DOUALA, 3 April 2021 – Cameroon’s lone Catholic Cardinal – Christian Cardinal Wiyghan Tumi – has died after a short illness from an undisclosed disease.
He was 90.
His death was announced Saturday morning by Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Douala, where Cardinal Tumi served from 1991 and was Archbishop Emeritus ever since his retirement in 2009.
Cardinal Tumi was born on 15 October 1930 in the small village of Kikaikelaki (K4) near Kumbo, the chief town of Bui, in the Northern Zone of English-speaking Southern Cameroons.
The prelate was an outspoken critic of tyranny in high places and a fearless advocate of justice and peace.
He defended the oppressed and spoke up, often as a “one-man soldier” of the defenseless.
Not surprisingly, he drew the ire of the regime of President Paul Biya, a ruthless dictator who has led a bloodthirsty tyranny over the 22 million of The Cameroons since 1982.
Cardinal Tumi spoke truth to power without fear, hardly ever holding back.
On numerous occasions – perhaps on every occasion he was asked the question by journalists – Cardinal Tumi’s single most recurrent advice to Biya was for him to resign.
In the 1990s, shortly after being named the Archbishop of Douala, the prelate decried the extrajudicial executions of hundreds of innocent civilians during the so-called “commandement operationnel”.
Latter-day interviews by members of the military command that led the crackdown admitted that they executed hundreds of unarmed civilians accused of robbery in the “Bois des Singes” (Monkey Forest) close to the Douala International Airport.
In the heat of street protests and civil disobedience campaigns code-named “ghost towns” that called for a Sovereign National Conference to decide the country’s political future, Cardinal Tumi was both feared and accused by the Biya regime for nursing political ambitions.
By 1992, Yaounde was jittery as rumors that the Cardinal would run for president were followed by calls by some opposition leaders and prominent newspapers for the prelate to run and “save Cameroon from doom”.
Cardinal Tumi reminded his supporters and detractors alike that all he is and has ever wanted to be is to be a pastor.
He mocked Cameroonian ministers, like Jacques Fame Ndongo, who in singing praise to their “creator” – Biya – thought they could rubbish the prelate in the process.
“Fame Ndongo is a prisoner of the regime, unable to speak his mind on the issues of the day”, the outspoken Cardinal said of the minister of higher education.
Cardinal Tumi was friendly with the opposition but never failed to show that he was in no one’s pocket.
At a meeting once with Ni John Fru Ndi, Carinal Tumi encouraged the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) to remember that he is “no Moses and no Jesus Christ”, sent by the Heavens to die on some cross in order to set people free.
Our job as Christians is to live our Christianity to the best of our abilities, recognizing that vengeance is the Lord’s, the Cardinal told the opposition leader.
Somehow, the Biya regime was convinced the prelate was a “two-faced animal” and they fought him in every way possible, seeing him as an “enemy within” and struggling hard to prevent him from doing what he was not even contemplating, in the first place.
His efforts at pushing for peace – considered compromised by pro-independence campaigners – were met with mockery and scorn.
The Biya regime frustrated the prelate’s initiative to convene what he called the Anglophone General Conference as a follow-up to the two editions in the 1990s of the All Anglophone Conferences (AAC I & II).
Lackeys of the Biya regime, including a colonial governor and the late Mayor of Buea, capital of Southern Cameroons, dared the prelate to set foot in Buea, asking him why he was not convening the conference somewhere his native Northern Zone.
In 2019, the same Cardinal Tumi who had dedicated huge chunks of one of his books to the plight of the people of Southern Cameroons surprised many by playing an active role in the so-called Major National Dialogue.
One of the commissions he chaired – on “Assistance to Returning Refugees and Displaced Persons” – formulated some of the conference’s meaningless, “dead-on-arrival” resolutions, that Cardinal Tumi more likely than not knew would only go to President Paul Biya’s desk to die there, like everything else that does not consolidate power in one man.
The Cardinal would have known, especially because just prior to the Major National Dialogue, the Biya regime had gone to great length to ban the late prelate from organizing what he called the Anglophone General Conference.
Appearing to break with the Memorandum of the Bishops of Southern Cameroons under the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda on the Ambazonia Problem, Cardinal Tumi offered, on behalf of religious leaders, a 400-page proposal on potential solutions to the ongoing genocidal violence.
