Modern History of Cameroon

Modern Cameroon was created as the German protectorate of Kamerun in 1884. In 1919, under League of Nations Mandates, France was awarded administration of Eastern Cameroon, and Britain Northern and Southern Cameroons. These mandates were converted in 1946 to UN Trusteeships. In 1960, French administered Cameroun became independent and Ahmadou Ahidjo was elected as President.

After World War I Cameroon received new overlords courtesy of the League of Nations, which gave the French a mandate over 80% of the territory, and the British control of two separate areas, one in the south-western highlands (Southern Cameroons) and the other in the north (Northern Cameroons, now part of Nigeria).

As a result, a single nation was divided into three parts governed by two colonial powers - hardly a situation conducive to later unification. What was worse, the British neglected their territories and instead lavished attention on their administrative capital in Nigeria.

By contrast, the French improved the railway (with forced labour, forbidden by their mandate), developed cocoa and palm-oil plantations and exported timber, increasing the value of trade fivefold in its portion of the country between the world wars. After WWII, new political parties formed in French Cameroon, pressing for independence.

Struggle for Independence

The outlawed Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC), based largely among the Bamileke and Bassa ethnic groups, began an armed struggle in 1955 for independence in French Cameroon. This rebellion continued, with diminishing intensity, even after independence. Estimates of death from this conflict vary from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

A northern-based party, the Union Camerounaise, gained control of the national assembly, aggravating the resentment of southerners. Following independence in 1960, that ill will blossomed into a full-scale rebellion that took five battalions of French troops and a squadron of fighter planes eight months to put down.

Thousands were ruthlessly killed and a state of emergency was declared that lasted two decades. The Union Camerounaise held onto power and its leader, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a northerner and ardent Muslim, became president.

Becoming a Republic

French Cameroon achieved independence in 1960 as the Republic of Cameroon. The following year the largely Muslim northern two-thirds of British Cameroon voted to join Nigeria; the largely Christian southern third voted to join with the Republic of Cameroon to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The formerly French and British regions each maintained substantial autonomy.

In February 1961 the populations of British administered Cameroons were asked to decide their future in a UN organised plebiscite. While the territory of Northern Cameroon voted to join Nigeria, the population of Southern Cameroon opted for federation with French Cameroon, forming a single republic 11 years later.

Cameroon thereby became a federal republic encompassing East Cameroon (the former French territory) and West Cameroon (the former British territory). In 1972 Cameroon’s federal status was revoked and the country became the United Republic of Cameroon.

A Single Party State

Ahmadou Ahidjo, a French-educated Fulani, was chosen President of the federation in 1961. Ahidjo, relying on a pervasive internal security apparatus, outlawed all political parties but his own in 1966.

Ahidjo made Cameroon a one party state in 1966, following a major rebellion in the centre of the country, and concentrated power in presidential hands.

He successfully suppressed the UPC rebellion, capturing the last important rebel leader in 1970. In 1972, a new constitution replaced the federation with a unitary state.

Ahidjo was re-elected as president unopposed in 1975, continuing an exceedingly brutal and autocratic reign, filling jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners and censoring the press.

Ahidjo's positive contribution was to invest wisely in agriculture, education, health care and roads, while resisting the temptation to borrow heavily and build expensive show projects. As a result, school enrollment reached 70% and farms produced enough food to keep the country self-sufficient and export a wide range of commodities.

At the height of his power and success in 1982 he resigned on grounds of ill health, handing power over to his Prime Minister Paul Biya. His resignation came unexpectedly but he retained chairmanship of the ruling party ,the National Union of Cameroon. A power struggle ensued between the two men.

With the expansion of oil, timber, and coffee exports, the economy has continued to improve, although corruption is prevalent, and environmental degradation remains a concern.

The Road to Multi-Party Democracy

Ahidjo later regretted his choice of successors, but his supporters failed to overthrow Biya in a 1984 coup. The barons had had enough and staged a coup that was such a surprise it almost succeeded. Biya survived, and later reasserted control over the army and ruling party.

Biya won single-candidate elections in 1984 and 1988 and flawed multiparty elections in 1992 and 1997. His Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) party holds a sizeable majority in the legislature following 2002 elections--149 deputies out of a total of 180.

His intention to reform and reinvigorate Cameroonian politics and the omnipresent Cameroonian state. The ruling party’s name was changed to the Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement.

Cameroon made international headlines in 1986, when a toxic cloud erupted from a remote volcanic lake in the western mountains, asphyxiating nearly 2000 people in their sleep. Experts have said the phenomenon could reoccur at any time.

In 1990, in response to domestic and international pressure, Biya approved the introduction of a multi-party system. In the same year furious with Biya's inept handling of the economy, Cameroonians began openly accusing the government of corruption and formed a new party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF).

The government's murderous attempt to wipe out the new threat backfired, and in less than a year there were 30 political parties and nearly a dozen independent newspapers. After Biya refused to call a constitutional convention in 1991, strikes brought the country to a standstill.

Biya eventually capitulated, calling the first multi-party elections in over 30 years. Various opposition parties took 52% of the vote and a new prime minister, Simon Achidi Achu, formed a coalition government in 1992.

Later that year, Biya narrowly won re-election as president, defeating scattered and unprepared opposition. Biya's victory prompted accusations of electoral fraud from international observers and set off widespread rioting in western Cameroon.

The government devalued the CFA franc in 1994, raising exports but sending public-sector salaries plunging 70%. Soon after the National Assembly (dominated by the Union Camerounaise) extended the presidential term from five years to seven, Biya won re-election again in 1997, this time unopposed but with less than a third of voters bothering to turn out.

Last Updated on Friday 13th November 2009