Cameroon election, highly likely to extend the 36-year rule of President Paul Biya, making him one of Africa’s last multi-decade leaders

Cameroon's Presidential Candidates- Paul Biya (RDPC/CPDM), Garga Haman Adji (ADD), Maurice Kamto (MRC/CRM), Libi’i Li Ngue Ngue Cabril (Univers), Serge Espoir Matomba (PURS/UPSR), Muna Tabeng Akere (FPD/PFD), Ndam Njoya Adamou (UDC/CDU), Franklin Afanwi Ndifor (MCNC/CNCM), Joshua Osih (SDF/FSD) [Courtesy]

Polls opened in Cameroon on Sunday for an election widely expected to extend the 36-year rule of President Paul Biya and confirm his place as one of Africa’s last multi-decade leaders.

Victory would usher in a seventh term for the 85-year-old and see him stay until at least the age of 92, bucking a tentative trend in Africa where many countries have installed presidential term limits. The only current African president to have ruled longer is Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

While the oil and cocoa producing Central African country has seen economic growth of over 4 percent a year since Biya was last elected in 2011, many of its 24 million citizens live in deep poverty. Most have only known one president.

Looming over the polls is a secessionist uprising in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions that has cost hundreds of lives and forced thousands to flee either to the French-speaking regions or into neighboring Nigeria. Ghost towns remain, where the few who have stayed say they are afraid to go out and vote.

Voting proceeded smoothly on Sunday in the French-speaking city of Douala and the capital of Yaounde.

However, in the Anglophone regional capital of Buea neither of two polling stations visited by a Reuters witness were operational as staff did not have sufficient electoral materials. Meanwhile 15 kilometers (9 miles) up the road in Ekona village, a convoy of military vehicles could not deliver materials to a polling station, because it was not staffed.

Some opposition parties have united in an effort to bolster support and harness discontent about the country’s crumbling infrastructure and about Biya, who they say has ruled Cameroon like a personal fiefdom for too long. The president goes years without convening cabinet meetings and spends long stretches out of the country with his wife Chantal, most often holidaying in Switzerland.

The odds, and history, are against the opposition, including the main candidate, Joshua Osih of the Social Democratic Front. In 2011, Biya won with 78 percent of the vote in an election that the U.S. Department of State described as “flawed” and “marked by irregularities.”

The opposition also faces the problem of voter apathy from a population resigned to a continuation of Biya’s long rule. Of the country’s 24 million people, only 6.5 million were registered as of Oct. 1, according to the election authority.

“We want a different president,” said teacher Christelle Cheddgou in Yaounde. “There are no roads, there is corruption. But only 6 million people are registered to vote. We are really tired. Thirty six years is too long and things are getting worse.”

The African Union and other organizations are monitoring Sunday’s vote, but opposition candidates have already complained of efforts to fix the election in Biya’s favor.

Biya’s home advantage is clear across the hilly, green capital, where thousands of posters lining the roadside and draped down the side of high-rise buildings declare “the force of experience” of the incumbent. Tailors sell fabric bearing Biya’s face that they make into dresses and suits seen all over town.

Billboards advertising other candidates are almost totally absent.

Government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary on Saturday laughed off the idea of the opposition posing a threat to Biya.

“The likelihood of his victory is beyond reasonable doubt. I am confident that the game is already done,” he said.

Separatists have vowed to stop the polls from taking place in the English-speaking regions, home to 5 million people, about one-fifth of the population. Residents in those areas told Reuters that they would not vote anyway because of the insecurity.

In the northwest English-speaking town of Bamenda, a resident said he heard some gunfire in the town at about 8.20 a.m. (0720 GMT.)

“I heard gunshots from my house just now. The streets and completely deserted,” he said, describing how poll staff had been escorted to polling stations by the military.

The crisis points to a central problem of Biya’s rule: his long bid to centralize a hugely diverse population in a country founded in 1961 on the promise of federalism and autonomy for its regions. 

In 2016, Anglophone lawyers and teachers protested against the marginalization of minority English speakers in their professions. The government’s heavy-handed clampdown, in which unarmed civilians were shot dead, radicalized many. Armed groups formed in the lush forests of the west. 

Biya did not visit the English-speaking regions during his campaign. Spokesman Bakary said that the separatists were “daydreaming” if they thought they could stop the polls and that the government has put measures in place to ensure they go ahead.