By Ashu Tidings
The death of Cameroon’s first-ever Roman Catholic Cardinal, Christian Cardinal Tumi is still unbelievable.
That such a pious man will journey into eternity at a time he is most needed remains a bitter pill for peace-loving Cameroonians to swallow.
Christopher Fomunyoh describes Tumi as “the people’s Cardinal” because he “cared for the common man, spoke his mind with utmost candor and made us feel we had an untouchable pillar of Peace, Justice and Fairness. We will miss him dearly. Fare thee well Cardinal. Our thoughts & prayers are with his family around the globe.”
In summary, Cardinal Tumi was Cameroon’s saint, a prophet of our time.
Tumi’s uncompromising truthfulness was both utterly confronting and utterly ego-deflating.
From Tumi’s life, it follows that the closer in both time and space resigned humans were to an unresigned prophet the more difficult it was for those humans to acknowledge the prophet’s essential difference.
Christ suffered from this problem. To quote from the Bible, ‘Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honour in his own country’ (John 4:44). Christ also said ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town’ (Luke 4:16-30), and ‘Only in his home town and in his own house is a prophet without honour’ (Matt. 13:54-57), and ‘Jesus left there and went to his home town…When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked…
Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James…Jesus said to them, “Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.”…he was amazed at their lack of faith’ (Mark 6:1-6).
It makes sense that the first place a prophet would go for support for his truthful way of thinking would be his own family, but ‘a prophet is not recognised in his own home’ – Cardinal Tumi is only now being recognized at death.
Fr. Carmine opines that Cardinal Tumi was a ferocious opponent of the regime of Paul Biya. He was opposed to evil of all forms. He energetically promoted dialogue between the central government and Anglophone separatists. Last November he was the victim of an 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 remains 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 was 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 88-year-old president Paul Biya.
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 was still considerable. In particular, he was 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 whose serious consequences 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 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 Fon Sehm Mbinglo II, the traditional ruler 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 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 threw a dark shadow over the Anglophone crisis and especially the prospects for its resolution. However, Cardinal Tumi was ready to offer himself for peace to return. He sought an audience with President Biya to discuss a way out of the conflict but never had the opportunity.
Cardinal Tumi also appealed to the consciences of the armed separatists to embrace dialogue over guns and bullets. He died without being listened too. He was indeed a peace prophet recognized only at death.
Like his name, Wiyghan suggests, Tumi was just ‘passing through’.