A surge of violence in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions threatens to derail the West African nation’s parliamentary election on Sunday, as militant separatists kidnap scores of candidates and warn civilians not to vote, observers say. At least 120 candidates have been abducted in the North West and South West regions over the past two weeks. Only about 60 of the candidates have been released, and the separatists on social media have indicated they will release the rest after the election.
Residents say suspected separatists have chopped off the fingers of at least 12 people caught with voter cards.
“They said I did not respect their injunction that no one should be found with the cards,” said Bunui Claudine, a resident of the southwestern town of Kumba who escaped to the city of Yaounde. She said she will not return until after the election “because I am not sure my security is assured.”
The threats by separatists come as Maurice Kamto, the opposition leader who claims he won the 2018 presidential election, has called for a boycott of Sunday’s elections, saying they will not be free or fair.
Unrest broke out in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in 2016, when teachers and lawyers protested the dominance of the French language and French-speaking officials. Rebels took up arms a year later, demanding a separate English-speaking state. Their conflict with Cameroon’s military has killed about 3,000 people, many of them villagers caught up in the fighting.
Several offices of Cameroon’s election management body have been burned in the English-speaking regions lately, with separatists claiming responsibility. Civilians who flee as separatists clash with the military say the government is not able to protect them.
Cameroon’s government, however, says the election must go ahead despite the threats and calls by some opposition parties for a boycott.
“We shall crush any fighter and arrest any political leader who tramples on the rights of people to make their political choices,” Paul Atanga Nji, Cameroon minister of territorial administration, said Friday.
“The fighters still have an opportunity to surrender, drop their guns and be pardoned or be killed,” he said.
The chairman of the electoral commission, Enow Abrams Egbe, said the destruction of electoral materials by separatists hasn’t discouraged preparations for the vote.
“In fact, we have dispatched over 98% of the election material and the military is keeping watch,” Egbe said.
Opposition leader Kamto and hundreds of party members were arrested in early 2019 after taking part in peaceful protests over alleged irregularities in the election that saw President Paul Biya easily win a seventh term. Official results said Kamto finished a distant second. He and the others were released later in 2019 as part of a national dialogue to restore peace.
Kah Walla, president of the Cameroon People’s Party, also called for a boycott of the vote.
“We cannot have citizens who are dying in the English-speaking regions and we just continue on and go to the elections,” she said.
Some other opposition parties, however, argue that the vote will enable them enact laws to help solve the country’s crisis.
Amnesty International has blamed Cameroon’s military for the escalating violence. It said this week it has documented a pattern of unlawful killings by the army in the English-speaking regions since armed separatists announced Dec. 23 they would challenge Sunday’s election.
“The security measures and increased military presence announced by the Cameroonian government to ensure this weekend’s vote can take place appear to have been a pretext for a much more sinister operation,” said Fabien Offner, a researcher with the human rights group.
Civilians are trapped in a spiral of violence, the rights group said.
Francois Lounceny Fall, representative of the U.N. secretary-general in central Africa, said Cameroonians should support their government and make the election a success.