Interviewed by Jude Abanseka and Ireneaus Chongwain Chia
Insecurity is on the rise in Cameroon and after the recent conflict between the Catholic Church in Bamenda Archdiocese and the Bororo community over a disputed piece of land at Banja, L’Effort Camerounais asked the Archbishop Of Bamenda the Church’s present position, the state of Catholic-Bororo relationships now and what will become of plans for a new campus for the Catholic University of Cameroon, Bamenda and much more. Excerpts:
It has been a very painful situation considering that since 2008 we had already done and completed everything to acquire that piece of land but suddenly a problem started. I am certainly disappointed but the decision we took to abandon the piece of land has left us in peace. I took the decision with my auxiliary and the priests, religious, and Christians have all appreciated it through the messages I have been receiving. We are following Christ’s instructions who says if someone slaps you on the right cheek also offer the left, if he wants you to walk a mile with him, walk two miles, if he takes your cloak, give him your tunic too. When somebody attacks you and you do your best to solve the problem to no avail, you better let go. We have to live the scriptures and the demands of our Christian life to go to any length to ask for and work for peace.
During the conflict many described the Church as a land grabber arguing that she appropriated to herself more land than she was initially given. How many hectares were allotted to the Church, 46 or 72 hectares?
This allegation is actually one of the reasons that made us to give up the land totally. We have been painted as land grabbers whereas this is not the case. As I have explained many times before, we started the acquisition of that land from the traditional rulers and we told them the amount of land we needed which they accepted. The Fon of Ndzah and his councillors, my representatives and the Divisional Officer for Bamenda III all went to the site. In the first stage, I compensated the Fon of Ndzah for 72 hectares. After that my architects sent a surveyor there who mapped the area, which I have here, indicating that it was 72 hectares. Everything was very clear. Afterwards when we had to apply for a grant from the State, we were told by those in charge that we should first apply for 46 hectares and apply for the rest afterwards and that is what we did. I received a letter from the Senior Divisional Officer recently who told me what he did not tell me before that the State does not grant more than 50 hectares. Three to four years ago he did not tell us that. Anyway, I would have applied twice because of the amount of land we needed. How can we be land grabbers when we had paid compensation to the last franc as the State prescribes for 72 hectares? Those who were occupying the land were paid their dues in the presence of the State and other media organs. We took all the measures to ensure that things were properly done. This accusation is certainly very unfair.
There were threats that if the Church did not pull out from the disputed Banja Hills, Boko Haram was going to called in to fight the Bororo cause. Has this conflict affected Catholic-Bororo/Moslem relationships and your personal relationships with this community?
Not at all! We do not have any grievances neither against the Bororos as Bororos nor against the Moslems as Moslems. I have a problem with individuals. There were about 13 people occupying that land and only one person did not accept to be compensated and he whipped up sentiments against us with the support of a lawyer. I cannot tell if the others supported him, though. But from the beginning the Ardo of the Bororos wrote to us saying they were very happy to have us there and were gladly going to give up that piece of land and that was what they did initially. I have a good relationship with the Bororos. In fact one of the board members of the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Provincial Health Assistance -BEPHA scheme is a Bororo man who is in charge of that community in the Santa area, if I am not mistaken. Other Bororos are BEPHA adherents. We were very upset when the impression was given that we were ill-treating a minority group, the Bororos. It was not a question of a minority but of an individual who did not want to abide by the law. We did not treat them violently, but it was they who attacked us even outside the disputed area. What did we do wrong? In any case, they still enjoy my love and sympathy.
Your Grace, you have said repeatedly that the Church respected the procedure for acquiring land. What therefore happened that this conflict kept taking unexpected twists and turns?
That is what baffles me! We satisfied every requirement right up to getting a “Certificate of non-Appeal” from the courts. So it really baffles me that a situation like this came up.
Pulling out from the Banja Hills has only reinforced claims that the Church is a land grabber and a human rights violator. What’s your reaction to this claim?
This is certainly the interpretation of those who will always blame us. If we did not pull out they would have said we were land grabbers. We have left the land and they still call us land grabbers. It gives the impression that we could never have won in a situation like this. It takes at least two to fight, but we have withdrawn. The other people can continue attacking us but as far as I am concerned, we are out of the fight.
