U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Cameroon, March 1996
Bureau of African Affairs
Prepared and released by the Bureau of African Affairs,
Office of Central African Affairs
Official Name: Republic of Cameroon
Area: 475,000 sq. km. (184,000 sq. mi.); about the size of California.
Surrounding Countries: Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic,
Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea.
Cities: Capital - Yaounde (population: 900,000).
Other major cities - Douala (1.4 million), Garoua (170,000), Maroua
(150,000), Bafoussam (140,000), Bamenda (130,000), Nkongsamba
(110,000), and Ngaoundere (100,000).
Terrain: Northern plains, central and western highlands, southern and
coastal rain forests. Mt. Cameroon in the Southwest is the third highest
peak (13,353 ft.) in Africa.
Climate: Northern plains (the Sahel region) - semiarid and hot (7-
month dry season). Central and western highlands, where Yaounde is
located - cooler, shorter dry season. Southern rain forest - warm, 4-
month dry season. Coastal rain forest, where Douala is located - warm,
Nationality: English noun and adjective -- Cameroonian(s); French
noun and adjective: camerounais(e).
Population (mid-1994 est.): 12.5 million (65% in rural areas).
Annual growth rate: 2.9%.
Ethnic groups: About 250.
Religions: Christian (40%), Muslim (20%), indigenous African (40%).
Languages: English and French (official), and about 270 African
languages and dialects, including Fulfulde, and Ewondo.
Education: Compulsory between ages 6 and 14. Attendance - more
than 70%. Literacy - 65%.
Health: Infant mortality - 5.5% Life expectancy - 57 years.
Work force: Agriculture - 70%. Industry and Commerce - 13%.
Type: Republic - strong central government dominated by president.
Independence: January 1, 1960 (for areas formerly ruled by France)
and October 1, 1961 (for territory formerly ruled by Britain).
Constitution: June 2, 1972.
Branches: Executive - President (chief of state) 7-year term, renewable
once; appointed Prime Minister (head of government). Legislative -
unicameral National Assembly (180 members, 5-year terms, meets
briefly twice a year, in June and November); a new Senate is called for
under constitutional changes made in early 1996. The judiciary, part of
the Executive's Ministry of Justice, is to become more independent
under new legislation in early 1996.
Administrative subdivisions: 10 provinces (to be renamed regions
under new legislation in early 1996), 56 departments or divisions, 276
subprefectures or subdivisions.
Ruling political party: Cameroon People's Democratic Movement
(CPDM) or its predecessor parties have ruled since independence.
Opposition parties, banned in 1966, were again legalized in 1990.
Suffrage: Universal at 20.
Flag: Green, red, and yellow vertical bands with one yellow star in
GDP: (1994 est.): $6.6 billion (FY 93/94 Est.)
Annual growth rate: Rate declined at a 6% annual rate between 1986
and 1993. Growth of 3% was recorded in 1994.
Per capita GDP: $532 (FY 93/94 Est.)
Natural resources: Oil (6% of GDP), timber, hydroelectric power,
natural gas, bauxite, gold, diamonds.
Agriculture: 35% of GDP (1994 est.).
Products - wood, coffee, tea, bananas, cocoa, rubber, palm oil and
cotton. Arable land - 13%.
Manufacturing: 20% of GDP (1994 est.).
Products - petroleum production and refining, food processing, light
consumer goods, textiles, saw mills.
Trade: Exports (est.) - $1.6 billion: crude oil, wood and wood
products, coffee, bananas, cocoa, rubber, cotton, and palm oil. Major
markets - Nigeria, France, Netherlands, Italy.
Imports (est.) - $1.4 billion: alcohol and tobacco, other consumer
goods. Major suppliers - France, Germany, U. S., Japan.
Official exchange rate: 100 CFA (Communaute Financiere Africaine)
Francs to 1 French Franc, which floats against the U. S. dollar.
Current rate is between 400 and 500 CFA to one U.S. dollar.
