“It’s risky to walk in Mile-16. If the police find you there, they’ll shoot you,” says a bus driver nervously in the capital of Cameroon’s southwest ahead of polls on Sunday.
In Mile-16, an Anglophone separatist stronghold located on the outskirts of the town, heavily-armed police man checkpoints, closely inspecting all inbound and outbound traffic.
Everyone has their IDs checked and not far away the elite shock-troops of the military’s rapid response battalion guard the wooden stalls of an abandoned market.
Authorities in Buea, which has been engulfed by an anglophone separatist insurgency, are braced for violence after secessionist fighters vowed “war on voting day”.
“There are almost as many soldiers, policemen and intelligence officers as there are civilians,” said a source close to the security forces of the town which once had a population of nearly 100,000 people but is now largely deserted due to an exodus of people fleeing the conflict.
A vast security operation was mounted to clear suspected separatists in August with some 800 alleged secessionists moved out — but the area remains unsafe, according to a local NGO.
Businesses and homes sit empty and shuttered along the entire length of the main road with constant military patrols now setting the pace of life.
– ‘Taking a big risk’ –
In town, rapid response soldiers, backed up by police reinforcements, also guard the offices of the Elecam electoral commission which will organise Sunday’s presidential poll.
“Elecam staff could be targeted by the separatists,” said a polling official who added that taking photographs or videos of the commission’s staff was prohibited.
“The people who come to vote are taking a big risk.”
A local community activist warned that “the separatists have promised war on voting day”.
“They have said ‘if you come out and vote, we’ll kill you’,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The people are scared. A lot will abstain.”
There are few people left behind to vote with “80 percent having fled” already, he added.
But some voters are unfazed.
“Nothing will stop me voting. We’re not scared that the separatists are there,” said Benz Enow Bate earnestly.
Bate is a member of the “G20”, a coalition of 20 groups backing the re-election of President Paul Biya who is seeking a seventh term.
– ‘It’s their problem’ –
Bate plans to vote in Mamfe, one of the centres of the crisis some 180 kilometres (110 miles) from Buea.
He is among a number of prominent figures in the region including a minister and company directors who left Buea for Mamfe on Saturday under army escort.
Bate alone was guarded by roughly ten soldiers including one who sat behind him and another who took the wheel of the 4×4.
The rest of his protection detail followed behind in a police pick-up truck.
A chainsaw was fitted to the back of the 4×4 to deal with any tree trunks that may have been used to block the road by separatists on Friday night.
The fighters, who are known to have accurate information about army movements, regularly cut off the roadways rendering journeys in the region painful or even impossible.
Because of the ongoing fight between the security forces and separatists in the northwest and southwest, more than 300,000 people have been displaced — with more than 246,000 from the southwest region alone.
“The displaced are invited to come back and vote in their home towns.
We know that not everyone will be able to because of the insecurity.
Lots of people will be unable to vote as a result, but what can we do?” said an Elecam official in Buea.
It is thought that if the displaced struggle to cast ballots, it could favour Biya as anglophones have traditionally backed the main opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF) party, whose candidate Joshua Osih could suffer at the ballot box.
But for Biya voter Bate, if many anglophones are unhappy “it’s their problem — Cameroon has to move on”.