Polls opened Sunday in Cameroon as Africa’s oldest leader is widely expected to win another term even as separatists threaten to disrupt the election and many who have fled the unrest are unable to vote.
The country’s 85-year-old president, Paul Biya, is running for a seventh term in the central African country where anglophone rebels have been fighting for secession from the francophone majority, prompting a fierce crackdown by government forces.
A victory likely would come with a weakened mandate for Biya as many residents of the troubled English-speaking Southwest and Northwest regions have fled elsewhere. By law, voters can only cast a ballot in the community where they are registered.
More than 200,000 people have been displaced because of violence by both separatists and the military in those regions, with many towns simply abandoned.
The separatists had vowed that no political campaigns or elections would take place in their country, which they call “Ambazonia.” Only one political rally was held in Buea, but none of the candidates, including the incumbent president, dared to meet voters in the volatile region.
Most of people remaining in the regions’ largest towns, Bamenda and Buea, were too scared to go out to cast their votes. Gun battles went on for hours in parts of the two towns.
“We have been on the floor since the morning due to the gunshots. I felt like the bullets were passing all over my head. Now I know I cannot vote again,” said Allen Fru, an electrician in Bamenda
Polls closed at 1700 GMT after a mostly calm day of voting, but a drive by secessionists to disrupt the election meant not all polling stations were open in English-speaking regions, where voter turnout was low due to security fears.
Tallying the nationwide vote could take up to two weeks.
Election observers, including the African Union, have said they will not be carrying out their work in the troubled southwest and northwest because of the crisis.
The International Crisis Group had urged both sides to declare a ceasefire at least during the election week
Victory for Biya, 85, who has ruled for 36 years, would give him a seventh term. The only current African president to have ruled longer is Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
For the last two years violence has been escalating in the English speaking north-west and south-west regions of the country with reports of atrocities against civilians being carried out by the Cameroonian military as well as by separatist groups.
The violence has claimed the lives of at least 420 civilians, 175 members of the security forces and an unknown number of separatists, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.
Sunday’s elections is the 11th presidential election since Cameroon’s independence in 1960.