YAOUNDE: Cameroonian President Paul Biya will on Tuesday mark 30 years at the helm, a guarantor of stability in a restive region to some and one of Africa’s worst dictators to others.
At 79, Biya joins the select club of heads of state who have ruled for at least three decades, just behind Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Biya was reelected with close to 80 percent of the vote last year and could theoretically stand again in 2018 since parliament scrapped term limits in 2008.
“Paul Biya, our president, the father of the nation,” goes a song that extols the west African state’s “evergreen” ruler and has been played in the run-up to Tuesday’s anniversary.
Biya is only the second president of the country, since independence from France in 1960 after Ahmadou Ahidjo.
In a country with huge ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity which counts no fewer than 10 active rebellions, Biya is seen by some as a unifying figure. Most of Cameroon has a French-speaking colonial legacy, but it also has a smaller English-speaking part.
The opposition sees nothing in Biya but a ruthless dictator sitting atop one of the continent’s most corrupt regimes and leaving most of the population of the 20 million population to wallow in poverty.
“We are one of a handful of countries in the entire world to have had the same dictator for 30 years,” said Joshua Osih, vice president of the Social Democratic Front, Cameroon’s main opposition party.
“For 30 years, we have been hoping for a better Biya and a better Cameroon but for 30 years now, the country has been sinking,” he told AFP.
Biya formed the Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) in 1985 and today its cronies hold a monopoly of key posts.
Biya is a “master in the art of maintaining the status quo,” wrote French journalist Fanny Pigeaud in her book “The Cameroon of Paul Biya.”
But the ruling party denies accusations of despotism against Biya and argues that the president has protected basic freedoms and allowed political pluralism to flourish.
“The country is still under construction and Biya will go down in history as the president of freedom of expression and multipartyism,” CPDM official Herve Emmanuel Nkom said.
He argued that Cameroon’s stagnant economic performance was caused by the global downturn rather than a result of inadequate government policies or graft.
A year before Biya rose to the top job, Cameroon’s growth rate stood at a heady 13 percent while the economy expanded by only 3.8 percent last year.
A third of Cameroonians still have no access to drinking water and electricity. Some economists say the jobless rate is around 30 percent.
“The country has been unable to harness a potential that is well recognized,” Cameroonian analyst Mathias Nguini Owona said.
The Transparency International corruption watchdog twice ranked Cameroon as the world’s most corrupt country.
Jean de Dieu Momo, a lawyer and opposition candidate in the 2011 presidential election, argued that Biya had kept none of the democratic promises made 30 years ago.
“His long reign has been marked by egregious and recurring human rights violations,” he said.
The opposition politician cited alleged extra-judicial executions in the wake of a failed 1984 coup and a wave of murders and arrests following “food riots” in 2008.
Repression of the riots, which broke in protest at rising prices as well as Biya’s moves to cling to power, left 40 people dead, according to an official tally.
Rights group put the toll at 139 after some of the worst violence witnessed under Biya’s rule.
Biya, a Christian who studied in France, has also been criticized as an absentee ruler, who is rarely seen in public and discloses little about his political agenda.
Unlike his wife Chantal, whose extravagant leonine hairstyles have achieved cult status on the Internet, Paul Biya — nicknamed “the Sphinx” — keeps a low profile and spends much of his time abroad, notably in Switzerland where two of his sons attend school.