AFP | Thousands rallied in Cameroon’s capital on Sunday to fete 40 years in power of President Paul Biya, who is accused of trampling on human rights and stifling democracy.
The 89-year-old is the world’s second longest-serving leader, except monarchs, after Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in the saddle for over 43 years.
Biya did not attend the event in Yaounde dubbed a “regional mega-rally”.
His public outings, except for a few choreographed TV appearances, have become rarer and rarer in recent years, stoking speculation about his health.
Since a highly contested re-election for a seventh term in 2018, Biya has maintained tighter control over Cameroon, where even his supporters don’t dare mention succession.
His security forces have become even more repressive against any form of dissent.
In recent years he has cracked down on all opposition, political and armed, earning him rare criticism from the United Nations and Western capitals.
On Saturday, Biya’s main rival, Maurice Kamto said there was “an arrogant trampling over the fundamental rights of citizens and public freedoms” in a country where “systematic and widespread corruption” reigns.
In the restive English-speaking west of this francophone-majority country, Biya for years rejected demands for federalism.
The anglophone campaign radicalised, leading to the declaration of an independent state in October 2017 — a move that triggered a crackdown by Biya.
The fighting has claimed around 6,000 lives and forced more than a million to flee their homes, according to estimates.
In front of Yaounde’s city hall, thousands on Sunday danced to songs played in honour of Biya at the event organised by the all-powerful Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC).
Many wore clothes in the party colours and bearing Biya’s portrait.
The building was adorned with a giant portrait of Biya bearing the slogan: “An exceptional president” in both English and French.
Emmanuel Watat, a 36-year-old trader and RDPC activist for 17 years, said Biya “has always managed the country well despite difficult times. As in a family, there are highs and lows”.
And Florentine Ahanda, a 57-year-old housewife added: “We are proud of him. We wake up in the morning and we are at ease in our country, we live in peace and we realise how lucky we are when we see the situation in neighbouring countries.”
Biya rose to the top job on November 6 1982 after seven years as prime minister.
He is only the second president in Cameroon’s history since the central African nation gained independence from France.
Commentators ascribe Biya’s extraordinary political longevity to a mixture of astuteness and ruthlessness — he has a constellation of loyalists in key positions and crushes or sidelines opponents and rivals.