DOUALA, Cameroon – Cameroon's 79-year-old President Paul Biya marked 30 years in office Tuesday with boisterous celebrations staged by the ruling party while police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse an opposition protest.
Biya, who won re-election in 2011 and vows to run again in 2018 if his health permits, touts his landslide victories as proof of his continued popularity. In 2008, he removed term limits from the constitution.
Not all Cameroonians are rejoicing at Biya's lengthy rule. Nearly two-thirds of Cameroonians lack access to potable water and electricity, and many leave for Europe and elsewhere in search of a better life.
"I am 30 years old. Can you imagine? I was born the same year Biya came to power," said Nicole Nana, a Douala resident. "Today, I am a jobless mother of two; unable to feed and send my kids to school. I am a summary of the Biya era in which corruption and bad governance means that despite the vast potentials we have, we are a sacrificed generation."
Only three other presidents across Africa have exceeded three uninterrupted decades in power: Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
"The goal of any political party is to win and maintain power and we're only using the rules of democracy to conserve power," said Benoit Ndong Souhment, adviser at the General Secretariat for Biya's ruling Cameroon Peoples' Democratic Movement (CPDM). "They talk about change, but all this while, they've failed to present a fit alternative to Paul Biya which means there is a problem with our political class."
Biya was named prime minister in 1975, and in 1982 constitutionally succeeded Ahmadou Ahidjo, who resigned, purportedly from ill health.
Biya has ruled Cameroon ever since, surviving several coup plots, including the first in 1984 for which his predecessor was accused as mastermind and handed a death sentence. Ahidjo fled to exile and later died in 1989 in Dakar, Senegal.
Analysts say Biya emerged from the botched coup galvanized. But in the late 1980s, popular discontent surged against him as a global financial crisis crippled the economy. Faced with international and local pressure, he reluctantly introduced reforms, allowing greater freedom of the press and a return to multiparty politics in 1990.
Two years later, he won the country's first multiparty elections, though the results were strongly contested by the opposition and the West and Cameroon was plunged into months of protests.
But Biya held on and has won all elections ever since with landslide victories amid claims of rigging and destabilization of the opposition — which currently counts close to 300 parties. Biya is also frequently accused of commanding extensive control of parliament, the judiciary and the army.
"One man cannot be allowed to confiscate power for three decades as if Cameroonians were so dumb and lack alternatives," said Jean Michel Nitcheu, regional chair of the main opposition Social Democratic Front, SDF.
"We planned a peaceful march in the streets of Douala to denounce 30 years of regression and misery, but the (ruling party) governor has banned it saying we don't have authorization," he added.
In the October 2011 poll, official results showed that Biya beat 22 rivals with a 78 percent win. His supporters say he will stand for the 2018 poll if his health permits.
"I am very sure that Biya supporters will point to a host of things like the peace that Cameroon enjoys in a generally restive Central Africa," said Cameroonian blogger Innocent Chia. "They will also humor you with the number of political parties (over 300!), and then point out the 700 newspapers and 100 TVs and radios as evidence of a free press that has no access to the presidency for interviews!"
Currently, the government says some 40 percent of the country's over 20 million inhabitants toil below the poverty line. Thousands of youths are leaving the country yearly for Europe, Asia and America amid an unemployment rate reported by the government at 30 percent but thought to be far more by economists.
Cameroon has topped Transparency International's world's most corrupt country charts twice. An anti-corruption crackdown dubbed Operation Sparrow Hawk launched by Biya in 2006 to weed his regime of looters of public funds has so far landed more than 100 of his former close aides in prison. But critics worry he may be using the campaign as a tool to crush his potential rivals.
Observers warn the country may plunge into a protracted power scramble in the event of Biya's abrupt demise. They argue that constitutional provisions for transition and succession in Cameroon are not clear-cut and so the country cannot expect a smooth transition.
"There will be a constitutional vacuum leading to a major crisis because there is no constitutional roadmap for succession. The inevitable result is that the military will take over because that is the only corporate body that can impose its will on the whole country," added Nfor Susungi, a Cameroonian financial expert who is based in Ivory Coast and a longtime Biya critic.
Nicole Nana, the 30-year-old unemployed mother, said she does not have faith in the political system.
"Politics means very little to Cameroonians my age," said Nana. "People don't vote because they know they'll not see any change. In fact, many of my age-mates and I are agreed that only death will divorce Biya and the Cameroon presidency."