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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Cameroon votes in presidential polls as conflict rages

The vote follows a last-minute opposition unity bid to dislodge the 85-year-old incumbent, one of Africa's longest-serving rulers.

Cameroon's Incumbent President Paul Biya, of the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement party, casts his vote during the Presidential elections in Yaounde, Cameroon. AP 
Cameroon's Incumbent President Paul Biya, of the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement party, casts his vote during the Presidential elections in Yaounde, Cameroon. AP 

Cameroonians are voting in crunch presidential polls on Sunday, with octogenarian leader Paul Biya seeking a seventh term against a backdrop of unprecedented 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 the other opposition parties to create a "super-coalition" to deny Biya another seven years, were apparently fruitless.

In the Bastos public school in the capital Yaounde, where Biya will later cast his vote, voting was brisk throughout the morning.

"I feel proud," said Patrick, 38, an airport worker after voting. "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."

Voters in the queue were surrounded by a heavy security presence including members of the presidential guard, deployed ahead of Biya's arrival.

Cameroon's 6.5 million eligible voters are casting their ballots as violence rages in the anglophone southwest and northwest, which have been rocked by a separatist insurgency launched a year ago against the mainly francophone state.

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.

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.

And in Buea, capital of the southwest, three separatists of the so-called Ambazonia Republic were gunned down on Friday while 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 efforts by the US to equip and train Cameroon's military to battle the jihadists.

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Read more:

Cameroon rebels outgunned in increasingly violent separatist campaign

Bitter linguistic divide is pushing Cameroon over the edge

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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.

It is the first tactical tie-up since John Fru Ndi stood as the sole opposition candidate in 1992 in polls that his supporters say he won, but allege were manipulated to hand victory to Biya.

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.

But 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 invisible during the campaign, except for a single event last weekend.

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.

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 Communication 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 cast ballots, which could favour Biya as anglophones have traditionally backed the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party of candidate Joshua Osih.

Results must be posted within 15 calendar days of the poll