The Republic of Cameroon is a west African country bordered by Chad to the northeast, the Central African Republic to the east, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo to the south, and Nigeria to the west.
The country’s coast, on the Bight of Bonny, is part of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. Due to its geological and cultural diversity, it is called “Africa in miniature.” Cameroon has beaches, deserts, mountains, savannas, and rainforests. Mount Cameroon is the highest point. Douala, Yaounde, and Garoua are the largest cities. The country has 200 different languages. Native music includes makossa and bikutsi, among others. Cameroon’s football team is also successful. Official languages are English and French.
The Sao civilizations were early inhabitants around Lake Chad as were the Baka in the southeastern rainforest. Explorers from Portugal reached the area in the 15th century and named it Rio dos Camaroes, or the River of Shrimp. In the 19th century, Fulamo soldiers founded the Adamawa Emirate. Other groups founded chiefdoms as well. In 1884, the country became a German colony.
The territory was divided between France and Britain after World War I as mandates by the League of Nations. The Union des Populations de Cameroun party pushed for independence until the French outlawed it in the 1950s. It fought the French and other forces until 1971. In 1960, part of Cameroon became independent as the Republic of Cameroon. Its president was Ahmadou Ahidjo. In 1961, a part of British Cameroons united with it to become the Federal Republic of Cameroon. In 1972, it took the name the United Republic of Cameroon and in 1984, the Republic of Cameroon.
Cameroon has high social and political stability compared to other African nations. Its industries include agriculture, railways, roads, as well as timber and oil industries. Many Cameroonians do live in poverty as subsistence farmers. The president, Paul Biya and his party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, control the country. There is increasing alienation of English speaking parts of Cameroon from the rest of the county. Some leaders in these areas have called for separation or decentralization from remainder of Cameroon.
Neolithic settlers were the first in modern-day Cameroon. The Baka are the longest continuous inhabitants. Around 500 AD, the Sao culture arose near Lake Chad. The Sao gave way in favor of the Kanem and then the Bornu empire, its successor state. In the west, other kingdoms arose.
In 1472, Portuguese reached the coast and noted an abundance of mud lobster, Lepidophthalmus turneranus in the Wouri River. They renamed it Rio dos Camaroes, or the “River of Shrimp” in Portuguese. The Portuguese established coastal trade and Christian missionaries moved inland. In the 1800s, Fulani soldiers, led by Modibo Adama, fought a jihad against non-Muslim people in the north. They established the Adamawa Emirate. People fled the attacks and caused population redistribution.
In 1884, the Germans claimed the area and called it Kamerun. They moved inland and started improving infrastructure relying on forced labor. After World War I and the German defeat, Kamerun was split between the British and French in 1919. France improved Cameroon’s economy, which it called Cameroun, and made infrastructure improvements. France also continued the forced labor the Germans used.
British Cameroon was administered from Nigeria. Natives felt this led to neglect. The migration of Nigerians into the British portion angered local people but ended forced labor. In 1946, the League of Nations Mandates changed to United Nations Trusteeships. Independence became an important issue in French Cameroun. The radical Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) was outlawed by the French on July 13, 1955. A guerilla war followed. While traveling in Switzerland, the party’s leader, Ruben Um Nyobe, was assassinated. Around that time, British Cameroon was debating whether to join the French Cameroun or Nigeria.
French Cameroun became independent on January 1, 1960. Ahmadou Ahidjo became the first president. The British Cameroon joined it on October 1, 1961 and the country became the Federal Republic of Cameroon. During the war with the UPC, the president used the conflict as a reason to consolidate his power. This continued even after the UPC was suppressed in 1971.
The Cameroon National Union (CNU), the president’s party, became the sole one permitted by law on September 1, 1966. In 1972, the government abolished the federal system and established a United Republic of Cameroon out of Yaounde. Ahidjo’s liberal policies included giving oil exploration and cash crops priorities. Oil money created a national cash reserve, financed development projects, and paid farmers. Unfortunately, the appointment of unqualified advisors led these programs to failure.
