Prayers for Peace: The Politicization of Religion in Cameroon
By Mbih J. Tosam, PhD and Awafong Julius T.,
Sunday, November 20, 2011.
Experience teaches us that planting a seed on sand or clay is a waste of time. If we are aware of this and still go ahead to plant our crops on such arid soils, sacrificing our precious time, energy and money and the seed itself, then our action is simply accompanied by ignorance. The recent calls by the CPDM government for prayers for peace to reign in Cameroon before, during and after the October 9th 2011 presidential elections seems to be a good example of planting seeds on clay or sandy soil. Can we create a fertile ground for discontent and avoid conflict with the help of prayers alone? Can there be genuine peace in any society without justice? Is peace simply the absence of violence or war?
When Nelson Mandela refused to abide by the apartheid laws in South Africa, it was because doing the contrary would be like sowing seeds on sandy or clay soil. When Rosa Parks refused to cede her seat to a Whiteman, it was because she knew that respecting the segregationist laws in America would be tantamount to expecting good yield on a barren land. Peter Essoka in his reflection entitled “Can you take a bullet for Christ?” tells the story of a congregation that almost emptied when two masked gunmen fired shots in the air asking for anyone willing to take a bullet for Christ to stay where they were. At the end of this story, Essoka explains that taking a bullet for Christ today is like standing against vices like corruption, electoral malpractices, treachery, intrigues, alcoholism, drug abuse in a society where these vices have become a culture. Standing against what is wrong is what God wants from us. But some church leaders in Cameroon seem to be condoning, collaborating and even conniving with the corrupt and unjust system instead of decrying or standing against its excesses. In his open letter to the Bishops of Cameroon, Ludovic Lado, a Jesuit Priest, criticized the Episcopal Council of Cameroon for what he considered as the collaborative silence towards the injustices of the regime against the people. Rev. Lado says:
For seven years, you have, like me, seen the ruling party use legal means to roll back our young democracy. As a body, you have never said a word publicly in support of the opposition, albeit morbid, and the civil society which were trying to seek a fairer electoral system, including a two round ballot as well as a single ballot. You preferred to remain silent so as not to embarrass the regime with whom some of you have valuable and generous relationships.
When today we hear how Christians and Moslems, with the support of the CPDM regime, are organising all kinds of prayer sessions and crusades to ask God to let peace reign in Cameroon before, during and after the October 9 Presidential elections, we are forced to think that, it is because the government is aware that the electoral process is highly iniquitous and may only result in disputed and contested results.
Listening to these calls for prayers for peace we ask ourselves what would have been God’s answer if Nelson Mandela succumbed to the apartheid laws, if Rosa Parks surrendered to the segregationist laws, and if Jesus Christ yielded to the demands of the devil to throw himself down, and just prayed God to save them as they condoned with the suppressive, inhumane and ungodly laws of their times? All these people, sustained by many other citizens, stood their grounds against these unjust laws—they took a bullet for Christ. Ludovic Lado tells the Bishops of Cameroon that:
…God cannot give us peace without justice. God cannot hear these prayers if you do not tell the truth to the President of the Republic about the injustices of his regime. Cameroonians are suffering, just look at our schools and hospitals, if you consult there. You will have much to say about the billions being spent under this regime for or being embezzled with impunity.
There is corruption in almost every sector of public life in Cameroon, championed by those in high places. Unemployment and political manipulation of the people is common currency. In fact, we are living in a jungle where the few, those who have monopolized power, appropriate state funds and have taken total control of the media, use their illegitimate power to deceive and oppress the people. These predators and megalomaniacs live in pump and waste while the majority are walloping in abject and excruciating poverty. Are these the vices the government is sponsoring prayers to ask God to help maintain in the name of peace? Or can there be peace in this kind of chopbrokepotcratic society?
These vices are the result of human greed and megalomania. They are within our human power to conquer if we have the good will to. We imagine that the churches and religious institutions should accompany their prayers (and not be paid to pray) by the condemnation of these vices, that God should give us leaders and people who have a sense of justice and the interest of the people at heart; leaders who have the courage to resist the temptations of power.
