In June, the secessionists fighting for Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions’ independence announced their opposition to the October 7th presidential election.
This was unsurprising, as the secessionists have long opposed anything that could lend the government legitimacy. They were not expected to support an election held by a government from which they aim to secede. In fact, from the start, the secessionists have highlighted the illegality of the Cameroonian government’s presence in the Anglophone regions.
The secessionists, however, have done more than announce their opposition. They have publicly committed to preventing the election and to punishing any participants. Additionally, the secessionists called on all civil society organizations to stop all election-related activity or face consequences — people believe this implies kidnapping and murder.
The election threats left the two affected regions unperturbed. Because, to many there, Cameroonian elections are a scam. People believe the outcome is decided before the first ballot is cast.
They have long felt their representatives lacked integrity. Even before the secessionists’ remarks, many voters intended to abstain. A university student in the Anglophone southwest capital of Buea said, “I am not registered to vote, and I will not do so. Paul Biya controls every single politician running. Even those claiming to be members of the opposition are really just his puppets.”
The secessionists are delivering on the promise they made to punish voters. In a break with its past that had seen secessionists merely cutting the Cameroonian flag off of national identification cards, in early July, secessionists began attacking people at roadblocks and checkpoints for possessing voter registration cards. Violence flared in July and August as both sides dug into their positions — the government insisting elections in the Anglophone regions would proceed, and the secessionists promising to prevent them. Cameroonians feared the worst of the violence was yet to come.
Mid-September brought tensions to a boiling point when the interim government released new protocols. These stated that between September 25th and October 4th, all residents of the Anglophone regions were to respect restricted movement. During this time, excepting emergencies, no one is to leave their homes. Following this period, the Anglophone regions are to become ghost towns, during which time people are forbidden from leaving their homes under any circumstances.
Previous periods of imposed limited movement provoked spikes in secessionist and state violence. People began fleeing the Anglophone regions. In the weeks leading up to restricted movement, the bus parks in major cities filled up with people. Many sleep outside to guarantee themselves a seat. Notably, while the outbound buses are crammed, the inbound ones are empty. This leads to transport companies doubling their prices, making escape even more perilous. The government seeks to show that the secessionists do not control the population, but they are wrong time and again. Note, the southwest regional governor’s recent visit to the Buea bus park where he begged people not to flee, promising them they would be safe if they remained.
While some of those fleeing hope to return after the election, others are less optimistic. A university student in Buea said, “My father and siblings left for Yaoundé (the capital) to find a house. I do not want to leave here, but this is getting to be too much. My sister was made to crawl in the mud last year, and so many people have been kidnapped. There is no way things are going to get better anytime soon.”
The government remains steadfast about elections despite the chaos. Elections are a way of demonstrating its authority over the Anglophone regions. However, the government does not discount the threat. For instance, only a handful of election-related events have occurred in Buea. Notably, the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) has privately held all events under tight security. Yet, the government insists upon public campaign activities across the Anglophone regions in support of the CPDM.
According to a civil servant there, the government is forcing civil servants to campaign for the CPDM. The anonymous source said, “They told us we all had to go out and campaign for Biya in the days before the election. And that if we do not do so our families will face severe consequences. They told us if we resign the consequences will be even worse. We assume this means death. I have no choice. We can either go out and campaign for Biya and be killed by the Amba or not go out and be killed by government forces.”
Both military and secessionist violence picked up last week. For instance, in just a matter of days the secessionists kidnapped and killed a general in Buea, and the military killed seven civilians for smoking marijuana. Currently, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the situation in Anglophone Cameroon, especially regarding what will happen after the elections. Many hope that the situation will defuse and that the local economy — which was interrupted by the recent weeks’ violence — will return to normal. However, it appears as likely that the situation will worsen, with violence accelerating on both sides, wreaking havoc on the populace.
Max Bone is a political analyst focusing on sub-Saharan Africa at Rise to Peace and is based in Washington, D.C. He has spent extensive time in multiple regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Most recently, in Anglophone Cameroon. Connect with him on Twitter @maxbone55