On November 4, 1982, Ahidjo stepped down. Paul Biya, his successor, took power. Ahidjo stayed as the CNU’s head and tried to control the country from that position. Biya and his allies forced Ahidjo to resign. Biya then starting moving Cameroon toward a more open, democratic government. However, a failed coup moved him to adopt a governing style similar to his predecessor.
Economic hardship took place from the mid-1980s to the late 90s. This was caused by multiple factors, including international economic conditions, drought, corruption, low oil prices, cronyism, and mismanagement. The country was forced to turn to foreign aid. It also cut spending and privatized industries. In December, 1990, multi-party politics were introduced again and the former British areas of the country sought autonomy or secession.
Politics and Government
Cameroon’s president has powers to administer the government, create policy, negotiate and ratify treaties, command the military, and declare emergencies. The president has the power to appoint the prime minister, provincial governors, urban council members, and divisional officers. The country elects its president every seven years by popular vote. The public also elects mayors and councilors in smaller areas.
Corruption is a major problem, leading to the establishment of anti-corruption agencies in 1997, Of the 29 ministries proposed, only 25 percent ever started. President Biya started another anti-corruption drive on January 18, 2006 under the National Anti-Corruption Observatory.
Cameroon recognizes the power of local rulers and respects their authority if in line with national law. In Bana, West Region, there is a statue of a chief showing the prestige they are given.
The legal system is based on the French civil law system with some features of British common law. The judiciary is nominally independent, but the branch falls under the Ministry of Justice, part of the executive. Judges are appointed by the president. The lowest courts are the tribunals. There is a court of appeals and the supreme court. A Nine-member High Court of Justice is elected by the National Assembly. The court judges the government’s high ranking officials if charged with treason or other national security crimes.
According to human rights organizations, police and military mistreat criminal suspects, including torture. Ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and political activists are alleged to be similarly treated. Overcrowded prisons have insufficient food and medical facilities. Those operated by traditional rulers are said to hold the government’s political prisoners. Police have been prosecuted for misconduct demonstrating some progress.
Legislation is made by the National Assembly, which consists of 180 members elected to five year terms. The body meets three times per year. Majority vote is required to pass laws. The president’s proposed legislation is rarely blocked or modified. While a second house of parliament was established by the 1996 constitution, it has never been put into place. The government recognizes the authority of local rulers provided their actions are within the nation’s laws.
Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) was the only political party allow by law until December 1990. Other groups have formed since. The main opposition if the Social Democratic Front (SDF). It is based in the Anglophone area and John Fru Ndi is its head. While Biya’s party has maintained the presidency and control of the National Assembly, the opposition claims the elections were flawed. According to human rights groups, the government suppresses opposition demonstrations, disrupts their meetings, and arrests their leaders. Specifically, Freedom House declared the country as “not free.” On July 22, 2007, the latest parliamentary elections were held.
Cameroon is a member of international organizations, including the Commonwealth of Nations and La Francophonie. Cameroon’s foreign policy is aligned with France, on whom it relies heavily for its defense. Biya has fought Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula. There have also been personal fights with Gabon’s president, El Hadj Omar Bongo.
Education and Health
State run schools are free and available to most children. There are also private and religious schools. Most instruction is in English or French and follows those countries’ traditions. The country has one of Africa’s highest attendance rates. Girls attend less often than boys. This is due to cultural attitudes, early marriage, domestic duties, sexual harassment, and pregnancy, In the south, the attendance rates are higher. The northern schools are understaffed.
Cameroon has six state-run universities with over 60,000 enrolled. A vice-chancellor leads a council of deans, directors, and state representatives in governing the universities. The state funding is low and student registrations make up 25 percent of budgets. Universities have been reluctant to increase admission standards due to fears of losing student registration fees.
Private schools have started since 1990. They are more expensive, sometimes five to ten times the cost of state schools. Typically, they offer professional training programs like management, journalism, accounting, and internet courses. Many do not meet government standards and are unlicensed.
Healthcare quality is poor. Facilities are poorly equipped outside of the cities. Common diseases include filariasis, dengue fever, malaria, leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis, meningitis, and sleeping sickness. 5.4 percent of the population between ages 15-49 has HIV/AIDS. There is a strong stigma which keeps reporting low.
