Background Notes: Cameroon

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: Jun 15, 19926/15/92 Category: Country Data Region: Subsaharan Africa Country: Cameroon Subject: Travel, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics [TEXT] Official Name: Republic of Cameroon


Area: 475,439 sq. km. (183,568 sq. mi.); about the size of California. Cities: Capital--Yaounde (pop. 850,000). Other major cities--Douala (1,500,000), Nkongsamba (130,000), Bafoussam (110,000), Garoua (100,000), Bamenda (100,000). Terrain: Northern plains, central and southern plateaus, western highlands and mountains, coastal plains. Climate: Northern plains--semiarid and hot (7-month dry season). Central plateau--cooler, shorter dry season. Southwest--year-round rainfall. Coastal lowlands--warm and humid all year.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Cameroonian(s). Population (1991 est.): 11.7 million (60% in rural areas). Annual growth rate: 3%. Ethnic groups: More than 200. Religions: Christian, Muslim, indigenous African. Languages: English and French (official), more than 200 African. Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance- -more than 70%. Literacy--65%. Health: Infant mortality rate-- more than 20%. Life expectancy--54 yrs. Work force: Agriculture- -70%. Industry and commerce--13%. Other--17%.
Type: Independent republic. Independence: January 1, 1960. Constitution: May 20, 1972. Branches: Executive--president (chief of state and de facto head of government, 5-year term). Legislative--unicameral National Assembly (180 members, 5-year terms). Administrative subdivisions: 10 provinces. Ruling political party: Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM or RPDC). Suffrage: Universal adult. Central government budget (1991-92): $1.4 billion. Defense (1991-92): $159 million; 8.7% of budget. Flag: Three vertical stripes from left to right--green, red, and yellow--with one yellow star centered in red stripe.
GDP (1990-91 est.): $12.5 billion. GDP declined 2.4% in 1988-89, 6.3% in 1989-90, and an estimated 2.6% in 1990-91. Annual growth rate: 4.3%. Annual inflation rate: 2%. Natural resources: Oil (8% of GDP), natural gas, bauxite, iron ore, timber. Agriculture: 27% of GDP. Products--cocoa, coffee, cotton, fishing, and forestry. Arable land--12%. Industry: 24% of GDP (13% manufacturing). Trade (1990-91 est.): Exports--$2.9 billion: petroleum, cocoa, coffee, tropical wood. Major markets (1989)--France 28%, Netherlands 16%, United States 13%. Imports--$2.2 billion: intermediate goods, capital goods, fuel and lubricants, foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco. Major suppliers (1989)--France 32%, Germany 9%, Italy 6%, Japan 6%, United States 5%. Official exchange rate: 50 CFA to 1 French franc, which floats against the US dollar. Fiscal year: July 1-June 30.


Cameroon has about 200 tribes and clans speaking at least that many African languages and major dialects. It is the only African nation where both French and English have official status. In 1961, the government established the University of Yaounde, the first African university to offer courses in both French and English. Branch campuses are in Ngaoundere, Dschang, Douala, and Buea. Traditional African religious beliefs influence both Muslims (concentrated in the north) and Christians (concentrated in the south). Four-fifths of Cameroonians live in the formerly French east; 20,000 Europeans and 900 US citizens reside in Cameroon. The main seaport and largest city is Douala; the capital, Yaounde, is second-largest.


The earliest inhabitants probably were the Pygmies, who still inhabit the southern forests. Bantu speakers were among the first groups that invaded Cameroon from equatorial Africa, settling in the south and later in the west. The Muslim Fulani from the Niger basin arrived in the 11th and 19th centuries and settled in the north. Contact with Europeans began in the 1500s. During the next 3 centuries, Spanish, Dutch, and British traders visited the area, and there was costal slave trading. Christian missions appeared in the mid-1800s and still are active. In July 1884, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France each attempted to annex the area. In a treaty with local chiefs, the German Consul of Tunis, Tunisia, extended a protectorate over Cameroon. Germany strengthened its claim and expanded its territory by treaties with the United Kingdom and France, but British and French armies invaded the German colony in 1914. A 1919 declaration divided Cameroon between the United Kingdom and France, with the larger, eastern area under France. A 1922 League of Nations mandate sanctioned the division; in 1946, the United Nations converted the mandates to trusteeships. In December 1958, the French trusteeship was ended; French Cameroon became the Republic of Cameroon on January 1, 1960. In February 1961, a plebiscite under UN auspices in British (west) Cameroon determined whether people wished union with Nigeria or with the new Republic of Cameroon. Northern voters chose to join Nigeria; southern voters, Cameroon. On July 1, 1961, the northern area was absorbed by Nigeria. On October 1, 1961, the southern part joined French Cameroon, and the new Federal Republic of Cameroon was created. From 1961 until spring 1972, Cameroon was governed as a federation, with east (formerly French) Cameroon and west (formerly British) Cameroon having individual governments--each with a parliament and ministries--in addition to the federal government structure. In 1972, President Ahidjo proposed abolition of the federal structure. A May 20, 1972, referendum gave widespread endorsement to the proposal, and a June 2 decree proclaimed the United Republic of Cameroon retroactive to May 20. On January 25, 1984, a constitutional amendment made its official name the Republic of Cameroon.


