Cameroon voted on Sunday in a presidential election marked by deadly violence in the country’s English-speaking regions and the cancellation of voting in at least one affected area over security fears.
Cameroon has been rocked by a separatist insurgency from within its anglophone minority, who number around five million, since last October with many thousands displaced which will affect turnout in English communities.
They accuse likely election winner President Paul Biya, 85, of oppression and are concentrated in the northwest and southwest of the majority-francophone country.
Polls closed at 1700 GMT and the final results must legally be announced within 15 days.
After voting got under way Sunday, security forces shot dead three suspected separatists who had allegedly fired 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 separatist movement were gunned down on Friday and a priest was executed by soldiers on Thursday, according to witnesses.
Gunfire was heard in the town throughout the day and a car belonging to the state-run Cameroon Tribune newspaper came under fire.
The army confirmed that voting could not be held in at least one district of the southwest, Lysoka village.
“This area is dangerous. It’s calm but it can erupt at any moment,” a police officer told AFP at the scene.
A heavily-armed convoy had attempted to deliver ballot boxes, signs and voting papers to the village but commanders decided it was too risky and withdrew.
Separatists hold a “significant” amount of territory, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank, and had threatened to disrupt the vote.
‘Satisfying to be reelected’
The violence in the anglophone regions has killed at least 420 civilians, 175 members of the security forces and an unknown number of separatists, according to the ICG.
Sunday’s vote, in which 6.5 million voters were eligible to cast ballots, followed a last-minute opposition unity bid to dislodge Biya, one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers.
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,” Biya told journalists as he left the voting booth and returned to his Mercedes-Maybach limousine.
Voter Ulrich, 26, said he wanted a president “who can keep the country peaceful” after casting his ballot at the same polling station as Biya.
The far north of the oil and rubber-producing country 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.
Tens of thousands have been displaced by that conflict, and 246,000 people have fled their homes in the southwest and 25,000 have left the country altogether for Nigeria, according to UN figures.
The sheer number of displaced people, who it is thought will have been unable to cast ballots because of hometown voting requirements, would likely depress turnout, analysts said.”As expected, turnout in the English regions has been particularly low with virtually all the returns we have seen suggesting less than five percent,” said ICG analyst Hans de Marie Heungoup.
Only a handful of voters cast ballots at a polling station in downtown Buea, according to the AFP team at the scene.
That could favour Biya’s bid for another seven- year term as anglophones have traditionally backed the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party of his rival Joshua Osih.
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 stood for both parties.
However it is unclear whether the eleventh-hour deal, which Osih and other opposition barons did not join, will have swayed the vote — especially as voters were still able to cast ballots for the FDP candidate.
Kamto’s MRC previously warned that a “massive fraud” was under way 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 saying that it would “not tolerate any disorder before, during or after the presidential vote”.
The opposition has long accused the authorities of giving unfair advantage to Biya who enjoys support from Washington and Paris.