Cameroon held its first-ever regional elections, however, opponents fear that it only maintains President Paul Biya’s long hold on power.
Voting stations in the commercial capital Douala opened Sunday at 8:00 am, but the streets were quiet and few people appeared interested in the election.
Speaking to Xinhua, officials of electoral body Elections Cameroon (Elecam) said voting, which is taking place in 58 divisional headquarters of the country, has so far begun “without any hitches.”
In Sunday’s election, municipal councilors and traditional chiefs were in a socially distanced queue outside polling stations to vote to fill the posts of 900 regional councilors: 90 for each of the country’s 10 regions.
The municipal councils that have the greatest proportion of votes are already dominated by 87-year-old President Paul Biya’s party.
The councils will have a say over development, including infrastructure such as roads, but they will not be able to alter laws enacted by the national assembly and the senate in Yaounde.
Biya hopes the vote will appease critics who say he has long neglected the Central African country’s 10 regions, and end a four-year separatist insurgency in the English-speaking west which has become the greatest threat to his near 40-year rule.
However, the two main opposition parties, Maurice Kamto’s Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) and the Social Democratic Front (SDF) are both boycotting the polls.
Opponents say the vote offers only the semblance of regional autonomy and comes too late to fix the conflict.
Officials voting in the election are overwhelmingly Biya supporters and will help enforce his will on the regions, they say.
“It is not because we will have regional delegates that gunshots will stop and everything will be all right,” according to Cameroonian political analyst Stephane Akoa.
Separatist fighters vowed to disrupt the vote in the Northwest and Southwest regions while stating that they will arrest anyone participating.
There were no early reports of disruptions, but gunfire was heard around the Northwest city of Kumbo, according to a local official.
More than 3,000 people have been killed while 500,000 people have been forced out of their homes by the separatist conflict that started in 2016 when the police cracked down on peaceful protestors in the west consisting of lawyers and teachers demanding they be allowed to work in English.
The movement became radicalized and militias began fighting for the creation of a breakaway state.
(input from agencies)