Cameroon’s legacy of ethnic diversity dates back to 8,000 BCE with the migration of the Baka people into the country’s modern-day borders. By 200 BCE, an influx of Bantu-speaking tribes into the southern and eastern regions of the country had pushed the Bakas off arable land and into the nearby forests. Meanwhile, Arabic and Hamitic migratory groups began to settle in the dry, arid north. Several important civilizations grew in the north surrounding the Chad basin, including strongholds of power belonging to the Karem, Bournou, and Sou peoples. But at the beginning of the 15th century, these northern ethnic groups were joined by the nomadic, Islamist Fulani tribe who, by the 1700’s, had established a powerful presence in the region.
Europeans first arrived on Cameroonian soil in the 15th century, when Portuguese explorer Fernando Po led an expedition of explorers up the Wouri River in 1472. Due to the abundance of giant shrimps in the river, Po christened the river the Rio dos Camaroes (or the River of Prawns), the base of which forms the name Cameroon. Po’s arrival in Cameroon marked the beginning of a 400-year trading relationship between the Portuguese and local African chiefs primarily from Douala, Limbé, and Bonaberi. This trade, which consisted of slaves, foodstuff, and goods, eventually came to include the British, Dutch, French, and Germans in addition to the Portuguese. Yet, as was the case in most Afro-European relations, malaria and other tropical diseases restricted European presence to the costal regions.
The explosion of Euro-African trade increased the prominence of the coastal kingdoms, overtaking the pre-existing Bornou Empire. The power of the coastal kingdoms was balanced by the Fulani stronghold in the north, which was consolidated by the end of the eighteenth century through either conquering or expelling the region’s non-Muslim population. The Fulani themselves proceeded to establish a lucrative slave trade that sustained their hold on power, while the cessation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade forced southern ethnic groups to trade exclusively in gold and ivory in return for European guns, metals, cloth, and alcohol. These southern ethnic groups made lucrative profits off of their trade with the Europeans, mostly due to their role as middlemen in the exchanges.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the European Scramble for Africa radically changed power structures in Cameroon. The southern coastal tribes developed a fear that the interior ethnic groups would start trading directly with the Europeans, thus undercutting their powerful intermediary status. To avoid this, the Douala-centered chiefs sought a British protectorate that would cement their power; yet British delays in sending an envoy to meet with the chiefs forced the African leaders to turn to Germany instead. In 1884, Germany assumed sovereignty of the territory and, in exchange, conferred special trade privileges upon the chiefs of Douala and Bamiléké.
From 1884 to 1919, all of present-day Cameroon was consolidated and administered as the German colony Kamerun, despite the multitude of ethnic groups with their individual histories, cultures, traditions, and governments. The Germans administered Kamerun intent on building the colony’s infrastructure and consolidating its rule by expanding into the interior and conquering tribal strongholds. Yet, Germany’s defeat in World War I halted any grand plans it might have had for the colony, for as a stipulation in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to surrender its overseas colonies to the victorious European powers. Under a mandate from the League of Nations, France assumed control of 80% of the colony, excepting a small sliver of territory in the west which Britain administered as North Cameroon and South Cameroon from Nigeria’s colonial capital in Lagos.
British and French colonial rule of Cameroon lasted past World War II, yet the war left the two imperialist nations economically and militarily crippled. Across Africa and the rest of the colonial world, movements for independence charged against the European powers, and Cameroon was no exception. In French Cameroon, rage at the French-imposed taxes and forced labor systems coalesced into anti-colonial political parties that advocated for independence and reunification. Most notable of these parties was the Union of Cameroonian Peoples (in French, Union des Populations du Cameroun, or the UPC), consisting mainly of the Bamiléké and Bassa ethnic groups, and the Bloc Démocratique Camerounais (BDC), led by Fulani native Ahmadou Ahidjo.
