As Cameroon votes, thousands are silenced by violence

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Nine corpses left on the roadside after a gunfight made Honrne Waba flee her village in north-west Cameroon in May and hide in the bush.

When she learned weeks later her house was burned down with all her belongings inside, she decided to leave the region altogether.
“I felt scared, I had a broken heart and I said I had to leave,” Waba (40) told Reuters in Yaounde, where she has been staying since leaving Njinikom.

Waba is one ofthousands of Cameroonians displaced by a separatist insurgency in the English-speaking north-west and south-west regions who find themselves without a home and nowhere to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

Those still in Anglophone areas will struggle to reach a ballot box: armed separatist groups vow to stop the election, potentially silencing up to five million English-speaking voters in the majority French-speaking country of about 24 million.

The chaos in Anglophone opposition strongholds may help Cameroon’s 85-year-old President Paul Biya, expected to easily win a seventh term to extend his 36 years in office, aided in part by a weak opposition and a resigned population, many viewing elections as a means to rubber-stamp seven more years of Biya.

Victory would leave Biya as one of Africa’s last strongmen, vestige of a post-colonial era a wave of democracy has slowly eroded. During his tenure, neighbouring Nigeria had nine presidents; the only current African president to have ruled longer is Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

The level of neglect across Cameroon caused a “groundswell of discontent” directed at the president, said opposition candidate Akere Muna. If Anglophones cannot vote “the irony is secessionists may be helping Biya”.

In the Simbock neighbourhood of Yaounde, where small concrete houses creep haphazardly up one of the city’s many lush, steep hillsides, displaced Anglophones have more pressing concerns than the election.

Waba brought her voting card with her, but four days before the election she was not registered to vote in Yaounde and os unsure if it was even possible.

She is more worried about how to make ends meet as she cannot sow corn, beans and other vegetables at her farm home.
“We are not managing well in Yaounde. Food is expensive. I sleep on the floor now,” said Waba as she prepared a cloudy cow-skin broth over a charcoal stove. “I used to do my farming. I used to send my children to school.”

NOT ENOUGH ROOM

It is unclear how this hardship will play out at the ballot box.

Biya rules the cocoa- and oil-producing country essentially by decree. His popularity is largely unaffected by the long stretches he spends abroad in Swiss hotels with his fashion-conscious wife, Chantal, whose flamboyantly coiffed strawberry bouffant makes her instantly recognisable.

He is still considered by many as the “force of experience” touted by election campaign posters across the capital.

The Anglophone crisis is his gravest threat yet. What began as a peaceful movement in 2016 calling for broader recognition of Anglophone teachers and lawyers opened a deep wound in Cameroon.

Ten years after the French- and English-speaking regions joined together in 1961, the country was a federation in which the Anglophone regions had their own police, government and judicial system.

Since then, Anglophone autonomy declined and English speakers felt marginalised. Today, governors of the south-west and north-west are Francophone, as are prefects of most English-speaking districts.

A government crackdown on protests against marginalisation of Anglophones since 2016 has killed dozens, bolstering support for radical elements wanting secession.

Soldiers went into remote Anglophone villages, burning houses and killing residents, witnesses told Reuters. In retaliation, hundreds took up arms to form small militias, killing soldiers and gendarmes.

The military denies using excessive force and accuses separatists of terrorism.
“It is the separatists in this crisis who gained most prominence and not enough room is left for moderates,” said Simon Munzu, a former United Nations official who called for dialogue between the two sides.

YOU HEAR GUNSHOTS

Displaced Anglophones in Yaounde all agree about the life they fled: they are sick of the shooting.
“You can be walking along, you hear gunshots and you see people running. You get inside, you dive on the floor,” said 55-year-old Kum Rose, who left Bomaka in south-west, taking the bus with four children and seven grandchildren.

She managed to bring pots, charcoal and palm oil for cooking but the tiny room where she sleeps with her whole family in a rundown house in Yaounde is no substitute for home. Rose proudly showed her voting card, kept dry in a red holder, but admitted she had no idea where to register in Yaounde.

Musician Rawlings Fofeyen (23) left Bamenda two weeks ago. He said the Cameroonian military routinely picked up young men on the streets, suspecting them of being separatist fighters.

His money dried up when friends stopped coming to his studio. He felt he could no longer stay when he saw a dead body in his neighbourhood last month.
“I have some friends who left and who I never saw again,” he said.

Bamenda has gone quiet, he said. Public spaces and markets are empty.
“We used to be a happy people, very welcoming,” he said, holding back tears. “Now we don’t trust anybody.”