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As Cameroon votes, thousands are silenced by violence

When a local, Honrne Waba, weeks later learned that her house had been burned down with all her belongings inside, she decided to leave the region altogether.

In this photograph taken on on 28 September 2018, soldiers conduct the daily flag-lowering ceremony at the Force Multinationale Mixte (FMM) Sector No. 1 based in Mora, Cameroon's Far North Region. Picture: AFP

YAOUNDE - It was the nine corpses left by the roadside after a gunfight that made Honrne Waba flee her village in Northwest Cameroon in May and hide in the bush.

When weeks later she learned that her house had been burned down with all her belongings inside, she decided to leave the region altogether.

“I felt so scared, I had a broken heart and I said I had to leave,” Waba (40) told Reuters in the narrow courtyard of her daughter’s house in the capital Yaounde, where she has been staying for a month since leaving her home village of Njinikom.

Waba is one of tens of thousands of Cameroonians displaced by a separatist insurgency in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions who find themselves without a home and with nowhere to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

Even those still in Anglophone areas will struggle to reach a ballot box: armed separatist groups have vowed to stop the election from happening there, potentially silencing up to five million English-speaking voters in the majority French-speaking country of about 24 million.

The chaos in Anglophone opposition strongholds may help Cameroon’s 85-year-old President Paul Biya, who is expected to easily win a seventh term to extend his 36 years in office, aided in part by a weak opposition and a resigned population, many of whom view elections as a means to rubber-stamp seven more years of Biya.

Victory would leave Biya as one of Africa’s last strongmen, vestige of a post-colonial era that a wave of democracy has slowly eroded. During his tenure, neighbouring Nigeria has had nine different presidents; the only current African president to have ruled longer is Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

The level of neglect across Cameroon has caused a “groundswell of discontent” directed at the president, said opposition candidate Akere Muna. However, if Anglophones cannot vote “the irony is that the secessionists may be helping Biya”.

In the Simbock neighbourhood of Yaounde, where small concrete houses creep haphazardly up one of the city’s many lush, steep hillsides, displaced Anglophones say they have more pressing concerns than who will win the election.

Waba brought her voting card with her from the Northwest, but four days before the election she was not registered to vote in Yaounde and was unsure if it was even possible.