To set the pace for genuine peace in Cameroon, the people must be free to express their problems without fear of intimidation or harm; the ruling class must accept to sit on a negotiating table to debate with contrary and even dissenting voices, political parties and minority groups; the issues affecting all the citizens of this nation and not continue in the monologue (which is rather a threat to peace) that has dominated our political space in Cameroon for the past 50 years. In fact, there is a deliberate ploy by the Biya regime to maintain a dictatorship while giving a false impression to the international community, and especially to donor bodies who insist on the respect for principles of good governance as a conditio sine qua non for financial assistance, that there is democracy in Cameroon and it is fairing well. If you dare express an opinion against the injustices perpetrated by the ruling class, your views are considered as unpatriotic or you are simply tagged an irresponsible person or an enemy of peace, as the recent declaration of the Bishops of Cameroon calling for peace states: “all calls for protest by the leaders of opposition parties are irresponsible. The power of the people is in the ballot box and not on the streets. It is a combat of ballots and not a combat of the streets”. The real irresponsible people for Rev. Fr. Ludovic Lado, and we add, enemies of peace, is the regime who knew seven years ago that there will be elections in 2011, but precipitated things, exposing Cameroon to violence. This ostrich politics is one of the greatest threats to peace in Cameroon than any factors combined. Transparency and accountability in the management of state affairs, justice crowned by prayers may guarantee peace more than any amount of prayers alone can. Mgr Samuel Kléda in a pastoral letter tells us more when he posits that our major task today, especially those governing us, is to create social cohesion between all Cameroonians by destroying all the major inequalities which many of us are victims of.
In his “Open letter to the Bishops of Cameroon”, Rev. Father Ludovic Lado condemns the overt support and the conformist silence of the Episcopal Council to the CPDM and Biya regime towards the abuse and injustices meted against the people for fear of straining the precious and generous relation they entertain with some of the members of the regime. Some critics have sarcastically referred the Episcopal Council as “one of the sub-sections of the CPDM.” Another issue is the manner in which the Bishops took the chorus or the campaign slogan of the CPDM: “Peace and peace at all cause”, peace even at the expense of democracy. The catholic social teaching says that there is no peace without justice. Fr. Ludovic challenges the Bishops, if they want genuine peace in Cameroon, to put up a strong crusade for justice and be prepared to pay the price, as Jesus Christ says in (Mt 5: 10) “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Some may consider us as being heretical and minimising the power of God in turning things around. No! We don’t need to be theologians to know that God forbids all forms of evil. From our own little Sunday school robot-knowledge of the Bible, for these prayers to be genuine and to invoke the spirit of God, they have to be accompanied by good deeds. No amount of prayers will guarantee peace if our actions rather provoke violence, if we rig elections, violate the fundamental rights and impoverish the people. We worry about the politicization of religion in Cameroon. The church and some of its leaders seem to be asking God to bless what the devil has put in place. Such behaviour shows either how degenerate some of our religious leaders, those who eat and dine with, bless and receive money from corrupt politicians, have become. Asking the people to pray for peace and give a blind eye to evil deeds and injustice is like deliberately refusing to sleep under a mosquito net and pray God to stop the mosquitoes from biting us. It sounds like consciously allowing a drunken driver to sit on the wheel of your bus on the busy and crazy Yaoundé-Douala highway, for example, while you pray God to protect you against an accident. It sounds like wilfully fitting your head through a jigsaw and pray: “please God when my head passes through these blades, let it still be attached to my neck.”
Again, we don’t doubt God’s mercy and forgiving power, rather we think we are supposed to use the power in us to try to put things in order, to change that which is contrary to God’s will, that which violates human rights and dignity and only cry out for God’s intervention or assistance when we are powerless. Take the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who said NO to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image even when they were threatened to be put in the fiery furnace. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew their physical strength could not challenged that of the mighty men of King Nebuchadnezzar, so they called on God to strengthen them as they were being thrown into the fiery furnace. Yes, they all “took a bullet for Christ”. We live in a country where those who know the truth, those who are supposed to condemn these ills (some of our clergymen and intellectuals), have been bought over and reduced to praise singers for the regime for little and temporal appointments, or for hope of being appointed or promoted where they can have their own chance to steal and chop. Some politicians have even left their followers helpless at such a critical moment of elections for the hope of being maintained in office or promoted. Because they have been given ministerial positions, and now eat and dine with the prince, they have abandoned their supporters and have become the devil’s advocate. They are unable to “take a bullet for the people” or to stand to their principles, for selfish reasons–real chopbrokepotcrats.
It is not like all clergymen in Cameroon are condoning with the excesses of the regime. There are some who have been taking bullets for Christ, for the people, for several years now. We have admiration for no nonsense, objective and candid men of God like Christian Cardinal Tumi, who has never condoned with the injustices of the regime, sometimes even provoking non-violent tension by raising issues which the government does not want anybody to talk about for fear of violent reaction from the public. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image was not good, just like our present electoral system is. Jesus says “a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit; neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit”. (Matt. 8:18) “….for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” (Gal 6:7). So, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we should bar the road to our contemporary King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image.
