Cameroon voted Sunday in polls overshadowed by a partial opposition boycott and separatist violence that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Elections for the central African country’s legislature and local councils are taking place for the first time in seven years, after two postponements.
They are unlikely to ruffle the enduring rule of President Paul Biya, one of the world’s oldest and longest-serving leaders, who has held a tight grip on power for 37 of his 86 years.
As voting began large numbers of police and soldiers were seen deployed on the streets of Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region, one of two provinces gripped by bloody separatist violence.
But the polling stations in the city were almost deserted an hour after they opened at 8am (0700 GMT).
The main opposition party, the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) is refusing to field a single candidate.
The boycott will all but guarantee a crushing victory for the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC in its French initials), which in the outgoing legislature had 148 out of 180 seats.
The other large opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), which currently has 18 seats, will take part in Sunday’s vote, going back on a threat to snub it.
In the capital Yaounde, it appeared that enthusiasm for the vote was subdued, with no crowds outside polling stations as they opened in the district of Briqueterie.
“I want to do my duty as a citizen,” said Abdias Lah, one of the few voters to cast an early ballot.
– ‘Spiral of violence’ –
Cameroon is struggling with two conflicts.
In the two English-speaking regions — the southwest and northwest — the armed forces are battling separatists who want to secede from the majority French-speaking country.
The 28-month conflict has claimed more than 3,000 lives and caused more than 700,000 people to flee, according to tolls compiled by NGOs.
Amnesty International said there has been a “surge in violence” by the Cameroon military in the weeks leading up to the vote, resulting in killings and the displacement of thousands in the English-speaking regions.
“In recent weeks, brutal military operations have been conducted while crimes committed by armed separatists continue unabated. Civilians are finding themselves trapped in a spiral of violence,” said Fabien Offner, Amnesty’s Lake Chad Researcher.
The SDF traditionally draws much of its support from the anglophone regions but now fears that it has been outflanked by the radicals — and says its candidates there have come under attack.
Similar worries are being voiced for the safety of polling stations in Cameroon’s Far North region, which has been battered by Boko Haram jihadists crossing from Nigeria.
The government on Friday announced that all of Cameroon’s borders would be closed until Monday, and shops and drink outlets had to close on polling day.
– City power – MRC leader, Maurice Kamto, spent nine months in jail after his defeat in 2018 presidential elections and is now abroad.
“We could have had a few seats in parliament and some town councillors, but how would that enable us to influence events in Cameroon?” Kamto said in an interview with AFP in Paris last month.
Given the seemingly inevitable outcome of legislative vote, most media attention has focused on the municipal elections that are also taking place.
Some cities, including Douala, the country’s economic hub, could swing to the opposition, according to some forecasts.
City chiefs are to gain powers under measures taken in December to decentralise some authority out of Yaounde.
The reforms have been triggered by the anglophone crisis although they fall far short of meeting the separatists’ demands.
“The stakes (on Sunday) are local,” said Stephane Akoa, a researcher at the Paul Ango Ela think tank in Yaounde.
Suspected Boko Haram jihadists attacked a village in northern Cameroon early Tuesday, torching homes and killing two civilians just days before legislative and municipal elections, security sources said.
“Boko Haram made an incursion a little before 2:00 am in Mozogo village,” in the Extreme-Nord province “killing two people,” a police officer told AFP.
They torched about 20 homes and two motorbikes and stole another five motorcycles, the officer said.
An army officer confirmed the incident.
Security has been tightened in Cameroon ahead of Sunday’s elections. Anglophone separatists are fighting government troops in western Cameroon while the north of the country has come under attack from Boko Haram.
Based in neighbouring Nigeria, Boko Haram has stepped up attacks from bases hidden in the vast Lake Chad area, where the borders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria converge.
Cameroon says the group has carried out nearly 13,000 attacks on its territory since 2014, with the loss of “several thousand” lives.
The insurgency has forced more than 250,000 people to flee their homes and triggered an influx of 60,000 people from Nigeria.
Boko Haram was formed in Nigeria but attacks have spread to neighbouring countries. The group has also split and a faction affiliated with the Islamic State group, ISWAP, is particularly active around Lake Chad.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has said that there are about 218,000 Nigeria refugees in Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic.
Addressing a news conference in Abuja on Wednesday, the UNHCR country representative, Mr Anthonio Canhandula, urged the Federal Government to create conditions that would facilitate the return of the refugees to the country.
Mr Canhandula added that Nigeria is currently housing 46,000 refugees from Cameroon, which is spread across Benue, Cross River and Taraba States.
He also noted that only 1.2 million of the 1.8 million accessible Internally Displaced Persons are receiving assistance – a situation which he believes requires urgent attention.
The 65-year-old Kamto was jailed in January after his party staged several peaceful marches challenging that result.
Released in October, he has since tried three times to hold marches but was denied permission each time.
The West African country was for years considered relatively stable, but it has been shaken by a two-year-old separatist uprising in the west as well as attacks by the jihadist group Boko Haram in the north.
Biya, under international pressure, held a national peace dialogue last month during which he announced the release of 333 detainees linked to the separatist crisis.
He also ordered the release of 102 opposition activists arrested in 2018 during protests over his re-election.
Contacted by AFP, MRC general secretary Christopher Ndong said the party needed time to evaluate the news of fresh elections before responding.
