Cameroonians woke up on 6 November to a real surprise. Very unexpectedly, a decree signed by President Paul Biya declared the day a public holiday to mark his 20 years in power. However, most people in the capital ignored the anniversary demonstrations organised by the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM). Apart from public offices and schools, it was business as usual for the private sector.
Some students from three secondary schools are currently suspended for failing to turn up to applaud the president as he returned from one of his numerous foreign trips on 29 October.
Biya came to power on 6 November 1982 when his predecessor, Ahmadou Ahidjo, suddenly resigned after 22 years in power, presumably on health grounds. His resignation sent shock waves throughout the country as it came totally unexpected. Ahidjo had wielded absolute power and nobody could believe that he would hand over power at the age of 62. Though Biya was the prime minister under Ahidjo, he was still a political featherweight and few really still knew him. But his supporters dubbed his programme the "New Deal", drawing from America's Franklin Roosevelt. With this, Biya so charmed the people that wherever he went, tens of thousands turned out to receive him. And he mixed freely with them. He was a man of the people", as one local newspaper called him. Biya himself declared that Cameroonians would no longer need to go underground to express their opinion.
There could have been no better timing for his coming. Ahidjo had left behind a sound economy with a 7% growth rate and huge foreign reserves to build upon. Oil revenue was flowing in, and in fact, Cameroon's economy was tipped as one of the most promising in Africa. Biya himself boasted that the country would never go to the IMF!
But 20 years on, his stay has dimmed even though his supporters and the state media paint a success story. They credit him with granting greater freedom of speech and of the press, and introducing a multiparty democracy. Customs inspector, Raymond Gwanyalla, sums it all up:
"Biya has injected a gradual process of liberalisation. We have a pluralistic democracy. From the way the president has opened up, there is no doubt that we are facing a future where Cameroon will be one of the greatest democracies in Africa."
According to Adamu Ndam Njoya, leader of the country's second largest opposition parry, multipartism has come but not democracy. "Yes, there has been some opening," Njoya...