Sadly, none of the proposals had been endorsed by the Catholic Bishops with jurisdiction over Ambazonia and none of the proposals had been discussed with any of the leaders of the pro-independence movements.
It was a surprising move from the same prelate who had owned up publicly to an effort at “doctoring” the outcome of an opinion survey on independence only for respondents to overwhelmingly show support, including through write-in answers, for the restoration of the independence of Southern Cameroons.
The Cardinal appeared, at times during the last years of his life, not to remember that it is through his authoritative voice that the world had heard of Biya soldiers perpetrating extrajudicial executions in Ambazonia.
“The killings are being done by the soldiers,” Cardinal Tumi had insisted on a panel on state-run television, CRTV, as other panelists struggled to blame Ambazonian Restoration Forces for the massacres in Southern Cameroons.
Cardinal Tumi described one of his trips to K4 during which he said the bodies of civilians slaughtered by French-speaking Cameroonian soldiers were strewn on the sides of the road, “abandoned like the remains of animals”.
Throughout his ministry, Cardinal Tumi was clear that he would sacrifice neither the truth, nor Biblical principles, nor “intellectual honesty”.
His “undiplomatic speak” exposed France’s thinly veiled recolonization mission in The Cameroons.
He narrated in one of his books the full details of an exchange he had with a French diplomat.
Mistaking Cardinal Tumi for a French-speaking citizen of La Republique du Cameroun because of his French proficiency, the French diplomat lauded the Biya regime for sticking with France’s program of achieving total assimilation [read cultural genocide] of the English-speaking minority from Southern Cameroons.
One of the prelate’s most undiplomatic moves has to be his rejection of the generous offer made to him by President Paul Biya in the 1990s to facilitate his international travel by providing him with a diplomatic passport.
“There is no need for that”, the Cardinal recalled telling President Biya, explaining that as an ordinary citizen he deserves and seeks no special status or privileges of the powerful.
The offer had come at the end of an audience with Biya at the Etoudi presidential palace in Yaounde during which the prelate had been unrelenting in his criticism of the regime.
At the audience, Cardinal Tumi later recalled, he took the Biya regime to task for taking away financial subsidies for private and confessional schools.
The ill-advised scrapping of the education subsidies to these schools, according to the prelate, created a nation of two parents.
On the one hand, it reaffirmed taxpayer support to the privileged parents, whose children could continue to benefit from tuition-free public education and, on the other hand, the “laisser pour compte” parents whose children, by virtue of being enrolled in fee-paying private and confessional schools, could not benefit.
Cardinal Tumi was especially hard on President Biya, reminding the Cameroonian president that his entire education was funded by taxpayers either through subsidies to the Catholic schools he attended or through the tuition-free education he received at Lycee LeClerc and the full government scholarship he received to read law in France for his undergraduate degree.
Why benefit from such taxpayer largesse when you are a child and a student growing up only to become president and take those same benefits away from all other children, the Cardinal repeatedly asked of Paul Biya.
In the last few years of his life, though, Christian Cardinal Tumi sounded like he had swallowed the sharp, incisive, critical tongue he once used with such brilliance to tongue-lash the regime.
He infuriated campaigners for the recognition of an independent Southern Cameroon, causing many to turn on him, accusing the elderly Cardinal Tumi of speaking from both sides of his mouth.
With over 13,000 civilians slaughtered in Southern Cameroons, Cardinal Tumi lent his good name and reputation to the caprices of a callous, bloodthirsty regime when he attended the Major National Dialogue and put his goal of achieving peace over the more logical need of achieving justice.
The prelate was the victim of an act of kidnapping last November 5 at the hands of unknown gunmen along with the Fon of Nso, Nsehm Mbinglo II.
The Biya regime was quick to claim that the Cardinal captors were self-defense volunteer fighters for the independence of Southern Camerons aka Ambazonia. None of the armed self-defense groups ever owned up to it.
When Cardinal Tumi wrote about his experience in captivity, he recounted, among others, one moment when his captors were on the phone to the colonial Governor of the self-proclaimed Republic of Ambazonia’s Northern Zone – probably giving away who the real actors hiding behind the captors were.
Pro-independence campaigners jumped on the incident to suggest that Ambazonian Restoration forces would not have the contacts or and would, in any event, not be in direct communication with the regime’s colonial governor.
