Cameroon is celebrating the 90th birthday of President Paul Biya, the world's oldest head of government. Supporters say they hope he will extend his four decades in power when the next election comes in 2025. Opponents say Biya has become authoritarian and cite concerns about his health. Young people, especially students, have been forced to take part in Biya's birthday activities.
This song, Rigor, by Cameroon’s legendary artist, Jojo Ngalle, blasts through speakers at the 5,000-seat Multipurpose Sports Complex in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé.
Ngalle says in the song that Biya should be credited for bringing rigor and moralization to Cameroon.
Among the senior state functionaries celebrating the anniversary is Philemon Yang, Cameroon’s immediate past prime minister and Biya’s close collaborator.
Yang says he is celebrating an exceptionally good leader who has brought peace and development to Cameroon.
"We are celebrating longevity, achievements, political achievements, economic achievements, you can imagine democratization, that is a big achievement. So we are celebrating many things," he said. "Rigor is with us, moralization is with us and, most of all, living together. These are psychological achievements which can never be reduced to nothing. We don't see them, they are invisible but extremely important to us."
The government says public places in towns and villages across Cameroon hosted activities Monday marking Biya’s 90th birthday.
Biya has been Cameroon’s president since 1982. He took over from Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahijo. Biya served as prime minister for seven years before becoming president.
He has won all multiparty elections since 1992, although opposition parties have always complained the elections were heavily rigged.
In 2008, he removed term limits from the constitution, allowing him to serve indefinitely. His current mandate ends in 2025.
During the birthday celebrations Monday, Biya’s ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement party called on the nonagenarian to seek another term.
If Biya were to win the 2025 election, he would be 95 when the mandate ends in 2030.
The government says young people came out voluntarily to celebrate because they love Biya.
However, geography teacher Henry Mbiydzenyuy says the government instructed secondary school and university students to attend the celebrations.
"I was born in the mid-eighties, Biya was already the president of Cameroon. I am almost 40 years [old] and the man is still the president of Cameroon. It's hurting. Cameroonians need a change. If people are celebrating Biya, throwing parties and calling students to come join them, it's hypocrisy at its highest level," he said.
Biya was not physically present at his Yaoundé birthday celebration. Local media often raise concerns about his age and health. But the government says Biya is in excellent shape.
Biya was last seen in public on February 10, while delivering a message for Cameroon Youth Day, celebrated the following day.
In the message, Biya asked young people to count on him and his government for more development projects, schools, universities, roads, hospitals, electricity and water.
However, opposition political parties blame Biya for what they call an economic disaster in Cameroon despite the central African state’s rich natural resources.
Violet Fokum is the executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy. She says Biya has not been able to solve rampant corruption and the separatist crisis that have killed more than 3,500 people since 2017.
"Look at the number of children who have dropped out of school. Ten percent of girls marry before the ages of 15, and then 31[%] by the age of 18. Schools have been shut down. When these kids are on the streets, they are recruited as child soldiers or they become bush wives to nonstate armed groups,” she said.
The 90-year-old Biya is the world's oldest serving leader and Africa's second-longest serving president after his neighbor Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of Equatorial Guinea. Obiang has been in power since 1979.