Alain Fogue Tedom on a TV debate said that, asking the people to give a blind eye to a corrupt electoral system and just vote, is like asking someone to jump from the 7th floor of a story-building, and when he complains “I’m afraid because I will die”, you tell him: “just try and see what it will produce.” Like the French adage says: “on teste le maçon aux pieds du mur”. In English, this literally means “we judge the bricklayer from the value of his building.” With “On teste le maçon aux pieds du mur”, which is an adage commonly used against criticisms of our electoral system, we are continuously told to be patient and give a new electoral system a try. Yes, this is definitely true if and only if, the one being tested is truly a trained bricklayer. We cannot, in the name of greed, nepotism, fear, tribalism, hatred, corruption, intimidation and the selfish drive to cling onto power, keep aside a trained bricklayer and ask a janitor who knows nothing in construction to build a house, just because “on teste le macon aux pieds du mur”, and turn around to ask God to bless our janitor so he can perfectly do the work of a bricklayer. No, we cannot, no matter how hard we pray. We had the same response to the criticisms against the National Elections Observatory, NEO, which like ELECAM was made up of members of the central committee of the CPDM. But we saw how NEO I and II woefully failed.
Asking God to help us fight a just cause is what God requires of us. Going back to the history of democratic evolution, the people didn’t ask God to help them make the land-owners to vote or decide for the common good. They fought for their liberation, to have a say in governance, to have a right to vote. African Americans did not also sit back and organise prayers and fasting sessions for God to change things for them, they fought, and asked for their rights and God took them from 0-voting to 2/3 voting power and finally to a full vote. The women in America did not just sit and prayed God to grant them voting rights, they fought hard to achieve this right.
Martin Luther King Jr., the icon of the civil rights movement, puts up a similar argument against the criticism of his colleagues. His fellow pastors considered King’s approach to the civil rights movement as too violent and revolutionary or “unwise and untimely… precipitate violence”, to use their own words. In his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, King responded to these criticisms:
Actually, we who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicine of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Can you be at peace with yourself if you and your family do not have three-square meal and at times even one a day? Can you be at peace with yourself if you cannot send your children to school because you do not have the means? Can you be at peace with yourself when you and/or your qualified children cannot find a job because you come from a certain tribe or region of the country, while the unqualified are employed because they have an uncle, brother, father or god-father, as they are commonly called in Cameroon, at high places, or because they come from a particular region or ethnic group? Can you be at peace with yourself if you are discriminated against and treated as a second-class citizen or reduced to an “it” because of your region or tribe of origin or political beliefs? Can there be peace when a few kleptocrates have monopolized power and are bent to destroy the country? Can you be at peace with yourself when you live in extreme poverty? Can there be peace in any society if all these vices are not combated and defeated? There can never be any peace, no matter how hard you pray. You can never harvest any fruits from such an arid land. Peace is not merely the absence of war or violent conflict. There is peace when there is constant and permanent negotiation and resolution of our differences. As imperfect beings, conflict is an essential part of our relationship. A society is in peace if it accepts and continuously finds solutions to these problems; and not only trying to bury and cover them up. Any society that conceals its problems, differences, violates minority rights and suppresses the people is not peaceful; it is a fertile ground for violent conflict, it is “a boil”, to use King’s words, that “must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicine of air and light” soon.
If the government is supporting prayers for peace to reign in Cameroon, it is not, in our view, because they want genuine peace, but to continue to have a calm, passive and conformist citizenry so that their plunder and squander can continue for a little longer; it is because they are conscious of how they “won” the elections; they are aware that the results do/did not really reflect the votes cast from the polls. They are aware that the people are discontented and have good reasons to be. A few days to the swearing-in or should we say “sweating-in” of the old new president, Paul Biya, there are banners on almost every street corner in Yaounde which read: “Let’s respect our institutions, that is the best sign of democracy.” We think this is an insult to the people of Cameroon. If Biya had respect for our democratic institutions, if he followed the world evolution and listened to the people, he would not have revised the constitution in 2008 to permit him stand for the 2011 elections.
From our analysis, it may seem that God cannot transform or change a bad person or society if the person or society honestly repents, after all he came Jesus came for the underprivileged. On the contrary, when religious moderates and conformists disregard injustice and turn around to criticize those citizens who condemn injustice in strong terms, they are directly standing on the way of social progress. History and experience have thought us that no society has ever progressed without questioning and challenging injustice and the status quo. They have simply forgotten the lesson or story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who challenged and disobeyed the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because the laws devalued and violated the humanity of some persons. Our clergy should also remember that, because of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, King Nebuchadnezzar became a changed man and in his words below:
Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who has sent his angels, and delivered his servants that trusted in him…. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation and language who speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, shall be cut into pieces….
If these prayers are genuine, with a genuine desire for progress, we may have peace in Cameroon. Peace is the perpetual search for non-violent means (debates and discussions) to resolve conflicts/differences, which are essential elements of all progressive societies. These prayers for peace are not honest because they are not accompanied by repentant acts, a change of attitude. What will ensure genuine peace in Cameroon, therefore, is more of justice, that is, less of corruption and all forms of discrimination, exploitation and manipulation of the people by the ruling class than all the prayers in the world. Our prayers for peace must be accompanied by actions that guarantee peace.
Mbih J. Tosam, PhD, is a Philosopher and Researcher with research interests in Bioethics, the Philosophy of Medicine, and African Philosophy.