Mass kidnapping overshadows Cameroon President Biya’s inauguration
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Cameroonian President Paul Biya was sworn in for a seventh term amid heightened tensions on Tuesday, a day after 79 students were kidnapped from a school in the country’s restive English-speaking northwest region.
Biya won an emphatic victory in the October 7 presidential election with 71 percent of the vote, extending his 36-year rule and cementing his place as one of Africa’s longest-standing leaders.
His inauguration was held in the capital Yaoundé under tightened security, amid fears of possible unrest.
The 85-year-old’s re-election has been contested by opposition candidates, who alleged widespread irregularities, including ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. The Constitutional Court, however, upheld the result late last month, dismissing 18 claims of voter fraud.
Anglophone separatists have also protested against Biya’s French-speaking government and its perceived marginalisation of the country’s English-speaking minority.
Biya acknowledged “frustrations and aspirations” among Cameroon’s English speakers during his swearing-in ceremony, pledging to pursue a policy of decentralisation.
But he dismissed the possibility of secession, declaring "the future of our compatriots in the northwest and southwest lies in the framework of our Republic."
In a sign of the heightened tensions, armed men abducted 79 students, their principal and a driver from the city of Bamenda in the English-speaking northwest region on Monday. The army was combing the area in search of the kidnapping victims, who were believed to have been taken into the bush.
In his inauguration speech, Biya did not mention the Bamenda kidnappings, but he attacked Anglophone separatists.
"They need to know that they will face the rigour of the law and the determination of our defence and security forces," Biya said in the national assembly. "I appeal to them to lay down their arms."
An army spokesman said separatists were most likely responsible for the abduction. Yet a spokesman for the movement denied any involvement in the incident.
Fighting between the military and separatists surged in 2017 after a government crackdown on peaceful demonstrations by English speakers. Among the issues they were protesting was the placement of French-speaking teachers in English-speaking schools in the northwest and southwest regions.
Violence intensified in 2018, including during an army crackdown in which civilians were killed. Many people have fled Bamenda and other centres to seek refuge in more peaceful Francophone regions.
The separatists have vowed to destabilise the regions as part of the strategy for creating a breakaway state. They have imposed curfews and closed schools, attacking civilians who do not support their cause, including teachers who were killed for disobeying orders to halt lessons.
There have been kidnappings at other schools, but the group taken Monday was the largest number abducted at one time in Cameroon's English-speaking regions. The separatists also have set fire to at least 100 schools and driven out students and teachers from buildings taken over as training grounds.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)