Voters in Cameroon’s troubled north and southwest regions stayed away from Sunday’s elections as violence broke out between security forces and armed separatists, residents told CNN.
In the Bamenda capital of the northwest region, where separatists had called on people to boycott the elections, residents said they were afraid to come out from their homes amid gunfire.
“We heard gunshots all through the day. The military was patrolling the streets all day trying to quell the attacks. No one wants to be caught in the gunfire,” said Kudi Eric Unji, who lives in Bamenda town, one of the regions the Anglophone secessionists want to turn into another country.
Ballot boxes in the southwest were half empty as voters stayed away in droves.
A winner must be announced within two weeks, according to the country’s electoral commission.
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, 85, is contesting for a seventh term and has ruled the country since 1982.
He has often recorded a landslide victory in past elections.
He was declared the winner of the 2011 elections by the Supreme Court, which found that he got 77% of the vote, beating out 22 other contenders.
Violence often erupts in Cameroon’s English-speaking provinces, where residents say they have been marginalized by the Francophone-dominated government.
Tensions deteriorated into a full-blown crisis last year after protests in the regions turned violent.
But Biya maintains his strong grip on the central African country despite the growing secessionist movement, which has worsened security in the nation.
Amnesty International, in a report last month, said it had recorded 260 security incidents, including kidnappings of civilians and violence between Cameroon’s soldiers and armed Anglophone separatists, this year.
The human rights organization said 400 civilians have been killed since January in escalating attacks between armed separatist groups and security forces in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions.
Biya’s government has been accused of using its military to crack down on armed separatists and killing English speakers.
Secessionist fighters also stand accused of kidnapping and killing soldiers and civilians.
The human rights organization said in a June report that English speakers were being targeted by both the Cameroon military and armed Anglophone separatists in waves of violence that Amnesty describes as “unlawful, excessive and unnecessary.”
Victims gave harrowing accounts of beatings and allegations of simulated electrocution and torture carried out by the military, as well as attacks on schools and teachers by armed Anglophone separatists.
However, an army spokesman dismissed claims of violence and torture as “rumors” and said it was fighting against a bloody insurgency.
Didier Badjeck, a spokesman for the army, said: “Since 2016, they have been attacking schools, and we are working against terrorists. The army defends itself against attackers.”
In the past, Biya has condemned “all acts of violence, regardless of their sources and their perpetrators.”
This is the 11th presidential election since Cameroon’s independence in 1960.