New Internationalist

Cameroon

Issue 168

new internationalist
issue 168 - February 1987

COUNTRY PROFILE

Cameroon
Map of Cameroon CAMEROON literally exploded into the international headlines in August 1986 when a mixture of toxic gases erupted from Lake Nyos in the northwest of the country, causing the deaths of about 1,700 people. Although emergency aid from the US and the EEC, in the form of antibiotics, baby food and tent was welcomed, Cameroon is not as desperate as some of its sub-Saharan neighbours. Its economy is soundly based and its agriculture buoyant. Despite the production of oil in commercial quantities by France's Elf-Aquitaine company since 1977, the government has never been tempted to regard oil as an economic panacea and has consistently invested in farming.

There are no signs, either in the commercial centre, Douala, or in the capital Yaoundé, of starving people. This is because there is no pressure on the peasants to leave the land and head for the cities. Government policies have done much to develop the rural areas and to make it worthwhile being a farmer. Some of the proceeds from oil exports, for instance, have been used to improve the quality of life in the countryside by way of boosting producer prices. The latter, in turn, have encouraged the expansion of food and cash crops.

Cameroon's timber forests are still so dense that it has been cheaper to build air strips all around the country and provide a domestic airline service rather than build roads which would cost at least a million dollars a mile. Women with shopping bags and babies on their backs frequently hop on a plane, and altogether people are quite blasé about air travel.

What with oil output at around eight million tonnes a year, large supplies of gas and great hydroelectric potential, and exports that include coffee, cocoa, aluminium, wood, rubber, cotton, palm oil, sugar and bananas, the economy is broadly based and thriving, with expected growth rates of about five per cent per year. Nor are the foreign exchange earnings wasted on imported food. Cameroon's foreign debt, at $2.5 billion, is well under control.

But there are drawbacks. This successful economic formula is being implemented by a one-party state under the leadership of President Paul Biya who took over in 1982 from President Ahmadou Ahidjo, the 'father of the nation'. Dissent is not tolerated. The security services are reportedly ruthless in stamping out criticism.

The only legal party is the Rassemblement Democratique du Peuple Camerounais, previously known as the Union Nationale Camerounaise, A sign of the autocratic style of rule is that in the 'elections' of January 1984 Biya was reelected with 99.98 per cent of the vote. The opposition parties, based mainly overseas in Paris, simply don't get a look in. Nor do the complaints of the young urban unemployed carry any weight - yet.

Leader: President Paul Biya

Economy: GNP per capita US$890 (US$14,110)
Monetary unit: CFA franc (franc de Ia Communauté Financière Africaine - value guaranteed by French franc)
Main exports: Crude oil, coffee, cocoa, aluminium, timber, cotton

People: 9.5 million

Health: Infant mortality 92 per 1000 live births (US 11 per 1,000)

Culture: Post-colonial African; strong French influence in eastern urban areas, English spoken in western regions. Country divided between France and Britain in 1918; independence from former in 1960, from latter in 1961

Source: World Bank Report


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Farmers' work valued; urban class growing

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Self-sufficient in food, energy; strong agriculture

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Traditional roles in rural areas, but opportunities in modern sector

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One-party state; opposition parties banned

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40% in south, 10% in north

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Security forces do not tolerate dissent

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52 years
(US 74 years)

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