New Internationalist

Cameroon

Issue 327

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Cameroon

Cameroon has two current claims to international fame. The first is the prowess of its national soccer team, which has won the African Nations Cup three times and in 1990 became the first African team to reach the quarter finals of the World Cup. The other is less laudable: Cameroon is notorious for being rated the world's most corrupt nation by Transparency International.

Britain became the dominant foreign power in the country in the early nineteenth century and English became the lingua franca throughout Cameroon. Yet Cameroon became a German protectorate on 12 July 1884 because the envoy of the British colonial office, Edward Hewett, arrived a few days after the Germans had signed an annexation treaty with some local chiefs.

After World War One the League of Nations divided the colony into two, with four-fifths of the territory allocated to France and a fifth to Britain. In 1960 the French section was granted independence and a year later, after a UN-supervised plebiscite, was reunited with the British section to form a bilingual Federal Republic of Cameroon. Ahidjo, the first president of Cameroon, relied on repression to transform the country into a highly centralized one-party state in 1966. Against the wishes of the English-speaking minority, Ahidjo used a rigged referendum to abolish the Federation in favour of a unitary state in 1972. After over two decades in power, he resigned in 1982 and handed over the presidency to the then prime minister, Paul Biya.

An urbane Christian, educated at university in France, Biya embarked on a political reform programme aimed at creating a more liberal and open society. But the reforms were abandoned after a failed coup d'état by rebel elements from the north in the élite presidential guard. Biya purged most northerners from the military and government, appointing hardliners and people from his own tribe to key positions.

Popular dissatisfaction with the political system intensified in the early 1990s, as Cameroon's economy plunged into the worst recession since independence. In response to domestic protest and international pressure, Biya initiated political reforms, including liberalization of the media and the adoption of a multi-party electoral system.

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GIACOMO PIROZZI / PANOS

Yet Cameroon's human-rights record remains poor. Opposition politicians, human-rights activists and journalists are harassed or even jailed. There are no checks and balances in the political system, because Parliament, dominated by Biya's ruling Cameroon's People's Democratic Movement (RDPC), acts as a rubber stamp. Biya has the power to control legislation or rule by decree. The judiciary is subject to political influence and suffers from corruption and inefficiency. A recent UN report concluded that torture is widespread in Cameroon's prisons and police cells. The security forces are notorious for extra-judicial killings and summary executions in their crackdown against coupeurs de route (armed bandits) in the far north.

Cameroon is slowly recovering from an economic recession which virtually halved its per-capita income. The country's economic strength is based on a wide range of agricultural exports and virtual food self-sufficiency, boosted by offshore oil production - the $3.5 billion Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project was recently approved by the World Bank.

Although Cameroon joined the Commonwealth in 1995, tensions between the francophone majority and the anglophone minority remain high. The two populations have different legal and educational institutions, and while the English-speaking region in the west has the richest resources it is also the least developed. English speakers are bitter and are calling for autonomy or outright secession. Not surprisingly, the west is the stronghold of the main opposition party, led by the charismatic John Fru Ndi.

Nevertheless, the country's economic prospects are good and the opposition parties are in disarray. Without divine intervention, Biya, who is eligible to run for another seven-year term in 2004, is likely to continue manipulating Parliament and using the government machinery and security forces to maintain himself in power.

Jacob Diko

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At a glance

Leader: President Paul Biya.

Economy: GNP per capita US$ 620 (Nigeria $280, France $26,300). Per-capita GNP declined sharply from an average of $1,110 in early 1980s, as a result of deep economic recession. Yet Cameroon is rich in natural resources.
Main exports: crude oil, timber, cocoa, coffee, cotton and aluminium.
Monetary unit: CFA franc, a regional currency anchored to the French franc/euro.

People: 14.5 million. 47% live in urban areas.

Health: Infant mortality 94 per 1,000 live births (Nigeria 112, France 5). Around 41% of the population have access to safe water. There is 1 doctor per 12,500 people.

Environment: Cameroon has one of the largest virgin equatorial forests in the world. Rapid deforestation by foreign timber companies threatens the environment and the way of life of pygmy communities in the forests.

Culture: Bamileke 30%; Fulani 7%; about 200 other ethnic groups 63%.
Religion: Christian 53%; Muslim 22%; traditional believers 25%.
Languages: French and English are official, but French dominates. Ewondo, Douala and Fulani are the most widely spoken local languages.

Sources: Economic Intelligence Unit; World Bank; State of the World's Children 2000.

Previously profiled February 1987

star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
Economic recession has left people poorer. 51% of the population now live below the poverty line.
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
self-reliance SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Self-sufficient in food and petroleum products, but all technology and machinery is imported. Debt service accounts for 42% of exports. 
1987
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position of women POSITION OF WOMEN
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Men and women enjoy equal rights under the law. Traditional customs mean rural women have limited access to education and land.
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
63%. Literacy levels used to be higher until the World Bank forced Cameroon to abandon its free primary education policy in the 1980s. The Government has now reintroduced free primary education.
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
literacy
FREEDOM [image, unknown]
The police are at the beck and call of the President and the judiciary is corrupt but there are no political leaders in jail. Prisons are notorious for torture.
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
freedom
LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
55 years (Nigeria 50, France 78).
1987 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
life expectancy

POLITICS

NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
President Biya has been in power since 1982. With the opposition parties in disarray and the economic recovery continuing, he appears secure; Cameroon will continue to be run as a de facto one-party state. But the Biya regime could be destabilized by the activities of English-speaking separatists unless their grievances are addressed.


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