History of Cameroon

Published on 28th June 2005

From archaeological evidence it is known that humans have inhabited Cameroon for at least 50,000 years, and there is strong evidence of the existence of important kingdoms and states in more recent times. Of these, the most widely known is Sao, which arose in the vicinity of Lake Chad, probably in the 5th century AD. This kingdom reached its height from the 9th to the 15th centuries, after which it was conquered and destroyed by the Kotoko state, which extended over large portions of northern Cameroon and Nigeria. Kotoko was incorporated into the Bornu empire during the reign of Rabih az-Zubayr (Rabah) in the late 19th century, and its people became Muslims.


Islam became a powerful force in the Northern and Central portions of the country through conquest, immigration, and the spread of commerce from North and North-western Africa. The most significant bearers of this faith, the Fulani, entered northern Cameroon early 18th century. The first small groups of pastoralists were welcomed by the host populations. Eventually the Fulani, frustrated under non-Muslim rule and encouraged by the teachings of the mystic Usman dan Fodio, revolted. In the early 1800s Modibbo Adama was appointed by Usman to lead a jihad over large areas centred in Northern Nigeria, which were incorporated into Usman\'s Sokoto empire. The Fulani expansion reached its southernmost point with the conquest of Bamoum, a kingdom founded in the 17th century by Nshare, the son of a Tikar chief. Bamoum was one of the largest of numerous kingdoms that emerged in the grassland areas of Cameroon at least 300 years ago. The Fulani conquest was brief and did not result in Islamization, although this faith was accepted by a later ruler, Sultan Njoya, in the early 20th century.


Islam was a significant influence entering Cameroon from the North; other powerful influences entered from the southern coastal region. In 1472 the Portuguese Fernão do Pó was the first European to view the Cameroon coast, although Hanno, a Carthaginian, may have sailed there 2,000 years earlier. Pó was followed by traders, many of whom were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Cameroon became a significant source, with slaves being sold and traded at Bimbia, Douala, and other ports. Routes linked these ports far inland where the Bamileke, Bamoum, and other kingdoms provided the needed supply of slaves. In the early 1800s the slave trade declined, and attention turned to \"legitimate\" trade in rubber, palm oil, and other items. Earlier Portuguese and Dutch influences were largely replaced by the British and the Germans.


Christian missionaries were also becoming a factor. Under the leadership of Alfred Saker, a Briton, and West Indians such as Joseph Merrick, a Baptist station was established in 1845 at Akwa Town (now Douala). Saker established a larger post at Victoria (now Limbe) in 1858. The American Presbyterian mission opened a station in 1871. The origin and denomination of the missions changed frequently, but the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Roman Catholics have been the most important.


The Germans claimed the region in spite of the predominant role of the British along the coast in 1884. The explorer Gustav Nachtigal arrived in July 1884 to annex the Douala coast. The Germans moved inland over the years, extending their control and their claims. Initially, their major dealings were with African traders, but direct trade with the interior promised greater profits, and colonial power was used to break the African monopoly. Plantation agriculture was another major German economic activity. Large estates were established in South Western Kamerun to provide tropical produce for Germany. Traders, plantation owners, and government officials competed for labour, and force was used to obtain it. The system established was harsh, and many workers died serving German interests.

In World War I British, French, and Belgian African troops drove the Germans into exile, beginning a period of British rule in two small portions and French rule in the remainder of the territory. These League of Nations mandates (later United Nations trusts) were referred to as French Cameroun and British Cameroons.


The British trust territory consisted of a strip of land bisected by the Bénoué River along the eastern border of Nigeria. British rule was a period of neglect. This, coupled with the influx of numerous Nigerians, caused great resentment. The old German plantations--eventually united into a single parastatal, the Cameroon Development Corporation--were the mainstay of the economy. Development also occurred in peasant agriculture, especially in the latter years of British rule. Cocoa, coffee, and bananas saw rapid growth.

The French territory had an administration based on that of the other territories of French Equatorial Africa. Greater agricultural development took place in French Cameroun. Limited industrial and infrastructural growth also occurred, largely after World War II. At independence French Cameroun had a much higher gross national product per capita, higher education levels, better health care, and better infrastructure than British Cameroons.


Although there were differences in the French and British colonial experiences, there were also strong similarities. Most important, these rulers continued drawing Cameroon into the international economic system. By the time of independence, the trusts produced raw materials for European industries but were dependent on Europe, and especially France, for finished goods. This fragile economy continues to plague Cameroon.


After World War II, developments in Cameroon and Europe brought about independence. In British Cameroons the major question was whether to remain with Nigeria or to rejoin Cameroun. In a UN-supervised plebiscite in 1961, the South decided to reunify with French Cameroun to become the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The North voted to join the Federation of Nigeria.


