As Cameroonians take to the polls on February 9th, 2020, in the most hotly contested electoral process of recent times, most religious groups and missions have fine-tuned strategies to support and maintain the electoral integrity process.
While Muslim leaders have been organizing regular Friday prayers to invoke Allah’s intervention in the electoral process, the Pentecostal Missions have been praying for peace, especially in the restive Anglophone regions where elections remain uncertain. At the level of the Protestant Missions, election monitors have been trained and dispatched to the country’s regions. Speaking to the press on February 6th, the Spokesperson of the Council of Protestant Churches in Cameroon, Reverend Ebai Gustave Tabi, said that their mission has trained over 740 observers who have already been dispatched to all the corners of the country. He reiterated that they observed the presidential election of October 7th, 2018, and made their reports and recommendations to policymakers. According to him, it is their own way of supporting public administration and encouraging youths to get involved in the decision-making process.
Some churches have also provided solace to political aspirants. An example is Malomba Esembe, who heads the ruling Cameroon Peoples’ Democratic Movement (CPDM) list for Buea, the southwest’s regional capital, and one of the two restive Anglophone regions. The aspiring MP has been canvassing for support and prayers from churches around his vicinity.
All of this is happening in the backdrop of heightened violence in the two Anglophone regions, where separatist elements fighting for a separate state called Ambazonia. The separatist groups have been battling government forces for three years now. In the run-up to the elections, separatist leaders have called for a six-day lockdown (also known as a ghost town) to prevent electoral activity in the two regions. According to Norwegian-based Dr. Ayaba Cho Lucas, who is one of the frontline separatist leaders heading the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF), the elections are “foreign” to “their land” and must not be allowed to take place. On his Facebook page, he called on his forces and supporters to frustrate the entire process, which he believed would force the central government to sit on the negotiation table with them.
However, the elections management body, Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), has insisted on holding elections in Cameroon’s 360 council areas. According to Dr. Erik Essousse, they are benefitting from reinforced security from the state. In his end of year speech on December 31st, 2019, President Biya called on separatist forces to drop arms. He also promised to use force on those who failed to adhere to his appeal. In the aftermath of his speech, some 700 Gendarmes were dispatched to the Anglophone northwest and southwest regions to add to the thousands of forces already stationed there since the beginning of the war.
However, the elections have been boycotted by Professor Maurice Kamto’s Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM), which officially came second in the last presidential election. In a telephone interview with one of the Kamto team spokespersons, Wanah Immanuel, Kamto explained that they decided to boycott the elections because the nation is in a state of war (citing the conflict in Anglophone Cameroon) and that the elections cannot be free and fair. He also argued that the same electoral laws, which were a source of contention during the last election, have still not been revised to provide a level playing field to everybody as demanded by political and civil society actors.
In the meantime, most cities and villages in Anglophone Cameroon have responded to the separatist call of lockdown: streets are completely deserted, and businesses have shut down. Meanwhile, the bloodshed and property destruction have continued unabated, with civilians paying the highest price. International and national actors had previously expressed their doubts over the elections, citing the ongoing violence and called on the government to engage in an inclusive dialogue with the separatists. In a recent interview on the French channel, RFI, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called on Cameroon’s government to invite all parties to engage in a dialogue to discuss sustainable peace in Cameroon. A similar call had been made by the Deputy U.S. Secretary of State in charge of African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, who stressed the importance of dialogue between the government and separatist groups. He frowned upon the militarization of the restive regions and called on the government to give priority to discussions.
As Cameroonians of the other eight Francophone regions are, for the most part, resolved to go to the polls on Sunday, their counterparts in the Anglophone regions are still uncertain. Many villages have been burnt down, and hundreds of thousands of people have displaced, making it difficult to trace the electorates. Many aspirants have also been kidnapped or have abandoned the course. The elections that have been postponed twice have instead led to an increase in violence on the ground, which indicates an urgent need to implement conflict management mechanisms.