Framed portraits of a youthful Paul Biya hang on office and hotel walls across Cameroon. The presidency released the picture when Mr Biya came to power in 1982 and it remains the official photograph of a leader who, now in his eighties, appears sprightly but has wrinkles and dyed black hair.
This weekend, Cameroonian officials and civil servants will head to their home villages, towns and cities to host parties honouring Mr Biya to mark the 34 years he has been in power in the central African nation.
While loyalists celebrate and pray for “continuity”, more and more young people are venting their frustration with the 83-year-old leader. Cameroonians who have lived their whole lives under Mr Biya’s presidency are increasingly saying, mostly on social media, that they have had enough.
“We are a nation of young people being led by elderly ones. They don’t listen to us,” said Jean, 25, who bags groceries at Casino, a French-owned supermarket in the capital Yaounde. “I have a Masters’ degree in law and I want to use it. Instead I’m doing this,” he said, adding that there are “too many” people like him.
Across Africa, only Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe have been in power longer. During his tenure, Mr Biya quashed any possible successors in his own government by sacking or jailing them and has successfully neutralised the country’s opposition by buying them off. With no obvious successor in place, there is growing alarm about what comes next for Cameroon.
“The country is very much unprepared. It’s dangerous because there’s so much uncertainty and no one knows what’s happening inside the black box of government,” said Denis Tull, a Cameroon scholar at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The small country’s geography — a neighbour of giant Nigeria and the Atlantic Ocean gateway for states including oil-rich Chad — means its stability matters far beyond its borders. This has kept western allies, especially former colonial ruler France but also the US, on Mr Biya’s side. With 220 American military personnel based in the northern city of Garoua, Cameroon has become a key US partner in the regional fight against Islamist militants Boko Haram.
“[Mr Biya] has always been able to portray Cameroon as a steady ally of western countries,” said Berny Sèbe, Francophone Africa expert at the University of Birmingham. “As a result, he’s been able to resist [external] attempts to democratise the continent.”
The perception that the elite has pillaged national resources at the expense of development is palpable, said Fred Eboko, a political scientist at the Institute for Research and Development in Paris.
Despite the fall in the price of oil, economic growth has not fallen as precipitously here as elsewhere on the continent. It still runs above 5 per cent. This is partly because it also has coffee and timber to exploit.
But from the lush southern lowlands to the picturesque hill country in the west and the remote north, signs of decay abound. Major highways are ridden with potholes. Universities lack reliable internet connections and contemporary textbooks. The airport in the largest northern city, Maroua, is a dust-covered reminder of a time before the tourism industry was killed off by the Boko Haram insurgency two years ago, when militants first streamed in from Nigeria. Hundreds of Cameroonians have since been killed in attacks and 200,000 displaced.
Anger flared following a train accident last month that killed 79 people and injured hundreds.
Returning home after the accident — he had been abroad for 35 days — Mr Biya declared his government’s handling of the accident’s aftermath “fairly positive”. He was pilloried on social media. Some called him heartless and one commenter labelled him a “crazy old man”.
Despite the discontent, he is unlikely to be challenged on the streets. “The system he has created is based on permanent, insidious psychological intimidation,” said Mr Eboko, noting the state’s harsh response to protests in 2008 after he changed the constitution to enable him to legally extend his rule.
“This government has succeeded in making us like zombies,” says Bergeline Domou, a member of a small political party. “It is going to take a lot of effort to change the peoples’ mentality.” Ms Domou and about 50 other party members were arrested last week at a party event. They were released the same day. There was no international reaction to their arrest.
“[Mr Biya’s] major success has been his ability to destroy the hope of the people by co-opting the opposition so nobody can trust them,” says a lawyer who asked for anonymity to protect his family. “It is now very, very difficult to mobilise people.”
Source: Financial Times