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Troubled Cameroon holds its breath as separatists' anniversary looms

Attacks are occurring daily in the two regions that are home to this French-speaking country's anglophones, and many say they are afraid.

FILE: Cameroonian President Paul Biya. Picture: facebook.com

LIMBE - Cameroon is nervously awaiting the first anniversary on Monday of a declaration of independence by its English-speaking minority less than a week before the country plunges into presidential elections.

Attacks are occurring daily in the two regions that are home to this French-speaking country's anglophones, and many say they are afraid.

In the worst-affected areas, some people have fled with whatever possessions they can carry. Others say they rarely venture out of their homes, fearing separatists as well as the security forces.

On 1 October 2017, radicals declared the creation of the "Republic of Ambazonia," covering two English-speaking regions incorporated into francophone Cameroon in 1961.

The declaration went largely unnoticed outside Cameroon, and "Ambazonia" -- named after a bay at the mouth of the Douala River -- has been recognised by no-one.

But the move marked the start of a crisis that has cast a shadow over the 7 October elections, in which 85-year-old president Paul Biya, who has ruled the country for 35 years, is seeking a seventh straight term in office.

"The army killed lots of people on 1 October," Monsignor Emmanuel Bushu, bishop of the Buea, capital of Southwest Region, said at the time.

"For nearly two weeks, they shot at people like you shoot at birds."

MOUNTING TOLL

Biya's crackdown coincided with a surge of bloody attacks by the separatists, gunning down troops and police and burning schools and other perceived symbols of the Cameroonian state.

At least 400 civilians have been killed this year, according to the International Crisis Group think-tank. The government says 109 members of the security forces have been killed since the end of 2017.

Atrocities have been committed on both sides, according to watchdogs.

"The brutal attacks against ordinary people and security forces are further proof of the horrific escalation of violence," Amnesty International said on 19 September.

According to UN figures, 246,000 people in the Southwest Region have fled their homes, and 25,000 have sought shelter in neighbouring Nigeria, many of them living from hand-to-mouth in the forests.

Estimates of displaced people in the neighbouring Northwest Region -- the other restive anglophone region -- are not available.

The government has imposed tight controls, including over the mainstream media, and both sides are fighting for public opinion in the domain of social media.

The economic damage, too, has been severe.

The state-run palm oil company Pamol has deserted some of its plantations, and cocoa and coffee production has stopped because villages have abandoned their crops, the Cameroon NGO Human Is Right said in July.

The government has set up an emergency aid fund for the two regions, to which many Cameroonians have given generously.

LEGACY OF HISTORY

Around a fifth of Cameroon's 22 million people are English-speaking.

The legacy dates back to the colonial period.

Cameroon, once a German colony, was divided between Britain and France after World War I.

The French colony gained independence in 1960, becoming Cameroon. The following year, the British-ruled Southern Cameroons was amalgamated into it, giving rise to the Northwest and Southwest regions.

But resentment at perceived discrimination at the hands of the francophone majority, especially in education and the judiciary, began to build.

Demands for greater autonomy grew but were always rebuffed by Biya, culminating in the October 1 declaration.

SHADOW OVER ELECTION

The upcoming elections, a symbol of national sovereignty, have placed the separatists and the authorities in a toe-to-toe fight over who controls the two restive regions.

Attacks on schools rose in September after the return of classes following the summer break. A 12-hour night-time curfew has been declared in the Northwest Region.

The separatists -- known as the "Ambazonians" or "Amba Boys" -- have vowed to prevent the elections from taking place.

"I'm afraid. I won't turn out to vote," said Elizabeth, who lives in the holiday resort of Limbe in the Southwest Region, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I'm afraid of the Ambazonians but also of the police and military who kill... things could go very badly on polling day."

Another voter, who gave her name as Ruth, said, "I won't vote, and many people I know won't be voting either, because of the threats of the Ambazonians."

The government has declared that the poll will take place in all of the country's 360 districts, although some ballot stations will be "relocated" to reduce the risk of attacks.

"I'm sure the elections will go ahead... but the turnout is likely to be low," said a worker with an NGO which will be monitoring the ballot.

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