Separatist drive overshadows Biya's bid to extend Cameroon rule

By PIUS LUKONG | Bloomberg | Published: October 6, 2018

Cameroon President Paul Biya's bid to extend his 36-year rule in Sunday's election is being overshadowed by growing frustration over his handling of a bloody separatist insurgency in the country's two Anglophone regions.

Africa's second-longest serving head of state, Biya, 85, is facing eight candidates in the election that's unlikely to draw voters fearing violence in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions. Advocacy groups including the International Crisis Group say at least 400 civilians have died amid a clampdown by the security forces, while insurgents have posted videos of torture and beheadings of military and police officers on social media.

"In a more peaceful climate, the election could have offered Cameroon the political renewal it needs," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report Wednesday. "As things stand, it risks further polarizing society."

Oil-dependent Cameroon is increasingly a key regional and agricultural hub, with roads and ports that are vital for landlocked neighbors including Chad and Central African Republic. It's also a major cocoa and palm-oil producer.

Unrest that began in late 2016 with peaceful protests by teachers and lawyers against the dominance of the French language in schools and courts in the English-speaking regions has morphed into conflict. Residents are trapped between the army and violent gangs that target those who don't support separatism.

The separatist conflict came on the heels of a spate of suicide bombings by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Far North region, which prompted thousands of Cameroonians to flee to neighboring Nigeria.

The only country in Africa with both English and French as official languages, Cameroon was split after World War I into a French-run zone and a smaller British-controlled area. They were unified in 1961, but the English-speaking minority, about a fifth of the population, has complained of marginalization for decades.

Apart from a timid rally by the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement that took place under tight security, candidates have stayed away from the Anglophone regions and confined their campaigns to the eight French-speaking regions.

Almost all shops and schools in the area closed last week, with most residents planning to remain indoors until after the vote.

"The streets here are only occupied by the military who continue to shoot at random to preempt any demonstrations," said Sylvester Asong, who lives in the city of Kumba in the Southwest.

Biya often spends weeks at the time in a luxury hotel in Geneva for "private visits," rules by decree and has convened only one cabinet meeting this year, the first since 2015. In his campaign for a new seven-year term, which was mainly conducted on Twitter, he appealed to young voters by promising to "modernize the country" and spend more money on secondary education.

Despite Biya's absenteeism, Cameroon's opposition has never been able to effectively unite and unseat him in elections. The closest the opposition came to defeating Biya was in the country's first democratic elections in 1992, when the Anglophone politician John Fru Ndi won more than a third of ballots cast.

Opposition candidates allege that the electoral commission, which is mainly staffed with ruling party representatives, is biased, as is the Constitutional Court, whose members Biya appointed.

"I feel sorry for some of these opposition candidates, who are wasting their precious time combing the corners of the country when they know all has been put in place for Paul Biya to win," said Jean Marie Mainsah, a resident of the trading town of Bafoussam, about 180 miles northwest of the capital, Yaounde.

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