Crisis? What Crisis?
On Sunday Cameroon will hold presidential elections against a backdrop of ongoing separatist violence in the south-west of the country and militant attacks in the north. Incumbent Paul Biya is seeking a seventh straight term in office, despite concerns about the 85-year-old’s health and criticism that he spends much of his time running the country from a five-star hotel in Geneva. He faces seven other challengers, but few observers are predicting anything other than a landslide victory for the incumbent.
During a recent campaign rally in Maroua in the Far North region, Biya claimed to have pushed Boko Haram (BH) militants back across the border into Nigeria and told supporters that he needed another term to rebuild the affected areas. While there has been a reduction in violence in the region, a few days after the rally five civilians were killed in a twin suicide bombing in Kolofata, an attack which appears to have been carried out by BH. Around 150 people, including eight soldiers, have died in BH-linked violence in 2018 compared to 240 throughout the previous year. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has made similar declarations of victory against BH despite continued violence in the north-western states which border Cameroon. Militants also killed six Chadian officials on the banks of Lake Chad – which extends into Cameroon - last Friday.
Meanwhile, the security forces have been accused of committing serious human rights abuses, including the execution of two women and two young children by men in military uniforms. A video of the incident began circulating in July, which the Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma Bakary initially dismissed as “fake news” before stating that seven members of the military were under investigation. Amnesty International interviewed local residents who claimed to have witnessed the women being led away before hearing gunshots, while last month the BBC published an investigation into the incident, during which they claimed the execution took place in the village of Krawa Mafa near the border with Nigeria between March and April 2015. They also identified several of the gunmen in the video, including Cyriaque Bityala who also appeared on the list of suspects issued by the government. In response, Bakary said the seven men were being held in prison awaiting trial.
The more immediate threat facing the Cameroonian government is the ongoing insurgency in the Anglophone regions, which we reported on back in April. At least 400 people have been killed in violence in the English-speaking North-West and South-West regions this year, while tens of thousands have been forced to flee the violence. Many more have left their homes in recent weeks due to fears of election-related violence and curfews have been imposed to prevent people from gathering in groups of more than four. Last month Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Samira Daoud said: “The situation in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon is becoming increasingly desperate with no one spared from the violence which is spiralling out of control.” That statement came after footage emerged of separatists from the Ambazonia Liberation Forces holding the decapitated head of a gendarme. Kidnappings in the region continue to be reported, while attacks perpetrated by both the separatist and the security forces often result in civilian casualties.
So far Biya’s government has offered very little in terms of solutions to the separatist threat, focusing on the military campaign instead of addressing the underlying economic and political factors behind it. Almost 50 percent of the Cameroonian population lives below the poverty line, a figure which increases in the south-west, and corruption is widespread (the 2017 Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International placed Cameroon 153 out of 180 countries). In this context, many would have expected that the elections would have been delayed, particularly as the vote will further exacerbate tensions in the Anglophone regions. Due to the threat of violence against polling stations, the turnout in the North-West and South-West is likely to be extremely low and politicians are afraid to campaign. Kah Walla from the Cameroon People’s Party said they were not putting forward any candidates due to threats from separatists. Biya’s re-election, which will be based on votes from the eight French-speaking regions, will only increase the sense of marginalisation among the Anglophone population and exacerbate the divides which are fuelling the conflict.