Separatist fighters in western Cameroon have abducted at least 40 candidates for parliament and local councils, in an effort to derail elections set for February. The government is promising to free the hostages and protect candidates and election officials for what it says must be successful polls.
In an audio shared by separatist fighters, Samuel Nforba, a candidate for the February 9, 2020 local council election, says he is being punished by separatists for defying their warning that no one should vote or be a candidate in the joint local council and parliamentary elections.
Among those listening to the audio is 51-year-old teacher Wilson Bate. He says the separatists should free innocent Cameroonians who simply want to carry out their civic duties.
"It's embarrassing. I feel very bad that politicians should be kidnapped for simply wanting to perform their fundamental rights," he said. "Government should do all what it can to make sure that there is a safe ground for all political events, make sure that they provide the necessary security for these upcoming elections."
Separatists have been fighting since 2017 to detach English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Cameroon from the rest of the country and its French-speaking majority.
Cameroon's government declared the regions were peaceful enough to hold the elections; but, last week, nearly 40 people running for council seats were abducted in the Northwest town of Jakiri.
Another three were kidnapped in the Northwest town of Bamenda for being in possession of voter cards.
Prince Ngwese Ekosso, chairman of the opposition United Socialist Democratic Party, says conditions are not peaceful enough to hold the ballot.
"There is need for the resolution of the conflict before we can be able to venture into elections in Cameroon," he said. "The country is going through one of the worst crises and the separatists have made their point the tension is going to continue."
Paul Atanga Nji, Cameroon's minister of territorial administration, says the government is making efforts to free the hostages — and maintains the elections must take place as planned.
"In the Northwest and Southwest, the head of state [President Paul Biya] has given firm instructions to the minister of territorial administration, to the minister in charge of defense, that we have to do everything that it takes for this elections to hold properly. It is just but normal that we will uplift the security network in those two regions before, during and after the process," he said.
The abductions come at a time when Cameroon's parliament is meeting to debate the so-called special status President Paul Biya ordered as a solution to the separatist crisis.
Some lawmakers say only the creation of federal states, one in the English-speaking regions and the other in the French-speaking areas, can stop the separatist war that has killed more than 3,000 people.
The separatists have rejected the proposed special status, saying they want nothing but an independent state.