“Alarm bells are ringing” – Amnesty International
On Sunday October 7, the Cameroonian presidential elections were held, while gunshots rang out and thousands huddled in refugee camps. Paul Biya, the current president, ran for his 7th term term at 85 years old, and though the election results have not been determined yet, Cameroon’s oldest president is widely expected to win.
Biya’s posters for the presidential campaign show his wise, benevolent face smiling down upon his people. One cannot help but remember that while his country is being ripped apart and hundreds of thousands of his people are displaced, Biya spends most of his time living in the lap of luxury in Switzerland. Biya is currently the second longest serving president in the world – most of the Cameroonian population has only ever known one president.
These elections have arrived at a strange time for Cameroon: the country is currently facing a humanitarian crisis and a civil war with secessionist factions in the north-west and south-wests. Allegations of rigging and irregularities in the voting process have only heightened the country-wide tension.
17% of Cameroon’s population is English-speaking and this population can be found primarily in the north-west and south-west regions of the country. For decades, the Anglophone segment of the population has felt humiliated and disenfranchised by the majority Francophone government and in particular by Paul Biya’s administration. Access to public services is increasingly limited for members of the Anglophone population, and they have very little representation in government. Following a series of protests in 2016 that turned violent, a secessionist movement formed in the name of the self-declared state of Ambazonia. In September 2017, the Ambazonia Defence Council declared war on Cameroon, and thus began what is now referred to as the ‘Anglophone crisis’ in Cameroon.
As in many African countries, Cameroon’s current problems can be traced back to colonial times. During WW1, Cameroon – then called ‘Kamerun’ – was captured from Germany by the Allied forces and divided between France and Britain. In 1960, when Cameroon and Nigeria gained independence, the English-speaking parts of Cameroon held by the British were split between the two countries. English-speakers thus found themselves as part of a majority Francophone country with little shared history or experiences. This initial division has only deepened.
Paul Biya’s campaign slogan – “the force of experience” – rings both sinister and ironic. The experience he can offer is mostly corruption, and while Cameroon is extremely rich in natural resources, most of the population does not benefit from any of the economic benefits. The impetus of the Anglophone crisis can be traced directly to Biya’s concerted efforts to marginalise the Anglophone part of the country. After independence, the union of the Francophone and Anglophone Cameroonian states was a federation called the Federal Republic of Cameroon. But in 1984 Biya changed this federal system to a unitary one and changed the official name of the country to the Republic of Cameroon. He even changed the two stars on the flag representing the union of the Anglophone and Francophone states to one star. All of these things contributed to the feeling of marginalisation and the desire for independence held by many Anglophone Cameroonians.
In the Anglophone regions and the regions bordering them, schools and business have shut down. Villages are deserted as people flee for their lives. In the turmoil and chaos, it has become difficult to distinguish the secessionist rebels from the opportunists taking advantage of the situation to pillage and blackmail. To compound this confusion, the presence of Boko Haram in the northern regions of the country is a rising threat and an important cause of displacement.
So far, according to some estimates, 300,000 people have been displaced in Cameroon, with some 30,000 of those living in squalid refugee camps in neighbouring Nigeria. Countless others are sleeping in forests and in the countryside with no access to healthcare or sanitation and living in constant fear.
Cameroon’s economy has felt the effects of the Anglophone crisis sharply: the country has lost an estimate of 42 million USD in 2018 alone
45% of Cameroon’s cocoa is produced in the south-west, and 75% of Arabica coffee is produced in north-west. These crops are extremely important for the Cameroonian economy and a large proportion of the production has been affected as it takes place in the most troubled regions of the country.
It is in this context that Sunday’s election took place. Holding elections at this precarious time seems almost ridiculous. Especially when so many Cameroonians are unable to vote
due to displacement and injury caused by the conflicts between the secessionists and the government armed forces as well as Boko Haram’s presence in the north.
If anything, a victory by Biya will likely inflame the secessionists further. The secessionists vowed to boycott the elections, going as far as setting up control posts on roads and in towns to confiscate voter cards. Violence in Anglophone regions prevented some polling stations from being opened. At the time that this article was written, it was reported that at least three secessionist fighters and four members of the government forces had been killed while the voting took place. Voter turnout was low – citizens were discouraged by the threat of violence in the streets.
On top of this internal struggle, Boko Haram’s presence in the North of the country is to Biya’s advantage. Western countries and institutions like the UN are more willing to turn a blind eye for rulers involved in counter-terrorism efforts. As a result, few UN observers were present in Cameroon at the time of the election.
The people of Cameroon will have to wait to find out if Biya has been re-elected. Some perceive the elections as free and fair, others believe that Biya may be the best choice for the country despite his despotic rule. Most only wish for the violence to be brought to an end. Unfortunately, whatever the result of this election may be, peace in the near future seems an unlikely outcome.