Cameroon saw isolated incidents of unrest on Sunday as voting began in an election widely expected to extend the rule of President Paul Biya, one of Africa’s last multi-decade leaders.
While voting proceeded smoothly across much of the Central African country, a drive by secessionists to disrupt the election meant not all polling stations were open in Anglophone regions and there were outbreaks of violence.
At least three armed separatists were shot dead by security forces in the northwest English-speaking town of Bamenda, a security source said.
The report could not be independently verified and separatist leaders could not be reached for comment.
Elsewhere, a separatist fighter shot at a convoy of cars carrying journalists, but no one was wounded, according to a Reuters witness.
Biya, 85, has ruled for 36 years and victory on Sunday would give him a seventh term, bucking a tentative trend in Africa to install presidential term limits. The only current African president to have ruled longer is Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
In a speech after casting his vote in the capital Yaounde, Biya did not make specific reference to separatist violence.
“The election campaign took place peacefully,” he said. “Now we must hope that they (Cameroon citizens) keep this self-control when the results are out.”
Oil and cocoa producing Cameroon has seen economic growth of over 4 percent a year since Biya was last elected in 2011, but many of its 24 million citizens live in deep poverty.
A secessionist uprising in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions, home to 5 million people, has cost hundreds of lives and forced thousands to flee either to the French-speaking regions or into neighbouring Nigeria.
In the French-speaking city of Douala, Anglophone voter Christopher Akem said he was voting “for my brothers and sisters, for peace to return to Cameroon as before.” He declined to say which candidate he had picked.
In the Anglophone regional capital of Buea neither of two polling stations visited by a Reuters witness was operational as staff did not have sufficient electoral materials.
Fifteen kilometres (9 miles) up the road in Ekona village, a convoy of military vehicles could not deliver materials to a polling station because it was not staffed.
Biya did not visit the English-speaking regions during his campaign. A central problem of his rule has been his long bid to centralise a hugely diverse population in a country founded in 1961 on the promise of federalism and autonomy for its regions.
In 2016, protests by Anglophone lawyers and teachers against the marginalisation of minority English speakers in their professions led to a heavy-handed clampdown, in which unarmed civilians were shot dead. That radicalised many and armed groups formed in the lush forests of the west.