The Ministry of Territorial Administration (MINATD) prepares, implements, and assesses policy. It also plans for natural disaster prevention. MINATD also organizes elections.
Cameroon has 10 semi-autonomous regions. An elected Regional Council administers each. The president appoints a governor for each region. These are responsible for implementing the president’s policies in their regions. Governors also have the power to call in the army and order propaganda. They are technically employed by the Ministry of Territorial Administration.
There are further subdivisions into 58 divisions, each headed by divisional officers appointed by the president. There are additional subdivisions and districts, which are the smallest administrative unit.
The regions are Far North, North, Adamawa, Centre, East, South Province, Littoral, Southwest, Northwest, and West.
Geography and Climate
Cameroon is the 53rd largest world country at 472,442 sq. km. It is slightly larger than the U.S. state of California. It sits in Central and West Africa on the Bight of Bonny.
The country has five geographic zones. The coastal plain has an average elevation of 90m and extends 15 to 150km from the Gulf of Guinea. The area includes some of the wettest areas on earth. Rising from the coastal plain is the South Cameroon Plateau. It has an average elevation of 650m. It is dominated by equatorial rainforest. There is an alternating wet and dry season that does make it less humid than the coast.
The Cameroon range, a chain of mountains and hills, starts with Mount Cameroon on the coast, which is the highest point at 4,095 meters to the country’s northern end. Crater Lakes exist from volcanism. In August 1986, Lake Nyos, a crater lake, expelled CO2 and killed almost 2,000 people.
The southern plateau then moves to the Adamawa plateau. It is a barrier between Cameroon’s north and south. It has high rainfall and an average elevation of 1,100m. The lowland region starts at Adamawa and goes to Lake Chad. It has an elevation average of 300 to 350 meters. An arid region, it has low rainfall and high temperatures.
Cameroon’s drainage patterns include the principal rivers Ntem, Nyong, Sanaga, and Wouri, flowing to the Gulf of Guinea. The Dja and Kadei drain into the Congo River. The Benoue River moves into Niger and the Logone flows into Lake Chad.
Infrastructure and Economy
The per capita GDP is $2,300 in 2008. This is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s ten highest. Cameroon’s major export markets include Italy, France, Spain, the U.K. and South Korea. It is the dominant economy in the Bank of Central African States. It is also part of the Customs and Economic Union of Central Africa (UDEAC) and the Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (OHADA). The CFA franc if the national currency.
Corruption and high taxes impede private sector growth. In 2001, the rate of unemployment was 30 percent. One third of Cameroon’s population was living below the poverty level in 2009. The country has been complying with World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies to increase economic growth. Particularly in the coastal areas, tourism is growing.
The country’s resources are great for arboriculture and agriculture. 70 percent Cameroon’s population farms. In 2009, agriculture was 19.8 percent of GDP. However, most of this is at the subsistence level. Some maintain separate fields solely for commercial use. Those in cities rely on peasant products for their food. Coastal soil allows commercial banana, cocoa, rubber, tea, and oil palm cultivation. Inland, coffee, tobacco, and sugar are grown. In the western highlands, coffee is cultivated. Cotton, groundnuts, and rice are suited for the soil in the north.
Throughout the country, livestock is raised. Fishing is also present, employing 5,000 people and providing 20,000 tons of seafood yearly. Bush meat is now considered a delicacy in large cities.
Timber reserves exist in the southern rainforest, covering 37 percent of the country’s land area. The government receives $60 million yearly from foreign logging firms. This industry is one of Cameroon’s least regulated.
Industries relying on factories are another 29.7 percent of DGDP. Douala and Bonaberi account for 75 percent of the country’s industrial strength.
Cameroon’s minerals are not well mined. Oil production has fallen in the last 25 years. Oil is still such a large part of the economy that changes in prices produce major national effects. There is the potential for hydroelectric development in the southern rivers. The largest hydroelectric facility is located at Edea on the Sanaga River. The rest of the electricity comes from oil powered plants. Power is still unreliable.
Transportation is poor, with roads being poorly maintained in most areas except those connecting major cities. Only 10 percent of roads are paved. There are roadblocks, but they only exist to allow police to collect bribes. In the east and western border areas, banditry has been a problem.