From the start, the UPC insisted upon immediate independence and reunification of the two Cameroons. When these demands were not met, the UPC resorted to armed conflict for an independent French Cameroon, a struggle that lasted past independence. Meanwhile, Ahidjo went on to create a more conservative political party, l’Union Camerounaise, which succeeded in eliciting self-governance from France in 1958. For his efforts, Ahidjo was made Prime Minister, a position which he continued to hold after independence. Then, on January 1, 1960, France granted its Cameroonian territory independence, followed a year later by a U.N.-sponsored referendum in the British Cameroons. The Muslim-dominated North Cameroon voted to join Nigeria while South Cameroon voted to join East Cameroon as one country.
Thus, as the Federal Republic of Cameroon, the newly reunified African nation proceeded to tackle its post-independence problems: lack of industry, underdevelopment, a weak economy dependent on a few key exports, a multi-ethnic population, and the always-troublesome postcolonial political transition. Yet, Cameroon encountered stability instead of political disintegration, and it was able to avoid debt, feed its population, and recharge the economy. From 1961-1963, however, the Federal Republic did experience mass unrest, allegedly at the hands of the UPC. To counter this political instability, Ahidjo transformed Cameroon into a one-party state, limited civil liberties, imprisoned his political opponents, and quelled the rebellion completely by 1970.
Cameroon saw another political transformation in 1972, when the nation voted by referendum to replace the federal government with a unitary system under the United Republic of Cameroon. This change put the outnumbered Anglophone regions at a disadvantage in the balance of political power, a problem that continues to exist today. Meanwhile, the Cameroonian economy experienced a resurgence: agricultural and industrial sectors were developed, school enrollment rose, and the country became self-sufficient.
In 1982, Ahidjo stepped down from his political post and handed power over to his prime minister, Paul Biya. Biya was a southern politician from the Bulu-Beti tribe who consolidated power by eliminating all opposition parties following an attempted coup in 1984. One of his most important initial measures after rising to power was the unilateral change of the country’s name in 1984 from a ‘United Republic’ to simply a ‘Republic.’ This change was hugely symbolic, for it further stripped away the autonomy the Anglophones held from the Francophones; it remains a point of contention for the Anglophones to this day.
Ruling as an autocrat and running unopposed, Biya was reelected into power in 1988, commanding an overwhelming 99% percent of the vote. Through the 1990’s, the country saw an increase in political dissatisfaction due to a common perception of autocracy in Biya’s government. In 1992, the president won reelection in a reputed multiparty contest; yet, in the months before Cameroonians went to the polls, Biya enacted strict anti-democratic measures, including the suppression of the media. In response to Biya’s actions, democratic demonstrations sprouted up across the country, often leading to police crackdowns, mass detention, torture, and death to the activists, journalists, and political opponents involved. During the 1997 elections, similar political dissent spread across the country, culminating in most major political parties boycotting the presidential elections that year.
Unfortunately, domestic political tension has pervaded Cameroon throughout the last decade. While President Biya’s long-term hold on political power has given Cameroon considerable stability, especially in light of its Central African neighbors, his semi-autocratic regime has incensed many Cameroonians. Since 2001, Biya has been at particular odds with the Anglophone population in the west, where separatist movements and federalist demands continue to drive a wedge between the region and the government in Yaounde. In 2002, this dissatisfaction manifested itself in widespread protests throughout the northern Muslim community. Unrest continued to erupt through the presidential elections in 2004 as well as parliamentary elections in 2007—both of whose legitimacy was questioned by international observers. In February 2008, unrest swept the major towns of Cameroon resulting from rising food costs, widespread unemployment, and a constitutional referendum that eliminated presidential term limits; government suppression of the riots resulted in the deaths of over 100 Cameroonian citizens.
Since the riots, political unrest continues to brew due to endemic corruption, Anglophone-Francophone tension, and President Biya’s prolonged rule. As the country heads into another national election in early October 2011, Cameroonians remain neutral and even cynical about its outcome. Nevertheless, regardless of the election results, all citizens hope to see positive changes in Cameroon: a higher standard of living, a decrease in corruption, greater economic development, and an improvement on the country’s human rights record.
Sources: The Bradt Guide to Cameroon, The CIA Factbook