10/12/2010 04:04:51
Biya launches campaign on hostile ground
Paul Biya has launched his re-election campaign under heavy security, visiting a region traditionally hostile to his rule and promising roads, electricity and education.
Reuters
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The rare trip into the impoverished northwest region -- whose residents have long accused him of neglect -- came amid rising public frustration over his slow pace of reforms and tight grip on power since taking control of the central African oil producer nearly three decades ago.

"We must learn to see the coming decades as a source of hope and numerous aspirations," Biya told a crowd in the northwest town of Bamenda during a ceremony honouring the 50th anniversary of Cameroon's military.

"I promise you that in our programme of national development, no region will be forgotten," he said, promising to refurbish the region's road network, build a university, and end its electricity shortages.

Cameroon, whose $22-billion economy is central Africa's largest, will hold elections in 2011. Biya took power in 1982, making him one of Africa's longest-serving presidents.

Opposition leaders have accused Biya's government of trying to orchestrate a fraudulent win by naming allies to positions in the electoral commission, a charge the government denies.

In 2008 he rejigged the constitution to remove term limits, setting off violent protests but allowing him to stand in the upcoming poll.

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Cameroon's recent annual growth rates of around 3 percent barely keep up with its rate of population growth, while local estimates put the number of youths without proper employment at close to 80 percent.

Think-tank International Crisis Group said this year that growing political tension leading into next year's vote had raised the chances of conflict, putting at risk billions of dollars in energy and mining investments.

Major resource companies including miner Rio Tinto and oil giant Total are active in Cameroon.

Biya's government is seeking to diversify its oil-driven economy with a slew of hoped-for mining developments, many of which can only go forward if the country follows through on an ambitious plan to expand electricity generation capacity.

Biya's visit to Bamenda was marked by heavy security.

Some 4,000 troops patrolled the town's streets with residents staying indoors for fear of being arrested and shops and restaurants closing.

A speech by Biya on Wednesday and a military parade on Thursday near Bamenda's airport drew huge crowds, but some residents said they were sceptical.  "For me, this was just taking the people for another long ride," teacher John Menkefor said.

The northwest region is the scene of some of Cameroon's worst political violence, including the killing of 12 people in army raids on Bamenda and Ndu to the north after the formation of an opposition movement in the early 1990s.

"Mr. Biya came to Bamenda to celebrate military day, but he seized on the opportunity to politicise the event," said John Fru Ndi, head of the opposition SDF party who ran for president against Biya in 1992. "I don't take his promises seriously."

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