, Yaoundé, Cameroon, Oct 7 – Cameroonians voted in presidential polls on Sunday with octogenarian leader Paul Biya seeking a seventh term against a backdrop of deadly violence in the country’s English-speaking regions.
The vote follows a last-minute opposition unity bid to dislodge the 85-year-old incumbent, one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers.
Two leading opponents have formed the first electoral union since 1992, but talks between various other opposition parties to create a “super-coalition” to deny Biya another seven years were apparently fruitless.
Biya and his wife Chantal, who wore a matching canary yellow skirt, jacket and handbag along with her signature brown bouffant hair, voted in the Bastos public school in the capital Yaounde surrounded by heavily-armed soldiers.
“The election campaign was conducted peacefully… as president, it would be satisfying to be reelected to see that the people trust me,” he told journalists as he left the voting booth and returned to his Mercedes-Maybach limousine.
“I feel proud,” said Patrick, 38, an airport worker who also voted in Bastos.
“I want the next president to consolidate what we have achieved in Cameroon. I want the elections to pass off peacefully, that’s my only hope for the polls.”
Cameroon’s 6.5 million eligible voters are casting their ballots as violence rages in the anglophone southwest and northwest.
Those regions have been rocked by a separatist insurgency launched a year ago against the mainly francophone state.
The violence has killed 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.
After voting got underway on Sunday, security forces shot dead three suspected separatists who had allegedly been firing at passersby from a motorcycle in Bamenda, the main city in the northwest region, a local official said.
In Buea, capital of the southwest, three separatists of the so-called Ambazonia Republic were gunned down on Friday and a priest was executed by soldiers on Thursday, according to witnesses.
The far north is also mired in insecurity, as Nigeria-based Boko Haram fighters mount attacks despite US efforts to equip and train Cameroon’s military to battle the jihadists.
– ‘Massive fraud’? –
In a rare coordinated political manoeuvre, a key opposition frontrunner, Maurice Kamto, agreed late Friday to a unity deal between his Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) and the People’s Development Front (FDP), meaning he will stand for both parties.
However it is unclear whether the eleventh-hour deal will sway the vote, which runs until 1700 GMT Sunday.
“This alliance, though interesting for the vitality of Cameroonian democracy, may have arrived too late,” said Hans de Marie Heungoup, an ICG researcher.
Kamto’s MRC has warned that a “massive fraud” is underway to secure a Biya win.
“We’re not preparing for war, but wherever there is fraud, there will be a firm response,” said MRC spokesman Paul-Eric Kingue.
The government hit back, apparently in response to the MRC, saying that it would “not tolerate any disorder before, during or after the presidential vote”.
The opposition has long accused the authorities of supporting Biya.
But despite the ubiquity of Biya’s posters, he has been virtually absent from the campaign trail, except for a single event last weekend.
– Travel lock-down –
It is unclear if polling will proceed normally across Cameroon’s English-speaking regions, where separatists hold a “significant” amount of territory, according to the ICG, and have threatened to disrupt the vote.
A team of election officials received a military escort as they travelled to the outskirts of Buea on Sunday, according to AFP journalists.
The government said it was possible there were “troublemakers” in the anglophone regions.
“But the vast majority of residents are ready and willing to vote,” said Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary.
Authorities have imposed a raft of security measures including a ban on inter-regional travel and sealing the borders.
A total of 246,000 people have fled their homes in the southwest and 25,000 have left the country altogether for Nigeria, according to UN figures.
It is thought that the displaced will struggle to vote, which could favour Biya as anglophones have traditionally backed the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party of rival candidate Joshua Osih.
Results must be posted within 15 calendar days of the poll.[cresta-social-share]