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Cameroon's incumbent President Paul Biya, of the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement party, casts his vote during the presidential elections in Yaounde, Cameroon, on Sunday Oct. 7, 2018.

The Associated Press

Africa’s oldest president, preparing to enter his fifth decade in power, may finally have a successor waiting in the wings: his eldest son.

Paul Biya, the 88-year-old autocrat who has dominated Cameroon for the past 39 years, is sometimes described as the world’s longest-ruling non-royal leader – if his seven years as prime minister are added to his decades as president.

And now some of his loyalists are campaigning for a quasi-monarchical transition. They call themselves “Franckistes,” and their goal is simple: to groom the President’s son, 49-year-old businessman Franck Biya, to succeed him. Rumours of a father-to-son handover have been splashed across newspaper front pages and social media in recent weeks.

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If it happens, it will be another tumble in the backward slide of democracy in Africa and many other parts of the world. Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization, reported last month that 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. “The long democratic recession is deepening,” it said.

Freedom House estimated that less than 20 per cent of the world’s population is now living in a free country – the smallest percentage since 1995.

In a growing number of African countries, the deterioration of democracy has been marked by attempts to perpetuate the power of long-dominant families. In Togo and Gabon, sons have already succeeded their fathers as rulers, allowing their families to remain in control for more than half a century. Similar dynastic accessions to power have been rumoured in Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and the Republic of Congo.

And now Cameroon may become the next example. The Franckistes say they are organizing themselves across the country and in the Cameroonian diaspora to support the man they call “our champion” – the President’s son.

Cameroonian elite Rapid Intervention Battalion members sit on their military vehicle under a plazard of Cameroon President Paul Biya, who is running for re-election scheduled for Oct. 7, during a patrol in the south west city of Buea, Cameroon, on Oct. 4, 2018.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Franck Biya is a reclusive entrepreneur who has avoided the political spotlight. He is reported to have interests in the forestry sector and other private investments. But his backers are convinced that he is best qualified to succeed his father.

“We are charmed by his extraordinary humility, his exemplary behaviour, which should be copied by all our compatriots,” said Mohamed Rahim Noumeu, a business mogul who leads the Citizen Movement of Franckistes for the Peace and Unity of Cameroon.

Mr. Noumeu insists his movement has no connection to Cameroon’s government or ruling party. Its goal, he said, is simply “to ensure a peaceful transition in Cameroon in the coming years” with Franck Biya at the helm.

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Officially the question of succession is a taboo topic within the ruling party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, because the President still has four years remaining in his term. The next election is not scheduled until 2025, by which time the President will be 92.

But in recent weeks, front-page articles in Cameroonian newspapers have been touting the possibility of a father-to-son handover, while social media has been buzzing with photos and videos of Franck Biya.

Cameroon has had only two heads of state since its independence in 1961. Opposition parties and independent analysts have described the country’s elections as routinely rigged. The ruling party voted in 2008 to amend the constitution to remove presidential term limits, allowing Mr. Biya to stay in power indefinitely.

Since then, he has become notorious for spending months at a luxury hotel in Geneva. Opponents called him “the President of the Hotel Intercontinental.” In some years, he has spent as much as a third of the year outside Cameroon.

An investigation in 2018 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project estimated that Mr. Biya had spent US$182-million on his private travel since becoming President. During his Geneva jaunts, he has reportedly spent US$40,000 a day for hotel accommodations for himself and his entourage of as many as 50 bodyguards, politicians, butlers and other staff.

Meanwhile, among ordinary Cameroonians, frustrations have been growing over widespread poverty and war. Almost half the population has an income of less than US$2 a day, despite the country’s oil and cocoa resources. Military conflict and human-rights abuses have been fuelled by confrontations with the Boko Haram radical Islamist militia in the north and separatist forces in the English-speaking regions of the country.

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As these pressures mount, it may be difficult for the ruling party to engineer a familial succession. Despite the Franckiste campaign, Franck Biya still lacks popularity or much of a profile, analysts say.

“I see the ongoing campaign as a teaser to see if people even know about Franck Biya, to see if people see him as a possible leader,” said Eyong Tarh, a human-rights activist and media commentator in the capital, Yaoundé.

In particular, the campaign is trying to gauge support among Cameroon’s youth, a key political constituency, Dr. Tarh said.

But even if the manoeuvre fails, it is unlikely to deter other African dynasties.

Paul Biya’s rival as the world’s longest-serving president, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who has ruled his country since seizing power in a 1979 coup, has already installed his son as his vice-president and presumed successor.

In the Republic of Congo, President Denis Sassou Nguesso – who has ruled for 37 years – is reportedly seeking to anoint his son, Denis Christel, as his successor.

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