So, what are your plans for a campus worth the name for the Catholic University of Cameroon, Bamenda?
I am scouting for another place to build a worthy campus because the university is not a one-faculty affair. Our university will have a number of faculties and a number of campuses not only in Bamenda Archdiocese, but also in the dioceses of Buea, Kumbo and Mamfe. So, we need a large piece of land for about 20 faculties. I am therefore scouting round where I can get enough land. A number of Fons have already opted to give us land.
Are these Fons offering you land for free or selling it?
I do not know because I have not yet responded. They have simply said they have land and have invited us. I am still observing.
Could direct talks between the Church and the Bororo community concerned not have resolved this problem amicably than the judicial wrangling that only heightened tensions between the two parties?
I presume direct talks could have helped. However, we had direct talks because the SDO invited the parties concerned. I sent my representatives and the Ardo was there. Talks were held but apparently they did not yield the expected fruits. We were certainly open to any negotiations that could solve the problem amicably. But the opposing party was not prepared for that.
Do you intend to seek any judicial redress and financial compensation for the damage that has been done to the Church’s image in Bamenda Archdiocese and will the Church recover the compensation that she paid to those she intended to displace?
When I say I have withdrawn from that land it means I have abandoned everything. When they started attacking us, none of those we had compensated showed up to return what they had received. This is a bad case and I have therefore decided to let go of everything. If they want to give back the money they are free to, but I am not asking anything from anybody, not even from the Fon.
What lesson(s) has the Church learned from this recent land conflict with the Bororo community?
We have learned that we have to be even more cautious when dealing with people because there is a lot of falsehood and foul play in our society. You meet people and you talk to them in confidence. You put all your cards on the table and are totally open, but you do not get what you need in return.
Do you include civil authorities in this category of people?
This includes civil authorities because you ask them to advice you on the best way of handling a situation and you do exactly what they tell you, but thereafter they tell you more was supposed to have been or is still to be done. We sought to be law abiding because we know the implications of bypassing the law. We preach about the importance of truth and justice and we try to be examples. But a situation like this one only tells us that we have to be more careful. There is no end to being meticulous in this situation. I do not think we can blame ourselves for not having done what we should have done. It only teaches us that we are living in a world that is very crooked and that if you do not always do things well and have ulterior motives; even when you are right, you are deprived of your rights. And this is just what is happening where force is might or might is right. Falsehood almost always triumphs today. I can only imagine what goes on in our law courts and what happens to people who cannot defend themselves. How many people who had land that has been expropriated are suffering like this? We are now suffering like many Cameroonians and we only hope that there will be greater justice and people living according to the truth someday.
If you are looking for land in the future for any Church project, what will you do differently?
I will follow all the procedure to acquire land in Cameroon, especially in the North West Region (chuckles). I started Kumbo Diocese and we acquired land for the Bishop’s House and other projects like schools and parishes. I always follow the same process. First you contact traditional rulers or the person who has the piece of land who takes you to the traditional rulers because they are custodians of the land. If they approve and the person accepts, you give a traditional token as a sign of appreciation. The traditional ruler and his council then designate the piece of land you need. Next you meet civil authorities, precisely the Divisional Officer and the land consultative board for the official papers. After this you pay what the government demand as dues. If there are people to be displaced, you pay the prescribed compensation. You start the procedure for acquiring a land certificate. That is what I have always done and that is what we did at Ndzah. In this case the Divisional Officer told me I should not have given any compensation to the traditional ruler because all land belongs to the State and it is the State that gives out land. But this is not what actually happens. I am still waiting for the day I shall see a piece government land and apply for it, but I know that even then I will still have to pay taxes. So there is no way you can avoid certain procedures.
Your Grace, is there any message to pass on to your faithful on this recent conflict?
First, I call upon all Catholics to be very calm and live in peace with their neighbours and not to be affected by or react negatively to this recent happening. We need to live in peace with other people irrespective of what is happening. Second, we should learn from what has happened. So I am calling on all our schools and missions to protect their land. Get the appropriate documents, if not you may be thrown out as it just happened to us. I know that many people trespass or encroach on parish land because of a wrong impression that Church land is nobody’s land. So, all parishes and Church institutions should protect their land.