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Cameroonian President Paul Biya has announced the country’s first regional elections in December, including in English-speaking provinces where years of fighting between the government and separatists have cost some 3,000 lives.
Biya, who has been in power since 1982, signed a decree on Monday authorising the indirect elections on December 6 in the country’s 10 regions, including in the restive North-West and South-West provinces.
The polls will put in place councils provided for in a 1996 constitution in a move towards decentralisation but not yet implemented.
The regions will elect 90 councillors, who will have limited powers on local issues. Twenty of them will be representatives of traditional chieftains.
The two Anglophone regions are home to a large minority of English speakers in a country where French speakers are the overwhelming majority – a situation that is the legacy of the decolonisation of western Africa by France and Britain more than 60 years ago.
In late 2016, long-standing complaints of political and economic discrimination against English speakers by the central government spilled over when lawyers, students and teachers began calling for reforms.
The government’s lethal response to the protests provoked rebels to declare in 2017 independence for a region they call “Ambazonia”, triggering a stronger crackdown by the authorities. Both sides have since been accused of committing atrocities in a conflict that has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Biya, 87, has promised the two regions a special status in a bid to quell the unrest.
John Fru Ndi, leader of a key opposition party, has said he will boycott the election unless there is a ceasefire first in the English-speaking regions.
The 1996 constitution limited presidents to two seven-year terms but Biya’s party scrapped the term limits in 2008, allowing him to run again and extend his rule.