“It was as if time stood still,” said an exuberant announcer as Cameroon’s President Paul Biya landed in the country’s north to kick-off campaigning ahead of next week’s polls.
He was in the town of Maroua on Saturday for the first time in six years, drumming up support ahead of voting on October 7 when the 85-year-old will seek a seventh term.
The polls will be held to an unprecedented backdrop of violence, as clashes continue in the country’s separatist anglophone regions and Boko Haram fighters continue to threaten Cameroon’s northeast — including Maroua.
“We are proud that he is here, proud that he thinks of us,” said a pro-Biya activist who wore a blue and white pagne print smock emblazoned with the president’s face.
Nearby, a local leader wearing a pagne outfit in the presidential colours jumped with joy and took the hand of the man beside him as the president made his way down the red carpet.
“It is with barely concealed joy that we are covering this event,” a journalist for the state CRTV broadcaster told his audience emphatically.
The visit of Mr Biya and a dozen of his ministers who come from the poor, under-developed region, was held amid tight security and only announced days ahead of the event.
Army vehicles were deployed to upgrade the road along which Mr Biya’s long convoy travelled between the town and the airport. Even the lampposts were upgraded.
“The RDPC promised us tar and lights,” said a motorcycle taxi driver with a smile, referring to Mr Biya’s ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement.
But in the Maroua-3 area of town, youngsters promised 3,000 CFA francs ($5.20, 4.5 euros) to help clean up the town ahead of the VIP arrival received little more than half that.
“So now they’re on strike,” sighed one of the event organisers, visibly frustrated with the clean-up effort in the town which was adorned with Mr Biya’s signature blue.
On Friday night, the main opposition party Social Democratic Front’s candidate Joshua Osih staged a night-time public meeting in the town. But it attracted just a few hundred supporters — a far cry from the vast production staged by “Team Biya”.
Minibuses covered in Biya posters began to flow into the town from as early as Friday, bringing thousands of pro-government supporters on dilapidated roads from across the region and beyond.
“I came from Ngaoundere to transport the supporters — the RDPC paid,” said one of the many drivers in Maroua referring to his town 500 kilometres (310 miles) away from Saturday’s event.
Another man added that “his uncle’s minibus was requisitioned to transport the activists”.
All of the Biya supporters who spoke to AFP said that the aim of the event was to shore-up the president’s voting base in a region that was solidly behind the ruling party in 2011.
“The RDPC has already taken off, Paul Biya is our pilot, we’ll vote for him, 100 percent,” said one supporter of the president as he waited for his entourage to arrive.
Supporters crowded along the town’s streets which were lined with billboards bearing Biya’s face, proclaiming him to be the “force of experience”.
Some told AFP that they had been paid for their “support”.
“2,000 CFA francs — but it’s not much,” said one.
Mr Biya spoke to the crowds for just 15 minutes, his first public speech since February — and his first appearance during official campaigning, which began the previous Saturday, September 22.
He thanked the people of the region, which is Cameroon’s poorest, for the “warmth of their welcome” and promised increased oil exploration efforts in the region. He also vowed to jump-start the tourist industry, which has been battered by Boko Haram violence.
The country had “overcome the worst” of the conflict against anglophone separatists, as well as the bloody insurgency being waged in the far north by the Nigeria-based jihadist group Boko Haram, he said.
Security has emerged as a key electoral battleground after English-speaking separatists vowed that the poll would not go ahead.
Nine candidates will compete for the presidency, which President Biya has held with an iron grip since 1982.
Biya had been due to spend the night in Maroua but flew back to the capital Yaounde after just seven hours on the ground.
By Saturday night, the customary hooting of motorcycle taxis had returned, replacing the incessant sirens of Biya’s extended, heavily-armed motorcade.