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In Troubled Cameroon, U.S. Envoy Is Accused of Election Meddling

DAKAR, Senegal — When the American ambassador took up his post in Cameroon late last year, he stepped into an increasingly troubled nation, locked in battle against Islamist militants in one part of the country and armed separatists in another.

And then there is the matter of its leader.

Cameroon has not had a new president since Michael Jackson released “Thriller” in 1982.

Under the 36-year leadership of President Paul Biya, the nation has been accused of numerous human rights abuses, including killing unarmed protesters, torturing detainees, shutting off the internet and locking up journalists.

Last month, Washington’s ambassador, Peter Henry Barlerin, met with the 85-year-old president, who has taken initial steps to seek re-election in October. He told Mr. Biya that he “should be thinking about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered in the history books,” saying that George Washington and Nelson Mandela were excellent role models.

The remarks caused an uproar among officials in Cameroon and in the local media, which accused him of trying to influence a foreign election. The minister of foreign affairs summoned the ambassador for a scolding. Mr. Barlerin even received death threats.

The ambassador, a career diplomat, noted that his comments were made following a discussion with the president about the need to stop the violence in areas where the military is battling a bloody separatist uprising.

“We do not have a preferred outcome for the election,” Mr. Barlerin said in a recent interview, emphasizing that he has stressed that to government officials. “We want a strong and stable Cameroon.”

The matter seemed to quiet down, temporarily, until late last month when Mr. Barlerin’s photo was plastered across the covers of at least three local newspapers, which accused him of paying nearly $5 million to opposition candidates in the presidential race.

Peter Barlerin, the United States ambassador to Cameroon.CreditU.S. Department of State

The United States Embassy strongly disputed the claim, releasing a statement that described the story as “entirely false.”

Opposition members also denied the reports and speculated they had been planted by the president’s supporters, who know that the population would be appalled at any foreign attempt to influence elections.

“All this agitation is simply that the officials are looking for the sympathy of the people,” said Hilaire Kamga, one of the candidates running against Mr. Biya.

The controversy stirred by the American ambassador is a sign of just how deeply entrenched Cameroon’s current government is. Critics say his loyalists operate with impunity, creating nothing more than a charade of a democracy.

Cameroon has been accused of abusing human rights as it fights the militant group Boko Haram and tries to stop a secession movement being fought by an estimated 1,000 armed rebels who want to create a new, English-speaking nation they call Ambazonia. That conflict, which some analysts fear could spiral into civil war, already has claimed at least 425 lives, according to Unicef, and is spilling into new territories.

Amnesty International said on Thursday it had gathered “credible evidence” that an assault depicted in a horrifying video, showing the shooting deaths of several women and infants by men in camouflaged uniforms, appears to have been carried out by Cameroonian soldiers battling Boko Haram in the country’s Far North. Cameroon’s military and government officials called it “fake news.”

The storm caused by Mr. Barlerin’s remarks about Mr. Biya’s legacy is not the first time American diplomats have become entangled in election controversy on the continent.

“Ministers,” locals sigh and shrug when asked who lives on the hilltops.

Any plans for a post-Biya nation are murky. If he wins the presidency again, Mr. Biya would be in his 90s by the end of his seven-year term. If he were to die in office, the Senate president would take over until an election is held two months later. But analysts question whether Mr. Biya’s powerful loyalists would stand by idly.

“The institutions there are so weak,” Mr. De Marie Heungoup said.

Unlike other countries in the region that rely on oil revenues to finance most of their budgets, Cameroon has a more diverse economy that includes agriculture and manufacturing, which allowed it to weather a drop in oil prices better than neighboring Nigeria.

Cameroon is in the middle of an unstable region. Conflicts abound in nearby Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the region’s war with Boko Haram has spilled across borders. Cameroon has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from those conflicts and has been a key partner with foreign militaries in fighting Boko Haram.

Mr. Barlerin said his office recently had emphasized, as a precaution, to the Cameroon government that the military equipment Americans have provided for the fight against Boko Haram must not be used to fight separatists.

“It’s a wonderful country and we’ve had a lot of good cooperation from the government,” Mr. Barlerin said. “I don’t want to see it go up in smoke.”

He added: “The only thing we want is for elections to be free, fair and credible and that the will of the Cameroonian people be heard.”

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