The May 20, 1972, constitution provides for strong executive authority. The president can name and dismiss cabinet members and judges, negotiate and ratify treaties, accredit ambassadors, commute sentences, grant pardons, lead the armed forces, and declare states of national emergency and be invested with special powers. If the president dies or is permanently incapacitated, the speaker of the National Assembly becomes acting president for up to 40 days until elections are held. In the National Assembly, laws are adopted by majority vote of members present, except for cases where the president calls for a second reading; adoption then requires approval by a majority of the assembly's total membership. Only the president may ask the Supreme Court to review a law's constitutionality. Each of the 10 provinces has a presidentially-appointed governor and an administrative staff, and each province's divisions and subdivisions have presidentially-appointed chief officers. This internal administrative system is under the Ministry of Territorial Administration. Other ministries may have representatives at each level. The president, the minister of justice, and the president's judicial advisers (Supreme Court) top the judicial hierarchy. Next come the provincial appeals courts, chief judges for the divisions, and local magistrates. Traditional courts still play a major role in domestic, property, and probate law. Tribal laws and customs are honored in the formal court system when not in conflict with national law. Traditional kingdoms and organizations also exercise other functions of government; traditional rulers are treated as administrative adjuncts and receive a government salary. Formal governmental and tribal structures are mutually reinforcing and allow for local variation.
Principal Government Officials
President--Paul Biya Speaker of the National Assembly--Djibril Cavaye Yegue Prime Minister--Simon Achidi Achu Ambassador to the United States--Paul Pondi Ambassador to the United Nations--Pascal Biloa Tang Cameroon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2349 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-265- 8790) and consulates in San Francisco and Houston.


From 1955 until the mid-1960s, Cameroon had known sustained terrorist activity--begun in opposition to foreign rule and continued after independence against moderates in Cameroon's governments--led by the outlawed Union of Cameroon Peoples and supported by foreign communist and radical African regimes. Terrorism gradually was reduced to isolated banditry. The capture of the last important rebel leader in 1970 signaled the end of concerted rebel action and the effective achievement of political consolidation. When President Ahidjo resigned in November 1982, he was constitutionally succeeded by Prime Minister Paul Biya. Biya received his own mandate in 1984, renewed in a single-candidate 1988 election. His term will expire in 1993. Cameroon has never had a successful military coup d'etat, but, in April 1984, elements of the Republic Guard tried to overthrow Biya. The revolt was put down by loyal armed forces. Many conspirators were executed within months of the suppression; the last of those imprisoned were released April 1991 in a general amnesty. In the March 1, 1992, multi-party elections for the National Assembly, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement won 88 of 180 seats. It entered into a coalition with a small opposition party to retain a majority and form the present government. Two other parties also are represented in the assembly.