In French Cameroun the major question was the type and intensity of the relationship with France after independence. The first nationalist party, the Cameroon People\'s Union (UPC) led by Felix-Roland Moumie and Reuben Um Nyobe, demanded a thorough break with France and the construction of a socialist economy. French officials suppressed the UPC, leading to a bitter civil war, while encouraging alternative political leaders. On Jan. 1, 1960, independence was granted, with Ahmadou Ahidjo the first president. Ahidjo and his party, the Cameroon Union, pledged to build a capitalist economy and to maintain close ties to France.


Ahidjo ruled from independence until 1982. He centralized power in the capital, Yaoundé. Cameroon became an authoritarian, single-party state in which civil rights meant little. The civil war ended slowly and brutally, but the state of emergency continued for years beyond its conclusion. Ahidjo declared nation building to be a major goal, using the fear of ethnic conflict to justify authoritarianism.

Ahidjo\'s policy of Planned Liberalism was formulated to encourage private investment, with the government’s strong role in guiding development. Expansion of export crops was to provide the foreign capital needed. In the 1973 announcement of the Green Revolution, the government proposed that the country was to become self-sufficient in food and to become the primary food source for its neighbours.


The discovery of exploitable petroleum in the 1970s was a great boost to the economy, and petroleum became the most valuable export. Petroleum revenues were used to increase prices to farmers, to pay for imports of materials and technology, and to build financial reserves. Sadly, petroleum income also paid for expensive, badly planned projects.


Large-scale industrial development projects met with little success. Problems in planning, technology transfer, and market research plagued these projects, and much capital was lost. There was more success in assisting the growth of agribusinesses and small and medium-sized enterprises producing goods for local use. But to a large extent the country still depended on imported industrial goods. Exceptions to this were refined petroleum products, cement, textiles and clothing, beverages, and aluminum. Expansion of transportation facilities, the development of hydroelectric capability, and tremendous growth in education took place.


In 1982 Cameroon underwent a dramatic political change, and important though less obvious economic changes were under way. On November 4 President Ahidjo resigned the presidency, and two days later Paul Biya took power. Ahidjo retained his leadership of the Cameroon National Union (UNC), the sole political party. The tranquil nature of the transfer did not last. Ahidjo did not expect to end his domination of the political system. He wished to keep overall control while turning over lesser duties to Biya; however, Biya had his own mind. The showdown took place when Ahidjo tried to assert party domination over the government. Biya had built a coalition that was sufficient to overwhelm Ahidjo, who resigned from the party; a minor coup attempt and, on April 6, 1984, a bloody uprising by the Republican Guard favoured, if not directed, by Ahidjo or his supporters--followed. Biya prevailed, and Ahidjo\'s UNC soon became Biya\'s Cameroon People\'s Democratic Movement.


Biya sought the development of a more democratic society. Although the country was still a single-party state, he allowed competitive elections for party offices and the National Assembly. He also experimented with freedom of speech and the press. The conflict with Ahidjo and the 1984 coup attempt, however, brought back some of the restrictions of the Ahidjo era.


The economy also presented major problems. Ahidjo resigned just before a severe economic crisis emerged, and Cameroonians placed the blame on Biya. The crisis was the result of international economic conditions and the dependent economy he inherited. Decreases in commodity prices were harmful. Cameroon\'s income which was dependent on exports, dropped. In 1987 Biya admitted that the country faced an economic crisis. A World Bank structural adjustment program and budget cuts were necessary, and ripple effects were felt throughout the economy. While Cameroon had made economic progress since independence, it had not been able to change the dependent nature of its economy. This realization was the cause of much frustration, and in the late 1980s opposition to the government grew.

In 1990 the formation of political parties was permitted and in 1992 Cameroon became a multiparty democracy. In the first elections the RDPC became the largest party without an overall majority and Biya won in 1992 narrowly the presidential elections. Although formally a democracy, the old regime of the RDPC continued to rule in an authoritarian way, and the opposition boycotted the 1997 and 2002 elections.

Below is an analysis of Cameroon by the 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal:

Rank: 126

Score: 3.60

Category: Mostly Unfree

Population: 15,769,000

Total Area: 475,440 sq. km

GDP: $11 billion

GDP growth rate: 4.4%

GDP per capita: $700

Major exports: crude oil, coffee, cocoa, timber and cork

Exports of goods and services: $3.2 billion

Major export trading partners: Italy 16.5%, Spain 15.9%, France 12.7%, US 8.3%

Major imports: fuel, manufacturers, machines and electrical equipment, transport equipment

Imports of goods and services: $3.4 billion

Major import trading partner: France 28.4%, Nigeria 12.8%, US 8.0%, Germany 5.8%

Foreign direct investment (net): $83 million






2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal










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