YAOUNDE - Cameroon has begun giving out free computers to all university students in what the government says will boost education and research. But the distribution of what is said to be a gift from Paul Biya, one of the longest serving presidents in the world, months before presidential elections has generated criticism.
Thousands of students sang as they lined up at the University of Yaounde II in Soa, 15 kilometers northeast from Cameroon's capital city, to receive free laptops. Among them was Eric Ambe, a 21-year-old second-year law student, who says he can now do online research. He says he could not raise $150 to buy a used laptop sold near his university.
"We are very happy because it will help us to study well, it will help us to prepare our courses well. With this gift, the youths can now study well," said Ambe.
Professor Jacques Fame Ndongo, Cameroon’s minister of higher education, is distributing the laptops. He said all registered university students will have their own share of what is a gift from President Biya, who, said he, is helping young university students secure access to a modern-day digital economy.
"Students are very delighted because they receive a fantastic gift from their father, the head of state, who loves them and who knows that they are the future of our dear and beloved country. The university community thanks his excellency, Paul Biya, for this donation," Ndongo said.
The first 80,000 laptops being distributed on the campus are part of a promise of 500,000 Biya made in 2016. The government has promised to distribute all of them by April 2018.
The computers, manufactured in the Chinese city of Shenzhen in Guangdong province, are branded PB HEV, short for Paul Biya, Higher Education Vision.
But at a computer repair shop at the student residential area of Bonamoussadi, three students have already sold their laptops, complaining that they are not of good quality. Pius Ayeneh, a hardware maintenance technician, says what is very frustrating to users is that the laptops are sluggish.
"The hard drive is too small. The capacity is 32 Gigabyte. The processing speed is just 1.44 Gigahertz. If you install like Microsoft Office and the operating system, you cannot run any other program," Ayeneh said.
The government announced it secured a loan of more than $133 million from China to buy the computers. The government says each costs about $550 and they will use the remainder of the loan to train information technology instructors.
But opposition political parties say the loan should have been better used to set up a computer assembly plant in the central African country. The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, (SDF) says Biya is using the computers as a campaign tool ahead of the September 2018 presidential election.
The SDF says Gambia invested $7.5 million to build a technology assembly plant and that Kenya also has one.
Cameroon government spokesperson Issa Tchiroma says the $133 million invested in the computer project includes a provision for high speed internet to all universities and institutions of higher learning. He refuted claims that Biya is using the laptops as a campaign tool.
"This project is a result of the head of state's initiative for Cameroonian students to give them the necessary boost and beyond, create the psychological trigger for their insertion in the digital world," Tchiroma said.
Cameroon will be organizing parliamentary and presidential elections in September 2018. There have been calls from within Biya's ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement for him to run again for president. He is one of the longest serving leaders in the world, already having been president for 35 years.