Droves of armoured vehicles are patrolling the streets of Limbe in Cameroon’s conflict-torn South West Region ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) soccer finals starting on Jan. 9 that separatist militants have vowed to disrupt.
Cameroon is hosting the tournament in six cities, but security is potentially most at threat in Limbe, a city on the tropical Atlantic coast whose surrounding region has been rocked by armed attacks since war broke out in 2017.
The conflict, in which armed groups are trying to form a breakaway state called Ambazonia, has killed at least 3,000 people and forced nearly one million to flee.
Violence has worsened this year as separatists increase their use of improvised explosives.
“My fear, the fear of many Limbe denizens is that the recent phenomenon of bomb blast which have been happening in others parts of Fako division like Buea can be a common phenomenon during this AFCON period,” said local journalist Honore Kuma.
Insecurity is just one issue facing the tournament. Concerns about the readiness of stadiums and the spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant have also made headlines in recent weeks.
Limbe’s Omnisport Stadium will host matches from Group F comprising Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia. The group’s first game will be between Tunisia and Mali on Jan. 12
The nearby regional capital of Buea, where some Group F training will take place, was struck by two explosions in November including one in a university that wounded 11 students.
Authorities have kept security plans under wraps, but promised there will be no disruption to Group F matches.
Armed police, gendarmes and soldiers are already positioned at major intersections. Checkpoints have been set up on roads into the city.
“It is in this same context that we managed the CHAN (African Nations Championship) a few months ago. So, I can’t reveal here the measures that are being put in place but you should know that just as the CHAN took place under very good conditions, Afcon will also take place under very good conditions. There are no worries.
There is nothing to worry about,” said Emmanuel Ledoux Engamba, senior official of Fako territory, which includes Limbe and Buea.
The separatist conflict began in the English-speaking North West and South West regions in 2016 when teachers and lawyers protested against their perceived marginalisation by the primarily French-speaking national government.
A violent crackdown by security forces radicalised the movement. Armed groups formed amid the regions’ forests and cocoa plantations.
But despite the fears some in Limbe are prepared to welcome hopefully many fans in the city.
“With such an event, we do believe It will boom our business because so many customers will come from different areas, different towns, different countries. We will meet so many other people, new friends. I am very happy for the event,” said Nelson Itoe, a local fish vendor.