
I think the President is handling the matter with the Minister of Higher Education. I know that one of the president’s close aides, Martin Eboutou Belinga, has already received the Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the presidency to discuss the problem. The Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda simply wants that these young men and women be allowed to continue their education before the state will classify their medical school among state-recognised medical faculties next year. State officials say the school does not have enough professors, but inquiries show that in just two years it already has 40 professors. I listened to the Vice-Chancellor of Buea University telling the Minister of Higher Education that they still need 30 Professors in the Faculty of Medicine. If a state university can be lacking professors, how can we be expected in two years to have all the professors that a medical faculty is supposed to have?
Are you saying some people do not want to see that faculty succeed?
I am not accusing anybody. Maybe we did not fulfil all the conditions that were required when the faculty was opened, but I wonder whether there is any medical faculty that has a future like the one in Kumbo. Similar faculties do not even have buildings. Bambili just started, and what do they have? I hear they were only renting somebody’s school when they started. The Bishop of Kumbo has given the youth centre to the faculty of medicine to use until doomsday or until they have their own or better possibilities. They have already acquired land for that purpose. Despite the fact that they have two hospitals that are ready to welcome them for practical work, they still want to build their own university teaching hospital.