Republic of Cameroon

POPULATION: 22.82 million (2014)

AREA: 183,568 sq. mi. (475,400 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: French, English (official); Bantu dialects (24)

NATIONAL CURRENCY: CFA franc

PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Traditional 51%, Christian 33%, Muslim 16%

CITIES: Yaoundé (capital) 1,119,000 (1999 est.); Douala, Nkongsamba, Maroua, Bafoussam, Foumban, Garoua, Limbe, Bamenda, Kumba

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies by region from 23 in. (600 mm) in the extreme north to 390 in. (10,000 mm) along the coast

ECONOMY: GDP $32.55 billion (2014)

PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:

  • Agricultural: coffee, cocoa, cotton, rubber, bananas, livestock, timber
  • Manufacturing: textiles, lumber, food and beverage processing
  • Mining: petroleum, bauxite, iron ore

GOVERNMENT: German colony until 1916, then divided by League of Nations between France and England. In 1960 French portion declared independence. In 1961 English portion voted to split, with part joining Nigeria, remainder joining Cameroon. Multiparty democracy; president and AssemblÉe Nationale elected by universal suffrage.

HEADS OF STATE SINCE INDEPENDENCE:

  • 1960–1982 President Ahmadou Ahidjo
  • 1982– President Paul Biya

ARMED FORCES: 13,100 (1998 est.)

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–11; literacy rate 63%

Republic of Cameroon

The West African country of Cameroon extends from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Chad in the interior. As one of the most culturally diverse nations in Africa, Cameroon includes hundreds of different ethnic groups. Long a crossroads for merchants from the Middle East and Europe, it was controlled by various European powers before gaining independence in the 1960s.

GEOGRAPHY AND ECONOMY

Cameroon’s Atlantic coast is swampy and densely forested. Mount Cameroon, an active volcano and the highest peak in western Africa, towers above the rest of the coastline. Farther inland, the country divides into two main regions: the western highlands and the southern plateau.

Landforms

The mountains of Cameroon’s western highlands serve as a natural boundary with NIGERIA. The mountains contain various mineral deposits and are covered with rich volcanic soil. The western highlands merge into the southern plateau, also known as the Bamileke Grassfields. This area of gently rolling hills stretches eastward into the CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC. Cameroon’s capital city, Yaoundé, is located in the center of the southern region.

Northern Cameroon features the Benue Depression, a low-lying district around the Kebi River valley that is enclosed on three sides by mountains. Beyond the mountains the Chad Plain gradually slopes down to the shores of Lake Chad. Cameroon’s many rivers, noted for their rapids and waterfalls, are used for transportation and the production of hydroelectric power.

Climate and Vegetation

Cameroon’s climate and vegetation vary with the terrain. Southern Cameroon has a warm and rainy equatorial climate. Mangrove swamps along the southern coast eventually give way to thick rain forests, particularly in the southeast.

The coast has a wet season that runs from May through October, followed by a dry season from November to April. The coast receives more rainfall than the interior, where the rainy season lasts only two or three months. Farther north the climate is hotter and drier, and the vegetation changes from rain forest to wooded grasslands. The far north experiences desertlike conditions. Grass and shrubs grow during the wet season, but the region has little vegetation during the rest of the year.

Economy

Cameroon’s strong agricultural base produces enough food for its growing population as well as a surplus for export. The main agricultural exports are cocoa, coffee, and timber. Cameroonian industries produce both oil and tin, and the country also contains deposits of uranium and iron ore. In addition, the peoples of the southern plateau produce items such as wood carvings for sale to outside markets.

The transportation infrastructure is relatively well developed, with good roads connecting most towns and cities to the surrounding areas. These roads allow many people of the densely populated southern plateau to leave the area to work and send money home to family members. However, despite its natural resources, Cameroon’s economy was in crisis in the 1990s due to political instability and poor investment of the profits from agriculture and industry.

HISTORY AND GOVERNMENT

Several powerful kingdoms existed in Cameroon before the arrival of Europeans in the late 1400s. During the colonial era, which began in the late 1800s, the region was controlled by three different European powers: Germany, Britain, and France. Modern Cameroon reflects the legacy of these various political influences.

Precolonial and Colonial History

People of Cameroon’s early societies crossed the Sahara desert to trade with Egypt and other civilizations along the Mediterranean Sea. Gradually, separate kingdoms arose around Lake Chad and in the eastern grasslands. Trade, migration, and expansion brought the kingdoms of the region into contact with one another. In the 1400s the Bamileke and Bamum kingdoms joined together to form a confederation. Another early kingdom, Mandara, was conquered by the BORNU empire in the 1500s.