Cameroon's estimated 250 ethnic groups form five larger regional-
cultural groups: (1) western highlanders (or grasslanders), including
the Bamileke, Bamoun, and many smaller entities in the Northwest
(est. 38% of population); (2) coastal rain forest peoples, including the
Bassa, Douala, and many smaller entities in the Southwest (12%), (3)
southern rain forest peoples, including the Beti, Bulu (subgroup of
Beti), Fang (subgroup of Beti), and Pygmies (officially called Bakas)
(18%); (4) Predominantly Islamic peoples of the northern semi-arid
regions (the Sahel) and central highlands, including the Fulbe, also
known as Peuhl or Fulani (14%); and (5) the "kirdi," non-Islamic or
recently Islamic peoples of the northern desert and central highlands
The people concentrated in the Southwest and Northwest Provinces
(around Buea and Bamenda) use standard English and "pidgin," as well
as their local languages. In the three northern provinces (around
Adamaoua, Garoua, and Maroua), either French or Fulfulde, the
language of the Fulani, is widely spoken. Elsewhere, French is the
principal second language, although Pidgin and some local languages,
such as Ewondo, the dialect of a Beti clan from the Yaounde area, are
also widely spoken. Cameroon is still the only African nation where
French and English are both official languages.
Although Yaounde is Cameroon's capital, Douala is the largest city,
main seaport, and main industrial and commercial center.
The western highlands are the most fertile in Cameroon and have a
relatively healthy environment in higher altitudes. This region is
densely populated and has intensive agriculture, commerce, cohesive
communities, and historical emigration pressures. From here, Bantu
migrations into eastern, southern, and central Africa are believed to
have originated about 2,000 years ago. In this century, many western
highlanders have migrated to towns elsewhere in Cameroon, such as
the coastal provinces, where they form much of the business
community. About 14,000 non-Africans, including over 7,000 French
and 1,000 U. S. citizens, now reside in Cameroon.
The earliest inhabitants of Cameroon were probably the Pygmies.
They still inhabit the forests of the South and East Provinces. Bantu
speakers from equatorial Africa were among the first groups to invade.
During the late 1770s and early 1800s, the Fulani, a pastoral Islamic
people of the western Sahel, conquered most of what is now northern
Cameroon, subjugating or displacing its largely non-Muslim
Although the Portuguese arrived on Cameroon's coast in the 1500s,
malaria prevented significant European settlement and conquest of the
interior until the late 1870s, when large supplies of the malaria
suppressant, quinine, first became available. The European presence in
Cameroon during the earlier years of contact was primarily devoted to
coastal trade and the acquisition of slaves. The northern part of
Cameroon was an important part of the Muslim slave trade network.
The slave trade was largely suppressed by the mid-19th century.
Christian missions established a presence in the late 19th century and
continue to play a role in Cameroonian life. From the late 1880s, all
of present-day Cameroon and parts of several of its neighbors became
the German colony of Kamerun, with a capital first at Buea and later at
Yaounde. After World War I, this colony was partitioned between
Britain and France under a League of Nations mandate on June 28,
1919. France gained the larger share, transferred outlying regions to
neighboring French colonies, and ruled the rest from Yaounde.
Britain's territory, a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad,
was ruled from Lagos.
In 1955, the outlawed Union of Cameroonian Peoples (UPC), based
largely among the Bamileke and Bassa ethnic groups, began an armed
struggle 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.
In 1960, French Cameroon achieved independence as the Republic of
Cameroon. In 1961, the largely Muslim northern half of British
Cameroon voted to join Nigeria; the largely Christian southern half
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. Ahmadou Ahidjo, a French-
educated Fulani, was chosen president of the federation in 1961.
