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Tribalism and the Church in Anglophone Cameroon

June 9, 2020

By Rev Fr Joseph Awoh*

*Rev Fr Joseph Awoh is Vice Chancellor of Catholic University of Cameroon,Bamenda

A tribe is basically a group of people that includes many families and relatives who have the same language, customs, and beliefs. Cameroon has over two hundred tribes and tribe is one of our strongest markers as Cameroonians. There is nothing wrong with belonging to a tribe and no one chooses the tribe into which they are born. Over time, however, the word has taken on other meanings and, today, can also refer to an interest group united around a leader and an idea. In this way each of us belongs to a number of tribes including – in Cameroon and most of Africa – the one into which we were born. Again, this is good and beneficial. Human beings are not built to survive without group support. For a long time in human history this group support has been crucial for identity, for a sense of belonging and for survival.

It is from the word tribe that tribalism is derived. Up until the mid-20th century, tribalism was exclusively used to describe aspects of living in a traditional tribe. However, like the word tribe, tribalism also evolved and took on a more derogatory meaning. Today, tribalism is often seen as putting one’s own group above every other consideration, including justice. It is used to describe people who are overly loyal to their tribal group and exalt it above all others, whether these are ethnic, religious, professional or just interest groups. It is the behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or interest group and leads one to support them whatever they do.

In our Cameroonian context, some persons have come to view their own tribe and culture as inherently superior to that of others and this has led to deep distrust between tribes. This distrust manifests itself in relations between Anglophones and Francophones, between north westerners and south westerners, between northerners and southerners, between Bangwa and Bayangi, between Mbessa and Oku, and so on. You only need to look at the political scene in Cameroon to see how we have been splintered along tribal and regional lines. And this is basically why the government has come up with the doctrine of living together. At its very worst, tribalism can lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide as we have seen it happen elsewhere. In fact, those words have been used recently in Cameroon (rightly or wrongly) to describe the socio-political crisis which we are going through in the northwest and southwest regions.

Elizabeth Segal holds that we are built to be tribal but sometimes tribalism goes too far[1]. It becomes “bad tribalism”, a group identity that fosters the bullying and scapegoating of people who are different to us. We see this everyday in sports and social life but, in the last two weeks, the death of George Floyd, a black man choked to death by a white police officer kneeling on his windpipe for close to nine minutes, has shone a light on racism in America like nothing else has since the 1960s. The phenomenon in sports when fans make monkey chants and throw bananas at black players and athletes and the unequal treatment of blacks in the United States of America and elsewhere is called racism. While we all understand that bad tribalism in Cameroon is not the exact equivalent of racism, it is indicative of the way most people feel the effects of tribalism. Victims of tribalism feel the same way black Americans are feeling right now.

And that is why, as a Catholic priest, I feel really sick when bad tribalism rears its ugly head in the Church. For a long time our priests and fellow Christians on the other side of the Moungo did not want bishops appointed to them from other ethnic groups. Recent examples where tribal sentiments have superseded reason and faith and turned the church into the laughing stock of society include the Archdioceses of Yaounde and Douala. As Anglophones we prided ourselves of a different tradition and argued that this should not happen in the Church. But, as most of Anglophone society has swapped Anglo-Saxon traditions for those of our brothers and sisters east of the Moungo, the Anglophone Church has followed suit. Instead of leading society in the spiritual and moral domains, society is leading us. We have begun to agitate for priests and bishops to be appointed along tribal and ethnic lines and for a regional balance in these appointments, even as we witness how regional balance and tribal and ethnic considerations in politics has trumped professionalism and fostered incompetence in high places and wreaked havoc in an otherwise truly blessed country. As north westerners and south westerners what benefit has the appointment of Prime Ministers from our regions brought to us and to our communities? Nothing at all, except to those who belong to the tribe of their families and cronies. How will the appointment of a Bishop from my tribe, my interest group or region benefit me? Will it make me a better Christian, a holier person or will it bring me and the members of my interest group closer to the centre of Church power and give me advantages over others? How will the appointment of a priest to a particular post of responsibility benefit me as a Catholic Christian? Will this benefit be material or spiritual?

In Living the Priesthood[2], I listed the criteria which the Diocesan Pastoral Council of Portsmouth Diocese produced when they were searching for a replacement for Bishop Crispian Hollis who was retiring. Among these criteria was one that specifically asked that the prospective bishop should not come from Portsmouth Diocese. It said: Not a priest of this diocese, a man new to us all. The good of the diocese and the Church came before their personal interests and tribal considerations, and Rome appointed Bishop Philip Egan, a priest of the Diocese of Shrewsbury. How did we come to this point in this country where appointment committees and placement boards have to look over their shoulders all the time before appointing priests to positions of responsibility in their dioceses and in the Church to ensure that every tribe and ethnic group has a fair share of the ecclesiastical cake?

We are walking a very slippery slope as Christians and the option to follow the failed political model of regional and tribal balance is outright wrong and unchristian. And why is this wrong? First, we are all human beings and Christians. We cannot condemn bad tribalism in sports and in political and social life in America and elsewhere and encourage it in the Church of God. St. Paul tells us that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Second, the mission which Christ gave us before ascending to the Father was to go make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). The mission of the Church is not to grow our tribes, advance our agendas, increase our platforms and enlarge our visibility. Third, when we are tribal in the Church, we destroy the unity for which Christ himself prayed in John 17:21 – May they all be one! Fourth, we are taking over control of the Church from the Holy Spirit who guides her and enthroning ourselves in His place. In other words, we are saying the Holy Spirit has not been able to do His work and we are replacing Him. This is an abomination. Finally, tribalism as behaviour and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group and leads one to support the tribe whatever they do is simply devilish. It chokes its victims in the same way racism is choking our brothers and sisters elsewhere and it chokes the entire Church.

I am not unaware that in the history of the Church, nepotism and similar evils have been practiced, even in the highest of offices, but I do not think that we are here to propagate evils which the Church herself has condemned in the past. To point to those practices as an excuse for our tribal behaviour would be tantamount to justifying the evil which we are doing by showing that others before us had engaged in similar evil behaviour. As Church and as individual members of the Church we must all confront the evil of tribalism and not copy what we know to be wrong, no matter who is doing it. For my part I shall pray that my tribal instincts may not hamper the work of the Holy Spirit who leads the Church (and who is blind to tribe, ethnicity and interest group) and that competence and suitability of candidates will be the only criteria for my recommendations to positions of responsibility in the Church. This is what we learn from the selection of the seven deacons in the Acts of the Apostles: non-tribal criteria were set and the selection was done and then the seven were ‘consecrated’ for service. And what was the result? …and the word of God continued to spread (6:1-7).

[1] Elizabeth A. Segal, When Tribalism goes Bad, Psychology Today, March 30, 2019 online at https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/social-empathy/201903/when-tribalism-goes-bad

[2] Joseph Awoh (2016) Living the Priesthood, page 23

*Rev Fr Joseph Awoh is Vice Chancellor of Catholic University of Cameroon,Bamenda

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