“We have asked that certain preconditions be met, such as the revision of the electoral code,” he said.
The main opposition party in parliament is still the Social Democratic Front (SDF), even though its candidate in last year’s presidential election garnered only 3.35 percent of the vote, coming in fourth.
Contacted by AFP, the party was not immediately willing to say whether it would take part in next year’s elections.
Late last month, Washington announced it was stripping Cameroon of its preferential trade status because of its poor rights record.
The United States will end certain preferential trade benefits for Cameroon in January due to the country’s poor human rights record, officials said on Thursday.
Under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000, legislation aimed at boosting sub-Saharan economies, countries must avoid serious human rights violations to win preferential access to US markets.
“The US government remains deeply concerned about persistent gross violations of human rights being committed by the Cameroonian government against its own citizens,” Deputy US Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney said in a statement.
The US State Department earlier this year said the conflict in western regions of the country between Cameroonian security forces and Anglophone separatists had involved arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances, and torture by both sides.
The department also accused Cameroonian authorities of violence against journalists, refoulement of refugees, restrictions on internet access and failure to prevent or prosecute instances of “corrective” rape against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, among other abuses.
Cameroonian strongman Paul Biya has been in power for 37 years.
The United States imported $220 million in Cameroonian goods last year, making the country the 112th-largest source of American merchandise imports, according to the US Trade Representative’s office.
Imports included mineral fuels, lumber, cocoa, and rubber.
US exports to Cameroon last year amounted to $193 million, including machinery, iron and steel, plastics and railway equipment.
Cameroon’s main opposition leader Maurice Kamto walked free from jail Saturday after a military court ordered his release at the behest of veteran President Paul Biya.
The surprise conciliatory gesture comes as the president is facing a number of domestic crises and international criticism over political freedoms.
“We are here today thanks to your constant support,” Kamto, who had spent nine months behind bars, told hundreds of supporters who gathered to greet him.
“I saw you even when you couldn’t see me.”
He announced a “new chapter in our struggle”, adding that “if some people think that our liberation means the end of our struggle they have understood nothing”.
The struggle would be “peaceful”, he said before being driven away surrounded by a dozen-strong escort of klaxon-blaring vehicles.
Kamto, 65, was arrested in late January after months of peaceful opposition protests over the results of the October 2018 election.
He went on trial with dozens of others in a military court in September on charges of insurrection, hostility to the motherland and rebellion — crimes which could be given the death penalty, though this is no longer carried out in Cameroon.
Biya, 86, has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist for nearly 37 years.
On Friday he announced he had ordered prosecutions to be dropped against “some” opposition leaders, including a number from the main Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) which Kamto leads.
More than 100 people in detention are also now set for release “if they have not been detained for anything else”, the military court said.
They include Biya’s former economic advisor Christian Penda Ekoka, lawyer Michele Ndoki and rapper Valsero, well known for songs critical of the ruling establishment.
Amnesty International called Biya’s decision “a welcome step towards ending the long repression of dissenting voices in Cameroon”.
But the organisation also called on authorities to “go further by releasing all other individuals arbitrarily detained for having exercised their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
As the opposition leader arrived at his home in a residential neighbourhood of Yaounde following his release, he was met by dozens of cheering, dancing young people.
“Maurice Kamto, save us,” the crowd chanted.
Most of those gathered were under 30 and — like around 75 percent of the population — would not have known another leader than Biya.
“We are tired of this system that has been in place for 37 years,” said one protester, Abraham. “We want alternance in power. We want a new momentum for our country.”
‘Crises and conflicts’
Biya’s shock announcement Friday came on the closing day of crunch talks aimed at easing a bloody crisis in Cameroon’s anglophone regions, which were shunned by the main separatist leaders.
The talks also ended with a proposal to give more autonomy to the English-speaking regions, where a two-year armed campaign for independence has been met with a brutal crackdown and cost nearly 3,000 lives, according to the International Crisis Group.
In addition, Biya had Thursday announced the shelving of an investigation and the release of 333 people detained during the crisis.
The two areas in western Cameroon — the Northwest Region and Southwest Region — are home to most of the country’s anglophones, who account for about a fifth of a population that is overwhelmingly French-speaking.
A presidential statement Saturday said that “the head of state reaffirms his determination to pursue relentlessly his efforts seeking ways and means to resolve peaceably the crises and conflicts confronting our country”.
The apparent seachange in Biya’s approach comes after months of intransigence and follows international pressure.
Washington indicated in March that Yaounde would do well to free Kamto — a sentiment repeated since by the European Union and also France.
“The president is well aware that Cameroon is at a crossroads as it is dealing with important crises,” Richard Makon, an expert on Cameroon politics, told AFP.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement on Saturday that he “encourages the Cameroonian authorities to continue to adopt further confidence-building and reconciliation measures”.
A Cameroonian military court Saturday ordered the release of main opposition leader Maurice Kato who has been imprisoned for nine months, after a series of conciliatory gestures by veteran ruler Paul Biya.
The court said Kamto and 101 others summoned could be released “if they have not been detained for anything else”. Kamto’s lawyer Sylvain Souop added: “We note the release of our clients who should not have been in prison. Maurice Kamto is free.”
Biya on Friday announced he had ordered prosecutions to be dropped against “some” opposition leaders, including a number from the main Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) led by his jailed rival Kamto.