Cameroon’s restive anglophone regions were in lockdown on Monday as separatists marked the first anniversary of a symbolic “independence” declaration just a week before a nationwide presidential poll.
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 Monday in three built-up areas of flashpoint town Buea in the country’s southwest which has been at the heart of the nascent insurgency.
“There’s no one on the streets, they’re empty except for patrolling soldiers,” a witness told AFP.
“Everything is closed,” added a retailer reached by phone who did not open his business on Monday.
A senior military officer told AFP that “security was reinforced” ahead of the anniversary.
President Paul Biya, who has previously dismissed the separatist violence as mere “trouble”, is expected to visit Buea on Tuesday, according to sources briefed on the visit.
It will be only his second election campaign event ahead of polls on Sunday at which the 85-year-old will seek a seventh term.
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,” the bishop of Buea, Emmanuel Bushu, said 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.
There are now more than 1 000 separatist fighters, according to the ICG, who control “a significant proportion of rural areas and main roads”.
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.
The anglophone separatists have vowed that there will be no election in their areas on 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.
Call for ‘immediate’ probe
There are no figures for the scale of the displacement in the northwest region.
Security forces 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.
The UN’s special advisor for genocide prevention Adama Dieng called for an “immediate” investigation into the violence in an interview with the BBC published Monday.
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.
Last week several civilians were killed in Buea by the military, with witnesses to that violence including a taxi driver and a shopkeeper 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.