Ahidjo, relying on a pervasive internal security apparatus, was able to
outlaw all political parties but his own in 1966. He also successfully
suppressed the UPC rebellion, capturing the last important rebel leader
in 1970. In 1972, a new constitution replaced the federation with a
In 1982, Ahidjo resigned as President of Cameroon and was
constitutionally succeeded by his Prime Minister, Paul Biya, a career
official from the Bulu-Beti ethnic group. Ahidjo remained leader of
the ruling party, but his influence waned. His supporters failed to
overthrow Biya in a 1984 coup, and Biya won single-candidate
elections in 1984 and 1988. Biya also won a multi-party election in
1992 which was considered seriously flawed by international
The 1972 constitution provides for a strong central government
dominated by the executive. The president, without consulting the
National Assembly, names and dismisses cabinet members, judges,
generals, provincial governors, prefects, subprefects, and heads of
Cameroon's parastatal (about 100 state-controlled) firms; obligates or
disburses expenditures; approves or vetoes regulations to implement
newly enacted laws; declares states of emergency; and appropriates and
spends profits of parastatal firms.
The judiciary is subordinate to the executive branch's Ministry of
Justice. The Supreme Court may review the constitutionality of a law
only at the president's request.
The 180-member National Assembly meets in ordinary session twice a
year (June/July and November/December), and has seldom, until
recently, made major changes in legislation proposed by the executive.
Laws are adopted by majority vote of members present or, if the
president demands a second reading, of a total membership.
All local government officials are employees of the central
government's Ministry of Territorial Administration, from which local
governments also get most of their budgets.
While the president, the minister of justice, and the president's judicial
advisers (the Supreme Court) top the judicial hierarchy, traditional
rulers, courts, and councils also exercise functions of government.
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 rulers
receive stipends from the national government.
Following government pledges to reform the strongly centralized 1972
constitution, the National Assembly adopted a number of amendments
in December 1995. Among the major features were the establishment
of a Senate as part of a bicameral legislature, the creation of regional
councils, and the fixing of the Presidential term to seven years,
renewable once. Whether implementation of the revised constitution
satisfies calls for government decentralization, independence of the
judiciary, or greater balance among the branches of government
remains to be seen.
Cameroon's 25,000-person military, including a 13,000-member
security force, and a 3,000-person presidential guard, is oriented
chiefly toward internal security; there is also a national police force of
15,000 and a domestic intelligence network. As of 1995, military and
security forces receive 30% of the government's operating budget
disbursements, as well as unknown amounts of off-budget funds.
Principal Government Officials
President - Paul Biya
Speaker of the National Assembly - Djibril Cavaye Yeguie
Prime Minister - Simon Achidi Achu
Ambassador to the United States - Jerome Mendouga
Ambassador to the United Nations - Paul Bamela Engo
Cameroon maintains an Embassy in the United States at 2349
Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008 (telephone:
The government adopted legislation in 1990 to authorize the formation
of multiple political parties and ease restrictions on forming civil
associations and private newspapers, but formalizing press censorship
as well. Within three years, Cameroon's first multiparty legislative and
presidential elections were held. Multiparty municipal elections were
finally held in January 1996, the first time since 1987.
Although some opposition parties boycotted the March 1992 legislative
elections, the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement
succeeded in winning 88 of 180 seats in the National Assembly,
entering a coalition with other parties to obtain a parliamentary
majority. In a presidential election that raised substantial concerns
about its honesty, President Biya claimed re-election with 40% of votes
cast. Opposition leader John Fru Ndi was subsequently placed under
house arrest for a brief period as the government also cracked down on
the independent press.
Constitutionally-mandated terms of the President and National
Assembly will end in 1997. The President has the option of calling
earlier elections, however. An election schedule for the new Senate
and regional councils has yet to be determined.
While Cameroon has a number of independent newspapers and the
government tolerates some criticism, it continues to censor and
sometimes seize or suspend papers. Although a 1990 law authorizes
private radio and television stations, the government has not granted
any licenses as of January 1996. Opposition parties receive only
limited access to government media. The U.S. Government expressed
its concern over the Cameroon Government's intimidation of the press
in September 1995.