Cameroon's economy grew from independence in 1960 until 1985. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, economic growth averaged 8% yearly. The country's petroleum production and a rich and diverse agricultural base contributed to the growth. Starting in 1986, prospects darkened when the collapse of world prices for Cameroon's major export commodities--petroleum, coffee, and cocoa--brought a trade shock. An African economic success story in the early 1980s, by the last half of the decade, Cameroon was in a crisis marked by a shrinking economy and serious money shortage. The US Embassy and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate that Cameroon had improving balance-of-payments through the first half of the 1980s, mainly due to oil export revenues; lower world commodity prices led to a current account deficit during the second half of the decade. Still, per capita income is one of the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, and it is a "middle-income" developing country. Cameroon is implementing a stringent Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) developed in conjunction with the World Bank and the IMF. It already has begun cutting its current account and budget deficits. The government also has moved to liberalize the economy, such as easing bureaucratic regulation. The government moved quickly in 1990 to create a free trade zone. The zone, which is being created with the assistance of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, will let Cameroon develop internationally competitive export industries. Cameroon's new investment code offers foreign investors a simplified, transparent, and automatic investment approval process, including the creation of a "one-stop shop" that will provide many investment authorization services in one place. Foreign and domestic investors are given 14 guarantees, including property ownership, transfer of capital and income, and full expropriation compensation. Although France still is Cameroon's primary foreign investor, the government concluded an investment guaranty agreement with the United States in 1967, and a bilateral investment accord with the United States was ratified in 1989. Petroleum is the country's single most important export, producing more than 40% of national export earnings. Agricultural commodities, such as cocoa, coffee, and wood, also are important sources of export income. Agriculture remains the economy's mainstay and employs 70% of the work force. The country is agriculturally self-sufficient, and plans are underway to abolish the inefficient state-owned commodities marketing board. Cameroon's manufacturing sector is small, about 13% of GDP. Light manufacturing predominates. The government is privatizing many public and para-public economic enterprises. The country's physical infrastructure--such as the national transportation system--is being improved gradually, but recent austerity budgets have given little scope to public works projects. The country has international airports at Douala and Garoua. A third major airport, at Yaounde, opened in March 1992. Foreign financial assistance is important to Cameroon's development. France has been the principal aid donor; the United States also has provided aid (see: US-Cameroonian Relations). For further information on foreign economic trends, commercial development, production, trade regulations, and tariff rates, contact the International Trade Administration, US Department of Commerce, Washington, DC 20230 or any Commerce Department district office.


Like other African countries, Cameroon has espoused positions underlining its nonalignment and adherence to Third World principles. Its condemnation of South Africa and support for majority rule in Namibia have been consistent and emphatic, although it also has shown moderation. It has moved toward relations with South Africa as President de Klerk works to dismantle apartheid. The country has close ties to France and has signed a number of accords with it in economic, military, and cultural cooperation. Cameroon has sought closer ties with other nations, including the United States and Germany, and has signed economic and cultural cooperation agreements with several countries. It belongs to a number of multilateral organizations. Diplomatic relations with communist nations were cautious in the mid-1960s. Although Cameroon grew less reluctant to pursue such relations as the communist rebel cause and its foreign support dwindled, their importance has recently declined.


The Cameroonian military generally has been an apolitical force dominated by civilian control. Traditional dependence upon French defense capability is being replaced by reliance on domestic forces. The armed forces number 25,000-26,000 personnel in ground, air, and naval service, the majority in ground forces. In FY 1990, Cameroon received $75,000 in African Coastal Security funds and $130,000 for Military Civic Action projects from the United States. US military assistance to Cameroon for FY 1991 included $275,000 in military education and training.


US-Cameroonian relations are excellent, though US emphasis on human rights improvement has caused occasional short-lived friction. There have been numerous visits between the countries by heads of state and government officials over the last 2 decades. The United States has provided bilateral economic assistance to Cameroon since 1961 and has operated a Peace Corps program since 1962. Cameroon also receives US military assistance (see: Defense). USAID has an annual budget exceeding $20 million, and its activities have concentrated on agriculture, public health, higher education, private sector development, human resources development, and support for economic and institutional reform. Major projects that have received US economic assistance are the Trans-Cameroonian Railway, the Kumba-Mamfe Road, the University Center at Dschang, and the free-trade zone. About 150 Peace Corps volunteers work in Cameroon in three principal sectors: -- Agricultural extension--agro-forestry, inland fisheries, community development, and marketing cooperatives; -- Education--teaching English, math/science, and primary education; and -- Health--primary and maternal health care. Each year, the US Government invites Cameroonian Government officials, media representatives, educators, and scholars to visit the United States to become better acquainted with the American people and to exchange ideas and views with their American colleagues. About six Cameroonian graduate students are supported by the Fulbright Program. This cooperative effort in understanding is furthered through frequent visits to Cameroon by representatives of US business and educational institutions, as well as by visits of Fulbright-Hays scholars and specialists.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--Frances D. Cook Deputy Chief of Mission--Tibor P. Nagy, Jr. Economic/Commercial Officer--Richard Petard Political Officer--James Swan USAID Director--Peter Benedict Public Affairs Officer (USIA)--Mary Roberta Jones Defense Attache--Lt. Col. Charles M. Vuckovic Peace Corps Director--John Carter Consul General, Douala--Michele Sison The US Embassy in Cameroon is located on Rue Nachtigal, Yaounde (tel: 237-22-25-89/23-05-12; telex: 8223KN), BP 817, Yaounde. The US Consulate General is at 21 Avenue General de Gaulle, Douala (tel: 237-42-53-31/42-60-03; telex: 5233KN), BP 4006, Douala. (###)