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.
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.