Cameroon’s restive anglophone regions were in lockdown on Monday as separatists prepared to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a symbolic “independence” declaration just a week before nationwide presidential polls.
A 48-hour curfew was imposed on English-speaking towns in the regions which have been rocked by deadly clashes sparked by the majority francophone country’s sensitive linguistic divide.
Gunfire was reported on Sunday night in the flashpoint town of Buea in the country’s southwest which has been at the heart of the nascent insurgency.
In other English-speaking areas, shops and bars were ordered to close, meetings of more than four people were banned and transport was suspended.
On October 1, 2017 at least 40 pro-anglophone protesters were killed by police according to analysts at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank which said that “tens of thousands of demonstrators” took to the streets.
The worst-affected towns — Buea, and Bamenda the capital of the northwest region — were flooded with security forces who arrested dozens of suspects following a symbolic “independence” declaration.
“The army killed lots of people on October 1. For nearly two weeks they shot at people like they were birds,” said the bishop of Buea, Emmanuel Bushu, at the time.
The flag of the self-styled Republic of Ambazonia replaced the Cameroonian colours in a number of villages in the anglophone region with separatist fighters vowing to make the switch permanent.
The conflict continues unabated one year on. Cameroonian security forces are deployed to the region in massive numbers and the strength of the secessionists has grown exponentially.
There are now more than 1,000 separatist fighters, according to the ICG, who control “a significant proportion of rural areas and main roads” in the anglophone region.
– Attacks on polling stations? –
A spike in attacks on symbols of the Cameroonian state including killings of police and kidnappings of civil servants has forced functionaries in several areas to flee.
By comparison, not one official has fled the country’s far north despite repeated attacks by the Nigeria-based jihadist group Boko Haram since 2014.
Yaounde said in September that it wanted to return officials who had abandoned their posts “because of insecurity” in anglophone areas.
But a week before Cameroonians head to the ballot box, anglophone separatists vow that there will be no election in their areas next Sunday.
Cameroonian officials responded by insisting that polling would be held in all “360 of the country’s districts”.
The anglophone regions have historically been a reliable pool of votes for the main opposition Social democratic front (SDF) party — an anglophone force.
In an effort to limit the risk of attacks on polling stations, the Elecam electoral commission will relocate a number of voting centres.
Voters from the anglophone regions already face obstacles in casting their ballots as the UN estimates that 246,000 people have fled their homes in the southwest for other parts of Cameroon.
More than 25,000 others are refugees in neighbouring Nigeria.
– Spreading ‘trouble’ –
There are no figures for the scale of the displacement in the northwest region and daily clashes alongside official restrictions complicate the work of humanitarian organisations and journalists.
The security forces who have been drafted in to battle what President Paul Biya describes as a “secessionist movement” spreading “trouble” have suffered 170 fatalities since 2017 at the hands of the separatists.
At least 400 civilians have also lost their lives according to NGOs while no estimate exists for the separatist death toll.
As polling day has drawn closer the situation has deteriorated with the start of the new school year disrupted at the beginning of September.
At least one teacher has been killed, another maimed and several schools have come under attack.
Buea has been on the frontline of clashes between separatist fighters and the security forces.
Last week several civilians were killed by the military, according to witnesses including a taxi driver and a shop-keeper who were themselves subsequently killed, according to local sources, taking the toll to eight.
An indefinite nighttime curfew remains in force in the northwest following an attack on a convoy of buses in a suburb of Bamenda at the beginning of September.