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Cameroon: Rebels beef up tactics to block regional elections

January 25, 2020

English-speaking separatists have been trying to stop elections from taking place in Cameroon's Anglophone regions next month. DW examines the rebels' intimidation tactics and looks at whether they are likely to succeed.

A man waving the flag of 'Ambazonia'
Image: Imago-Imago/C. Spicker

Armed separatist rebels in Cameroon burned down an electoral office earlier this month in an attempt to thwart elections scheduled to take place on February 9. They also kidnapped and attacked candidates, and announced a lockdown during the campaign period. 

The English-speaking separatists — who say they are treated like second-class citizens by the French-speaking majority in the former  French and British colony — have been waging a insurrection to carve out an independent state they call Ambazonia. 

The self-proclaimed Ambazonia Governing Council, which represents some separatist groups in the West African nation, in late December outlawed people discussing the election and candidates campaigning for votes. 

The council also threatened to impose a total lockdown in Cameroon's conflict-ridden Anglophone southwest and northwest regions during the vote.

Increased attacks

The Ambazonia Defence Force (ADF), often considered the military arm of the governing council, said it would restrict people's movement between February 7-12.

"On these days, anyone seen anywhere outside in our towns and villages will be considered an enemy and treated as such," the news portal Journal du Cameroun reported, citing an ADF communique. "The information is released at this point to enable the civilian population take appropriate measures to stay safe." 

The communique restated that the 2020 municipal and legislative elections would not take place in the two English-speaking regions, the online portal reported. 

Map showing Cameroon's predominantly English-speaking and French-speaking regions

Read more: Cameroon: Anglophone's special status – too little, too late?

Attacking political candidates

Rebels kidnapped some 40 parliamentary and municipal candidates in the northwest region in December. They said the hostages would remain in their keeping until after February's election.

On top of this, there have been reports of increased attacks on those who express an interest in taking part in the upcoming elections, according to the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR).

Fighters, thought to be separatists, also burned down an election office in the northwest region on January 7.

The separatists' scare tactics have caused several candidates in the conflict regions, mostly from the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), to withdraw their candidacies, reported the Journal du Cameroon.

Read more: Cameroon: Kids bear the brunt as armed conflict continues

Affecting the vulnerable

The threats extend to those involved in delivering much needed humanitarian aid in the two regions. Nearly 680,000 English-speakers have fled their homes in the conflict and others are suffering after a series of lockdowns in 2019 slashed commercial activity.

The rebels have told humanitarian organizations to suspend all activities in the northwest and southwest during the election lockdown, according to a briefing by ACAPS, an independent group providing humanitarian needs analysis. 

This will make it difficult to get aid to the "displaced and vulnerable populations" in the regions around election day, ACAPS said.

Read more: Cameroon: Separatist leader and followers handed life sentences

The separatist movement has spread around the world, with members of Cameroon's Anglophone minority also holding demonstrations in major cities like Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/ZumaPress

Safety more of an issue than voting

However, many of the English speakers, who make up about 20% of Cameroon's 7 million registered voters, are less concerned with the elections and "more concerned about their safely and whether they have something to eat," said DW reporter Blaise Eyong from the Southwest regional capital, Buea.

Cameroonian journalist and conflict negotiator Tah Javis, who also lives in the southwest region, echoed this sentiment.

"The majority of people I have spoken with for my reporting [say] elections are not the priority. Saving lives and stabilization of the situation are a priority," he told DW.

Tah Javis added that he plans to vote on February 9 but will have to see on the day if it's safe enough to do so.

"If the government wants to move on with an election," Tah stressed, "they need to ensure I can vote. If we have the opportunity, we should. But if you realize on the day that your life is on the line, then it's safety first!"

Read more: German lawmaker urges Merkel to pay more attention to Cameroon crisis

Government going ahead with polls

Cameroon last held parliamentary and local elections in 2013. New polls were due in 2018, but President Paul Biya twice postponed them because of the security situation.

Making his traditional New Year's address to the nation, Biya said he would increase security in the Anglophone regions to help ensure voter's safety. He also made a hardline promise that the military would carry out its duty "without weakness."

Some 700 additional troops have since been deployed to the regions.

"According to some government officials, the situation [in the Anglophone regions] is now less dangerous that it was for the presidential elections that took place in October 2019," said Paul-Simon Handy, senior advisor at the Institute for Security Studies, from Dakar.

Special status

Overall, Handy added, he expects a low voter turnout in the Anglophone regions as many people have fled, and those that remain are intimidated.

He did sound a positive note, however. 

"People might be encouraged by the fact that there have been some institutional reforms," he said, referring to a bill which passed in late December granting the two Anglophone regions "special status."

This special status for the establishment new regional assemblies with semi-adminstrative responsibilities that will theoretically give municipal leaders greater say over local affairs.

"Political ownership will certainly increase after the elections because elected officials will have more power to manage budgets, for example," the political analyst said.

"So this is something that can boost morale in the regions and send more people to polling stations."

Separatist violence in Cameroon

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