Cameroon Holds Legislative Vote While Crisis Continues Unabated

(Bloomberg) --

Separatist militias have stepped up attacks and abductions in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions ahead of parliamentary and council elections likely to hand a sweeping victory to the party that has ruled the central African nation since 1985.

Anglophone armed groups last month called for a lock-down of the Southwest and Northwest regions and militants have targeted electoral staff and abducted at least 40 candidates running for parliamentary and municipal posts in polls on Sunday. Opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who was jailed for eight months last year, has withdrawn his party from the vote, saying it won’t be credible.

As many as 3,000 civilians are estimated to have died and hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes since the Anglophone revolt erupted late 2016 following a heavy-handed government crackdown on protests against the dominance of the French language in schools and courts. Cameroon is divided in 10 semi-autonomous regions and the English-speaking minority accounts for about a fifth of the population.

The ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement already holds 148 out of 180 seats in the National Assembly and is running unchallenged in about 20% of all races, according to the International Crisis Group. Sunday’s vote will almost certainly strengthen the grip of President Paul Biya over state institutions, ICG Central Africa Director Richard Moncrieff said by phone from Nairobi.

Special Status

Africa’s second-longest serving head of state, Biya, who turns 87 next week, has been accused of allowing the crisis to spiral out of control by ignoring it in its early stages. Last year, he initiated a national dialogue that led to a bill granting the Anglophone regions special status, which means their assemblies are to be consulted by the central government over educational policy as well as the application of common law.

Yet most separatist leaders were either in prison or abroad when the dialogue started in September, fueling widespread skepticism about its purpose.

“For the special status given to the Anglophones to come into force, elections must take place,” said Fuh Calistus Gentry, a ruling-party member.

The decision to grant greater autonomy to the Anglophone regions won’t have much of an impact if the population is too scared to vote, said Kah Walla, head of the opposition Cameroon People’s Party.

“Those to be elected in parliament and in the councils will have very little powers in the Northwest and Southwest regions because they will have very little legitimacy,” Kalla said.

Oil-dependent Cameroon is a key hub in central Africa, with roads and ports that are vital for landlocked neighbors including Chad and Central African Republic. The revolt has also slashed output of palm oil and other agricultural export crops, which are mainly grown in the Southwest and Northwest.

The government has postponed the vote twice since September 2018, citing logistical and security concerns. Voter turnout during 2018 presidential elections was as low as 5% in the Northwest region, compared to 53% in the rest of the country. To provide better security, the government this month deployed additional troops in the restive regions and grouped voting centers together.

Biya’s decision to push ahead with the elections appears to be motivated by a desire to “present some form of normality” as the U.S. and the African Union have increased pressure on his government to solve the crisis, Moncrieff said.

“Instead, the vote risks reinforcing the separatists’ argument that they’re being marginalized,” he said.

The U.S. cut $17 million in military aid to Cameroon last year and said in December it planned to terminate the government’s eligibility for trade preference benefits due to reports of “persistent human-rights violations” by security forces. About 300 U.S. troops are stationed in the country to monitor Islamist militant insurgencies in the region.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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