Cardinal Tumi’s captors held him overnight, as in the case of two other bishops before him – Bishop George Nkuo and Archbishop Cornelius Esua.
Their captors recorded a video of part of their interrogation of the Cardinal in which Cardinal Tumi reaffirmed: “I will preach what is the truth with pastoral conviction and Biblical conviction. Nobody has the right to tell me to preach the contrary because I was called by God”.
In response to one of the requests made to him in captivity, and captured on the video, the kidnappers apparently demanded that the Cardinal should speak up in support of independence.
“When I speak,” the Cardinal said in the video, “I speak like a pastor and that I can never stop doing. If I stop doing that, then I will not be faithful to God, the Almighty.”
As of midday [Eastern Standard Time] in the United States, the Vatican had not yet reacted officially to Cardinal Tumi’s demise.
Speaking unofficially, officials in the office of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who visited The Cameroons last February, said the Holy See had lost one of its most prominent African servants of the Lord.
In handing over to the Biya regime his proposals for a return to peace in The Cameroons, Cardinal Tumi reminded members of the regime not to be misled into thinking that they reign supreme.
It is “God who governs us and the world, and every one of us will render account of his or her actions,” Cardinal Tumi said.
Cardinal Tumi was the lead organizer of all three papal visits to The Cameroons, including the 1995 visit by Pope Saint John Paul II.
During that 1995 visit, the Pope promulgated the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Africa”.
That publication was the fruit of the First Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, held in Rome in 1994 at which Cardinal Tumi played a major role as chairperson of the assembly.
He was instrumental also to the publication of the Instrumentum Laboris, the outcome of the Second Special Assembly, on the theme: “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace: ‘You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world’ (Mt 5:13-14)”.
Presented in the 1990s as one of six Catholic Cardinals with a profile, character, intellectual capacity, and a life of service to the Church fitting to make them potential successors to the Holy See of Peter, Cardinal Tumi’s beginnings were modest.
He told reporters and one of his biographers, Celestin Lingo, of the early mornings when he had to go to the village stream to bathe long before dawn so he could trek kilometers to the nearest church to attend daily Mass as an altar server.
He trekked to and fro each semester from his native K4 in Southern Cameroons to Enugu in Nigeria, where he attended seminary.
Cardinal Tumi joked that a childhood of hardship had inoculated him against ill-health when recalling in 1995 that he had not yet spent a single day in a hospital bed because of any illness. When he was told by his Doctors to size down on his consumption of fufu corn along with his njama-njama and Kati-Kati (a popular dish in Southern Cameroons), the Cardinal later joked about how he bypassed the advice of his medics.
The Cardinal recalled while joking with friends that he instructed his kitchen staff to mold his two loaves into one, ‘obeying’ his doctors without depriving his appetite.
Christian Cardinal Tumi was ordained into the priesthood in 1966 in the Diocese of Buea, when the diocese at the time covered the entire Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda.
As a priest, he furthered his education in Rome, the UK, France, and Switzerland, earning among other academic distinctions, a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic Institute in Lyon, France.
He held another degree in philosophy from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.
Cardinal Tumi was first appointed Bishop of Yagoua in 1979, ending his tenure as the then Rector of Saint Thomas Acquinas Major Seminary, Bambui.
He chaired the Cameroon Bishops’ Conference from 1985 to 1991 and was president of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) from 1990 to 1994.
He was created Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Three years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Douala, a post he held until his retirement in 2009.
Two years ago [July 2019], Cardinal Tumi was honored with the Nelson Mandela Prize in recognition of his painstaking efforts to promote peace and human rights in The Cameroons.
One of Cardinal Tumi’s last publications is a short memoir released at the end of 2020 entitled, “My night in captivity”. In it, he reaffirmed his commitment for peace, writing inter alia: “All I want is for the guns to fall silent and for peace to return to the country.”
"69% of Anglophones want absolute Independence" #CardinalTumi, Equinox TV, Sept 2019.
In search of a contemporary truth, #CardinalTumi's #survey revealed the Divine Truth on Southern Cameroons. Vox popoli Vox Dei. What a legacy, on Easter! @Pontifex, @SecBlinken, @PR_Paul_BIYA pic.twitter.com/3E8wCeuxLq
— Innocent Chia (@innochia) April 3, 2021