Many of the first Europeans in Cameroon were merchants. They began exporting ivory and slaves from the area. By the late 1800s several European powers had set their sights on Cameroon. In 1884 the Germans established the Kamerun Protectorate in the region, but during World War I the British and French took over the colony. After the war, Britain and France divided the colony and ruled it under the supervision of the League of Nations, an organization formed to promote international security.

Britain controlled the northwestern portion of the country, known as British Cameroons and incorporated it into the colony of Nigeria. However, Britain did little to develop the area. In fact, British rule is seen as a time of neglect, and many Cameroonians were angry with both the British colonial leaders and the Nigerians. France invested much more time and money in French Cameroun, and a large number of French citizens settled there. By the time of independence, this part of the country was wealthier, more educated, and had a much stronger infrastructure than the British section.

In 1958 pressure for greater political freedom caused France to declare Cameroun a republic with limited self-government. Two years later the republic became independent. In 1961 the northern section of British Cameroons voted to join Nigeria; the southern section became part of the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

From Colony to Dictatorship

The first president of the new republic, Ahmadou Ahidjo, promised to maintain close relations with France and to build an economy based on capitalism. One of Ahidjo’s main goals was to unite the English- and French-speaking parts of the country. He hoped to get Cameroonians to identify with the nation rather than their own ethnic groups. To achieve his goals, Ahidjo combined the nation’s political parties into a single party, the Cameroon National Union (CNU). The president ruled as an absolute dictator, with power concentrated in his hands and exercised through the CNU.

Problems soon arose in stabilizing the country’s economy. During the early years of independence, Cameroon was heavily dependent on foreign trade and produced few goods for its own population. With the discovery of oil in 1976, petroleum became Cameroon’s main source of income. However, much of this money was spent on poorly planned projects.

In 1982 Ahidjo resigned and his prime minister, Paul Biya, took over the presidency. However, Ahidjo tried to maintain control of the government from behind the scenes, and this led to a confrontation between the two men. Forces loyal to Ahidjo staged an uprising in 1984, but Biya defeated them and exiled Ahidjo. Up to this time Biya had been trying to make the country more democratic, but the uprising caused him to adopt more authoritarian measures.

The people of Cameroon, who wanted more political freedom, opposed Biya’s policies. They pressed the government for democratic reforms and staged demonstrations in 1990. New political parties emerged and multiparty elections were held in 1992. Still, Biya and his party managed to maintain their majority. Biya then arrested the leader of the main opposition party, leading to clashes between the government and its opponents. A new constitution, drafted the following year, gave the president and the central government very strong powers. Although parliamentary elections were held again in 1997, Biya’s party was able to control the process under the new constitution. Many observers considered the elections unfair.

Government

The president of Cameroon is elected directly by the people for a seven-year term and may serve a maximum of two terms. The president appoints the prime minister, the official head of the government. The legislature consists of the Assemblée Nationale, whose members are directly elected, and the Senate. The people elect regional and local councils, but the president may suspend or dissolve these councils. In general, the president holds enormous political power and progress toward democracy has been slow.

PEOPLES AND CULTURES

Cameroon is home to over 250 ethnic groups and more than 300 different languages. The ethnic groups correspond to the various geographical regions of the country. The southern coast and inland forests are inhabited by a wide variety of agricultural and fishing societies as well as nomadic Pygmy groups. Most people in the inland forests live in small villages headed by a chief or a council of elders. Christianity and formal education are more widespread near the coast, where contact with Europeans occurred earlier than in the inland villages.

The Bamileke, a group of tightly organized chiefdoms, live in Cameroon’s grassy plateaus. These communities vary in size from a few people to tens of thousands. Although most of the Bamileke practice Christianity, the ruling families of one group, the Bamum, converted to Islam in the 1800s.

Northern Cameroon has been heavily influenced by a Muslim people known as the FULANI. Several dozen Fulani states were established in northern Cameroon during the 1800s and absorbed much of the non-Muslim population. As a result, Islam is widespread in the region. With the migration of many rural people to the cities of northern Cameroon, the influence of Fulani culture has continued to spread. (See also Climate, Colonialism in Africa, Islam in Africa, Pygmies, Slave Trade.)