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"The Catholic Church in Bamenda Archdiocese is not expelling Bororos from any land," Archbishop Cornelius Esua

Thursday 11 July 2013

Interviewed by Jude Abanseka and Ireneaus Chongwain Chia

Le Septentrion newspaper recently published an article alleging that the Archbishop of Bamenda has teamed up with the government to expel Bororos from a grazing land on which the Church is planning to build the Catholic university. L’Effort Camerounais interviewed His Grace Cornelius F. Esua, to get his own side of the story: Excerpts:

Your Grace, a newspaper, Le Septentrion, has accused you of trying to expel Bororos from a piece of land at Wumse-Ndzah on which you plan to build the Catholic University. May we know your position on this controversy?

The assumption that I am trying to expel Bororos from a piece of land at Wumse-Ndzah is certainly wrong because, in the first place, the situation is not the Catholic Church against Bororo people. We are not expelling them in any case. The Catholic University project started in 2006 and by 2007 we were already scouting for land. By 2010 we had already decided about getting a piece of land through the government.

The piece of land in question was a grazing land which belongs to the government. When we saw and got interested in it, we were made to understand that it was a free piece of land. There was nobody as such on that land. You know what grazing land looks like; no body really settles on it. There were only a few huts here and there for those looking after cattle.

The Bororos claim they have been using the disputed piece of land since 1904 and say through her influence the Catholic Church only recently acquired the land. Can you tell us how the Catholic Church acquired the disputed land? In other words, did the Church acquire the land legally or followed the required procedure for obtaining land?

When we became interested in the land, I first made the request to the Fon of Ndzah and he did not object. From that moment we started the official procedure to acquire the land, first through the traditional authorities, and second through the government. With the traditional authorities we had to ascertain that the piece of land was free and we found that it was. The traditional authorities knew that although it was being used as a grazing land it would one day be part of the urban area as it was very close to the village settlement. They joyfully welcomed the university project as it was going to bring development to the village. We completed everything without any objection. After that we went to the second step with the government. We contacted the Divisional Officer of Bamenda III and the Senior Divisional Officer of Mezam under whose jurisdiction the piece of land falls. We told him what we had done with the traditional rulers and that we wanted to use the land for a public utility, that is, to build the Catholic University. In fact, he told us that we should have met him first and that we did not have to go to the traditional leaders because it is government land. He explained that we did not have to negotiate with the traditional authorities because we were going to use the land for a public utility. He therefore asked us to write officially requesting the land which we did.

A Land Consultative Board was set up chaired by the D.O. of Bamenda III. The piece of land was demarcated. The documents were forwarded to Yaoundé to the Honourable Minister of State Property and Land Tenure and they have been approved by Arrete No 000947/K.6.1/MINDAF/D1/D13 of 2nd of September 2011. We have already paid the land revenue tax. The last step was compensation for the crops and property that were there. There were a few trees there and those looking after cattle had a few settlements as is the case in all grazing land.

The government through the Ministry of Agriculture met the grazers and evaluated what was there. In fact, I have pictures of what was there. Those who have been to that piece of land also know what was there. There were just a few Bororo families living there. If we include the grazers’ wives and children, it may come up to about 30 people. In fact, only 15 people had to be compensated. When I saw this newspaper article you mentioned claiming that there are up to 300 Bororo people settled there, like everyone I was amazed, the SDO himself was amazed.

It is also being reported that the Catholic Church has paid compensation to Bororos and that if the total amount is divided each person will only receive a ridiculous amount of about FCFA 78.000. How much did the Church pay as compensation?

Compensation was only paid to people who had something there. We were not paying compensation per person. For instance, somebody said he had 10 Eucalyptus trees and was given an equivalent amount. The SDO advised us not to pay the compensation privately but to do everything officially and that is what we did. This was on September 24, 2012 and the CRTV team was present. Someone who was no. 14 on the list and who claimed to be the Ardo of the Bororos did not appear to receive his own compensation. I think that is where the whole problem has emanated. I do not know whether he is settled there or somewhere nearby. He does not have a farm on the land. Although he earlier co-signed documents welcoming the Catholic University project he later wrote letters, copies of which I have, saying how his father had settled on that piece of land for 100 years and so on. Well, people who know movement patterns could better analyse that. This notwithstanding, his two brothers on the list have received their own compensation.

However, the most disturbing thing is the way the issue has been presented with the intention of sparking animosity against the Catholic Church and making it look like a problem between the Catholic Church and the Moslems. The author of the article even goes as far as talking about Boko Haram. They have issued threats that nothing will take place on that piece of land. Such threats should not be taken lightly. These are threats with legal implications. I can drag them to court for inciting people against me and the Catholic Church and for terrorism. In their article they go as far as accusing government authorities and saying that I have bribed them. You can verify those claims. We sent our file for the land to Yaoundé and the authorities know the land is being used to build a public utility. It is the government that gives out land for such a purpose. We cannot buy that much land ourselves. We did not have money to buy more than 30 hectares. The most we could do was to give a little compensation to people who were there as the government recommended. Besides, we paid per square metre in line with government’s regulation. Anybody who acquires land for a public utility pays a certain amount per square metre as the land revenue tax. We have paid the said amount into the government coffers. I was very embarrassed with the report that we are expelling the Bororos and that we have a battle with the Moslems.

