The history of Cameroon is similar to that of many African countries. Being a western coastal country, it was one of the first regions of Africa to be visited by Europeans, and hosted merchants and missionaries from various countries. At the Berlin conference in 1884, it was officially labeled a German colony and benefited from German investments in infrastructure, education, and health. However, the positive effects of these inputs were mitigated by forced labour, slavery, and other sanctions imposed by the ruling colony. At the end of World War I, German territories were redistributed amongst other colonial powers, and control of Cameroon was divided between France and Britain. Today, much of Cameroon’s current culture and architecture reflects the multiple colonial influences of its past. Most obviously, French and English remain the national languages of Cameroon.
In the mid 1950’s, Cameroon followed the wave of nationalism moving through the European colonies in Africa, and began to push for independence. While colonialism had improved Cameroon’s economic capacity, infrastructure, and education systems, very little responsibility for these initiatives had been given to the native population under colonial rule. As a result, by the time movements for independence arrived, Cameroonians were anxious to see their culture, values, and needs prioritized and reflected in political decision-making. Independence from France and Britain was seen as a way to achieve this, and became a powerful counter-governmental influence.
In 1960, after years of demonstrations and pressure, French-controlled Cameroon was given the right to vote for their independence, which they achieved. The next year, British Cameroon joined the former French sector as one independent Cameroon. The hope of many Cameroonians was that with independence would come greater equality and involvement in country building. However, Cameroon’s first native president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, quickly set up an authoritarian system of governance, limiting or expelling both opposition parties and the free media.
Ahidjo’s successor has proved to be an even more extreme supporter of authoritarian governance. After Ahidjo’s retirement in 1982, Paul Biya became Cameroon’s next president. Biya has since managed to maintain his position of power through a variety of underhanded methods including single party or flawed multiparty elections, corrupt foreign investment schemes, embezzlement, and trafficking. After 28 years in power, Biya is now the longest standing ruler in Africa, and second in the world. As a result of this kind of management, Cameroon has received a corruption ranking of 146th out of 178 countries, with a transparency and accountability rating of 2.2/10 (Transparency International, 2010).
In spite of Cameroon’s lack of political freedom, it has enjoyed relative peace and stability since its independence. Unlike many of its neighbors, Cameroon did not experience civil war following independence, and has also managed to maintain unity amongst its many diverse tribes and cultural groups. In terms of development, although Cameroon is ranked in the top 10 African countries based on its Human Development Index (2010) and Gross Domestic Product (2010), the United Nations still lists Cameroon as having a low level of development, and has a lower life expectancy and literacy rate and higher unemployment and poverty levels than 78% of the world. When this is added to Cameroon’s high levels of gender inequality, unemployment, and HIV infection, the need for development and change becomes abundantly clear.
What is Cameroon like?
Cameroon is known as ‘Africa in miniature’, because of its diversity of geography. Cameroon is made up of a piece of nearly every other part of Africa, including savannah, rainforest, coastal lowlands, mountains, and desert. This means that it has a variety of plants and animals as well. In the savannah in the north, you can see elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. In the rainforest, there are monkeys and parrots. The climate varies just as much. While most regions have rainy and dry seasons, some places in Cameroon are the wettest places on earth while the desert areas get relatively little rain. In the mountain regions, the temperature can also drop to 10-15 C.
The culture of Cameroon has been somewhat influenced by its colonial heritage, such that the language and some infrastructural implements have remained. The main tribal language spoken is Douala, and many Cameroonians speak both Douala and English or French. However, there are 260 tribes in Cameroon, each with its cultural nuances and dialect, which also contributes to the idea of Cameroon being a miniature version of Africa as a whole. Farming is the primary economic activity in Cameroon, and around 70% of Cameroonians make an income this way. Fishing and mining are also common. Cameroon is also beginning to develop its industrial production with a degree of success, as evidenced in its increasing GDP per annum.