The 1994 "Country Report on Human Rights Practices" reports a
number of human rights abuses, including limitations on political
activity by opposition parties, restrictions on the press, numerous
beatings of suspected criminals by the police and government
interference in the judicial process. Ethnic strife and widespread
banditry in the Far North Province led to a number of violent
confrontations with government security forces in 1994 but these eased
in 1995. Incidents of road banditry continue in the Far North.
Real per capital GDP fell by more than 60% from 1986 to 1994, but
Cameroon's economy is still one of the largest in Africa. It grew
steadily from independence until 1986, when real per capita income
peaked at more than $1,000. However, during the mid-1980's,
Cameroon's terms of trade rapidly deteriorated, due to falling world
prices for major exports (oil, coffee, cocoa, rubber, cotton) and adverse
exchange rate movements. Oil production declined, and the
government increased borrowing abroad to compensate. This created
large current and capital account deficits, loss of international
competitiveness, and sharp declines in investment.
The government's adjustment to these changes has been slow. Two
successive International Monetary Fund (IMF) programs (in 1988 and
1991), designed to respond to these altered circumstances, went off
track as the government faced the harsh realities of economic reform.
Civilian government employees' salaries were cut by 65% during 1993.
A third IMF stand-by agreement was concluded in 1994 following
devaluation of the CFA franc (the common currency of Cameroon and
13 other African states) by 50% in January, 1994. Although the
devaluation had a positive impact on the economy, the 1994
Stand-By Agreement was not successful and a fourth stand-by accord
was negotiated in October, 1995. This is a test of the Cameroonian
Government's commitment to the political and economic reform
required to revitalize its faltering economy.
With much unused arable land, abundant energy resources, and one of
the best educated populations in Africa, Cameroon has great
development potential. Economic observers agree that prospects for
economic recovery would be enhanced by greater macro-economic
planning and financial accountability; privatization of most of
Cameroon's nearly 100 remaining non-financial parastatal enterprises;
elimination of state marketing board monopolies on the export of
cocoa, certain coffees, and cotton; privatization and price competition
in the banking sector; implementation of the 1992 labor code; a vastly
improved judicial system; and political liberalization to boost
France is Cameroon's main trading partner and source of private
investment and foreign aid. Cameroon has an investment guaranty
agreement and a bilateral accord with the U. S. U. S. investment in
Cameroon is about $1 billion, most of it in the oil sector.
For further information on Cameroon's economic trends, trade, or
investment climate, contact the International Trade Administration, U.
S. Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 20230, and Commerce
Department district offices in any local Federal building.
U.S.-Cameroonian relations have been affected by concerns over
human rights abuses and the slow pace of political and economic
liberalization, as well as U.S. budget realities. There is no longer a
bilateral USAID program in Cameroon. However, some 135 Peace
Corps volunteers continue to work successfully in agro-forestry,
community development, education, and health. The United States
Information Agency organizes and funds diverse cultural, educational,
and information exchanges. It maintains a library in Yaounde and
helps to foster the development of Cameroon's independent press by
providing information in a number of areas, including U.S. human
rights and democratization policies.
The U.S. and Cameroon work together in the United Nations and a
number of other multilateral organizations. The U.S. Government
continues to provide substantial funding for international financial
institutions, such as the World Bank, IMF, and African Development
Bank, that provide financial and other assistance to Cameroon.
Principal U. S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador - Charles H. Twining, Jr.
Deputy Chief of Mission (designate) - Mark Boulware (arrives 8/96)
Economic/Commercial Officer - Aubrey V. Verdun
Political Officer - Peter A. O'Donohue
Consular Officer- Kimberly Murphy
Public Affairs Officer - Gerald Huchel
Defense Attache - Lt. Col. James L. Cobb
Peace Corps Director - Walter Ogrodnick
The U. S. Embassy in Cameroon is located on Rue Nachtigal, Yaounde
(tel:22-25-89/23-05-12; fax:23-07-53, B. P. 817, Yaounde.
The U. S. mailing address is American Embassy Yaounde, Department
of State, Washington, D.C. 20521-2520.
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