We have been made to understand that the said piece of land was also a subject of dispute between Ndzah and Bambilli and, throughout, the Bororos have never come into the picture. The Fon of Ndzah recounted to us the tribal boundary dispute they had with Bambilli over that land. Finally the court gave the disputed land to Ndzah and they had to pay a certain amount to the government following the case. So Ndzah people said if we wanted the land we should refund the money they paid to the court and we did.

The amount paid as compensation was therefore not ridiculous and the newspaper report that 300 people are concerned is false. On the list the Ministry of Agriculture and Urban Affairs presented to me there were only 15 people. We were not just sharing out money, but paying for property lost.

A human rights organisation, the Cameroon network of Human Rights Organisations, has expressed fear that if the misunderstanding is not tactically resolved, it could degenerate into an inter-religious conflict. Is this claim founded?

The claim is not founded. First, the said human right organisation presumes that we are acting against the principles of human rights which is not true. That is absolutely false because we have not exploited anybody in the case in question. We have not taken a move to anybody’s disadvantage or that violates human dignity. We followed the procedure for acquiring land. Even when someone gives you a piece of land for free, you still have to establish all documents before claiming ownership because all land belongs to the government. Claims of minority rights are baseless as this case could be anywhere and about anybody. As far as human rights and human dignity are concerned, the Catholic Church champions and promotes the cause of human rights and human dignity. That is the purpose of our Justice and Peace Commission.

The newspaper also reports that the Bororos have refused to be resettled in Bambili as the Bambili people are already threatening them even before they have been resettled. They say the Catholic Church is putting infrastructural development over humanitarian concerns. What can you say about this claim?

I cannot comment about that as it is the government that handles resettlement affairs. I was not consulted. However, I have been made to understand that the resettlement zone is being demarcated by the Mezam Surveys Service and some of the people are already settling there. In addition, the Fon of Ndzah has already allocated two hectares of land separately to the Mamada family.

But let us assume you were consulted, what would you have suggested? It is not really about resettlement, but about designating a new grazing land because the people concerned were not permanently settled there. They come and go depending on how much vegetation they find for their cattle.

What role is the administration playing to resolve this problem? What measures have been taken so far?

Since that infamous article was published, the administration has also been very concerned as it was accused of siding with the Catholic Church and that it was exploiting the situation. I was away when this article was published, but I learnt about it before I returned because people sent me copies and some even called me to express their worries. When I came back the SDO invited me to his office and told me he was very embarrassed. He said he was going to invite the Ardo and myself to a meeting for clarification and for finding a peaceful settlement to the misunderstanding.

Your Grace, do you think somebody is behind this for some hidden personal reason or to spark a religious conflict?

I think so. There is someone, a certain Dr. Ndi, from Bambili, who claims to be the Ardo’s protégé. I have the impression he is behind the whole thing. He is even out rightly mentioned in the article, but in subtle manner as one of the victims. I have the impression he is instigating the whole thing because he came to me claiming to be a peace emissary and that he wanted a piece of land to settle on. He claims to be the Ardo’s son. He even asked me to keep the Ardo there as one of my workers and several other things. In the meantime, after the compensation, he has built a hut on the plot either with the intention of asking for compensation or of not moving from the plot. These all indicate he is behind the whole affair of not only inciting animosity and hatred against the Catholic Church but also of promoting lawlessness and terrorism insinuated in the article.

If the Bororos finally refuse to move, will the Catholic Church, for the sake of peace, look for a different piece of land on which to build her university? Certainly and only if the government which gave us the land and through whom we have satisfied all the conditions, decides it no longer wants to give us that particular piece of land. It could give another piece of land considering that I have satisfied all the conditions. We will go wherever the government indicates that will serve our purpose.

In other words, you are not clinging to this land?

No, I am not. If the Fon of Ndzah had objected when we first met him about the land, we would have gone elsewhere. By the way, that was not even the first piece of land we wanted, but for other reasons we finally settled on the land at Ndzah. If the government decides that we should move out and pays back all that we have spent, we cannot continue hanging on to it. Maybe the government can transfer the expenditure to the new piece of land it will allocate to us, not necessarily paying back the money. As long as things are resolved justly and amicably, I have no problem moving from there.

How has this land dispute affected Catholic-Moslem relationships in Bamenda Archdiocese?

It has not affected Catholic-Moslem relationships in any way. In fact, it is a non event. All my Moslem or Bororo friends and I are carrying on as usual. They do not even know about the newspaper article and do not see how our acquiring of that piece of land is a problem. The Bororo representative continues to be very active in the BEPHA Board of Governors meetings. Bororos are very appreciative of BEPHA and of what it is doing to meet their health needs. The article has given the wrong impression outside and I think it is criminal.

What, in your opinion, can be done to find a comprehensive solution to this problem?

As I mentioned earlier, if the government changes its mind because the disputed land is the government’s; as all grazing land is government land, I will follow the government’s instructions. However, the Catholic University project continues and those who want to sabotage it are wasting their time.

It is a project of public utility and all Cameroonians, including Bororos, will benefit from it. We do not discriminate when admitting students. We have always served the population and will continue serving in the higher education domain.