People in the western English-speaking regions are caught between government forces and a militant separatist insurgency battling for an independent state of Ambazonia. With the presidential election Sunday, voter suppression seems all but inevitable.
Cameroon Elections: Central Africa's Most Diverse Economy
Last Friday, the Cameroonian government issued a regional order banning movement between cities in the northwest for 48 hours. The lockdown ensued from Sunday, Sept. 30 through Monday.
That ordinance was in effect during the one-year anniversary of Ambazonia’s symbolic independence day on Oct. 1. Isolated celebrations took place in a few locations, according to Cameroonian journalist, Peter Tah.
Separatists have since shut down both English-speaking regions, blocking roads with felled trees and cutting off three bridges in the lead up to Sunday’s presidential election.
Separatists have vowed to prevent voting in both English-speaking regions, threatening to abduct and attack anyone who goes to the polls. “We are seeing gun battles and no one wants to put themselves in harm’s way,” Tah said.
Out of 4,000 polling places, 3,000 have been closed in both English-speaking regions due to security concerns. Those numbers come from Enow Abrams Egbe, president of EleCam (Elections Cameroon), the institution responsible for organizing elections.
In the northwest, polling stations have been reduced from 1,700 to 220. Those that remain open have a strong military presence.
The region is on complete lockdown according to Tah. Markets have shut down. Streets are empty. Courts and hospitals are closed. Doctors without Borders, however, remains active.
In recent weeks, separatists have multiplied their attacks on government forces and election officials, burning down offices as they try to stop elections in the Western regions. Government forces are clamping down on separatists and civilians indiscriminately.
In a raid last week, military troops killed seven people in Buea, according to a statement shared by human rights lawyer Agbor Nkonghor,
“One of the victims escaped with bullet wounds but died later at the Buea Regional Hospital,” says the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA).
Buea is Ambazonia’s declared capital and one of the hardest hit by the ongoing crisis. “Inadvertently, they are cracking down on civilians,” says journalist Tah. “People are being gunned down in the streets if they are dressed in a way that could identify them as separatists.”
Initially, the distinction was more clear. Separatists fighting for the independent state of Ambazonia would wear a red shirt, black pants, and a red bandana on their heads. Now that’s changed as members of the group attempt to go under the radar. “They are enemies with no faces,” Tah says.
Cameroon’s northwest and southwest regions are home to an English-speaking minority, who make up about 20 percent of the overall population. They have been a stronghold of opposition to the ruling political party, Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM).
The country was under a one-party system for over two decades, until a multi-party system was adopted in 1992.
President Biya, 85, has been in power for nearly 36 years. He will be competing with eight other candidates for another seven-year term. This is his seventh time running as the incumbent.
“There is a high expectation that he (Biya) will win,” says Tah.
Cameroon is divided by Anglophone (English-speaking) and Francophone (French-speaking) regions. The English-speaking minority, who make up 20 percent of the population, are based largely in the southwest. Many English speakers accuse the predominantly French-speaking government of discrimination.
Cameroon’s English-speaking regions have been in a crisis for two years. In 2016, lawyers and teachers took to the streets to protest for more English language representation in courts and schools, respectively. The government cracked down on those protests,
Separatists clashed violently with government forces since an uprising in 2016. Last year, the group took up arms on Sept. 26 and again on Oct. 1 when they declared a symbolic independence from Cameroon.
Last September, security forces killed 40 people during a crackdown on protests. In November that same year, separatists killed at least six security officers.
The U.N. Human Rights Council reports at least 160,000 people have been internally displaced since May of this year. 21,000 more have been registered as refugees in Nigeria, which neighbors the western English-speaking region.
“There’s no end in sight,” says Tah.