There is private bus service connecting the major cities. They rarely depart on time and typically wait to fill before leaving. A government-owned rail service runs from Jumba to Belabo and north to Ngaoundere. Douala and Garoua have international airports. Douala’s harbor is provided by the Wouri estuary.
Freedom of the press has improved in the last decade, but there is still corruption. To avoid government reprisals, papers typically self-censor. All major television and radio stations are run by the government. Telephones and telegraphs are also state-owned. Cell phone and internet providers are mostly not regulated.
A 2019 estimate showed Cameroon’s population as 25,107,518 based on the latest United Nations estimates. With 40.0 percent under 15, the population is young. 95 percent are under 65. There are 34.1 births for every 1,000 people. Cameroon’s life expectancy is 53.69 years.
There is high population in the urban centers. Douala, Yaounde, and Garoua have the largest population among the cities.
Those from the western highlands are fleeing overpopulation and moving into the plantation zone on the coast and to the cities for jobs. Some regions have unbalanced ratios of men to women as a result of the migration.
The average family is large, with monogamy and polygamy both practiced. Society is dominated by males and violence against women is common.
There are between 230 to 282 ethnic and language groups in Cameroon. The people north of the Admawa Plateau are Sudanese and the Fulani. Some Shuwa Arabs live near Lake Chad. Cameroon’s south is home to populations that speak Bantu languages. In the rainforests, some 5,000 Pygmies roam or reside in small settlements. Nigerians are the largest of the foreign nationals in Cameroon.
A linguistic divide was created by the introduction of European languages during colonialism. Both French and English are national languages, but French is far more understood. In the areas formally part of the British colony, Pidgin English is spoken.
Cameroonians practice diverse religions with 40 percent Christian, 40 percent indigenous, and 20 percent Muslim. Religious freedom is high with Christians concentrated in the south and west. While concentrated in the north, Muslims live in every part of Cameroon.
In the northwest and southwest, most are Protestant, while the French speaking regions are primarily Catholic. In the south, people follow Animist or Christian religions, or a combination. There are wide beliefs in witchcraft, but the government outlaws their practice.
The Fulani group in the north is largely Muslim. The Bamum group in west also mostly Muslim. In rural areas, people practice local religions.
Each of the country’s groups has its own set of celebrations, typically including those for deaths, births, harvests, plantings, and religions. There are seven national holidays.
One national language, Busuu, has drawn international attention. It has only eight speakers left.
Dance and music are important at ceremonies, gatherings, storytelling, and festivals. Typically, traditional dances separate men and women. Dances can be for entertainment or religious reasons. In addition to traditional clapping, instruments used include bells, flutes, drums, rattles, horns, scrapers, stringed instruments, xylophones, and whistles.
Popular music exists and includes assiko, mangambeu, ambasse bey, and tsamassi. Nigerian music has also influenced that in Cameroon. The makossa music style began in Douala. Bikutsi began as Ewondo war music.
Regional cuisine varies, but it is common to have a large, one course meal in the evening. Dishes are based on maize, cassava, millet, cocyams, plantains, rice, potatoes, or yams. These are often served with a soup. Meat and fish are expensive but popular. Food is traditionally eaten using the right hand. Traditional drinks are water, millet beer, and palm wine.
Traditional crafts are made for decorative, religious, and commercial purposes. It is also common to find woodcarvings. In certain areas, the clay is good for pottery. Houses are made with locally available materials, but it is becoming common to see more cement or tin dwellings.
Literature has focused on African and European themes. Colonial era writers were typically European missionary educated. Other writers, such as Ferdinand Oyono and Mongo Beti, criticized colonialism after World War II.
Filmmakers began exploring similar themes after independence. Later on in the 1970s, other directors dealt with conflicts between colonial and traditional society. Eventually, they focused more on Cameroonian themes.
Canoe racing and wrestling are traditional sports. Participation in the Mount Cameroon Race of Hope is also widespread. The country also participated in the Winter Olympics, one of the few tropical countries to do so. Football is the primary sport. Since its showing in the 1990 World Cup, the national team has been one of the world’s most successful, winning a 2000 Olympic gold medal and four African Cup of Nations titles.