Country profile: Cameroon

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Cameroon
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Cameroonian women

Women parade in the village of Kembong, near Mamfe in the southwest region of Cameroon. © George Osodi/Panos

With the terrifying exception of overloaded trucks speeding vast tree trunks from forest to port, things tend to move slowly in Cameroon. In fact, in many ways it feels like a country in a deep sleep, cobwebbed with bureaucratic inertia, corruption and nepotism. In Paul Biya, it has had the same President since 1982, and is dominated by an interwoven elite – political, commercial, religious and traditional – drawn from a single post-independence generation, locked into atrophied patterns of informal power-sharing and patronage that have shaped the country since the 1960s.

This elite is increasingly elderly. President Biya will be 85 when his current term of office ends in 2018. His longest-standing political opponent, John Fru-Ndi of the Social Democratic Front, is 74. In the event that Biya dies in office, the interim President will be the leader of the Senate – who is himself 82. From ministers to traditional chiefs, Cameroon’s rulers are approaching dotage. With age has come conservatism, caution to the point of paranoia, and insularity. Biya has remained resolutely distant from regional politics and didn’t even attend the event to celebrate his 30th year in office. Social and economic stagnation have followed.

But one virtue – perhaps the only virtue – of an entrenched gerontocracy is stability. Cameroon remains relatively unscarred by the upheavals that have convulsed the rest of its region. Apart from a coup attempt in 1984 and, in recent years, the encroachment of Boko Haram into Cameroon’s remote north, it has remained free from large-scale violence. There were riots in 2008, over constitutional change to lift presidential term limits, and there have been sporadic protests and strikes since, but nothing to threaten the status quo.

Yet Cameroonians are acutely aware that it could, and perhaps should, be a deeply conflicted country. It is home to profound social faultlines: between the anglophone peripheries and the French-speaking majority; between the Muslim north and Christian south; and between a bewilderingly complicated array of some 250 ethnic groups. That the post-independence consensus, for all its failings and frustrations, has held so long is in part testament to the commonly held fear that the alternative could be far worse.

However, this status quo is under increasing strain. On top of long-standing divides of language, ethnicity and religion, newer faultlines are opening – most importantly between rich and poor, young and old. Like much of the rest of Africa, Cameroon faces the dual challenge of an enormous youth population and sky-high unemployment. Social discontent is to some extent mollified by government fuel subsidies – a constant drain on public finances – and is hard to judge in a context of state harassment of journalists, activists and opponents. But it is real, and growing. Add in fears of religious extremism, notably in the Muslim communities exposed to Boko Haram brutality, rumours of division in the armed forces, and a deeply unstable regional neighbourhood, and the mix becomes more volatile still.

For now, these grievances have no real avenue for expression. Politics is comprehensively dominated by Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, which won 82 per cent of seats in the last National Assembly elections. While Biya remains in office, they are likely to remain latent. But when he goes, as, sooner or later he must, the tensions that his long rule has kept in suspension may bubble to the surface. It is an open question whether the remaining guardians of the status quo will be able to manage them. Cameroon’s long sleep continues, but the alarm clock is ticking. It is difficult to say what mood the country will be in when it finally wakes up.

Fact file

Leader President Paul Biya (since 1982).
Economy GNI per capita $1,350 (Gabon $9,720, France $42,960).
Monetary unit CFA (Coopération Financière en Afrique Centrale) franc.
Main exports Crude oil and products derived from it, timber, cocoa beans, coffee, cotton, aluminium. The current low oil price will hit Cameroon hard – almost 40% of its export earnings normally derive from this. But it is also agriculturally well endowed. Its economic performance satisfies neither the IMF and international business nor the poor, being hamstrung by corruption, inequality and political stagnation. The government priority has been subsidizing food and fuel/power rather than education and healthcare.
People 22.7 million. Annual growth rate 2.5%. People per square kilometre 48 (France 121).
Health Infant mortality 57 per 1,000 live births (Gabon 36, France 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 34 (France 1 in 4,300). HIV prevalence rate 4.8%.
Environment Deforestation is the main problem, not just unsustainable logging by foreign companies but also clearance for fuelwood and subsistence farming – Cameroon lost 13% of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005 and rates of deforestation are increasing. In the north this has contributed to soil erosion and desertification.
Religion Broadly 40% indigenous beliefs, 40% Christian, 20% Muslim.
Language There are at least 24 African languages but French and English are official, the latter a legacy of British rule of the southwest between 1918 and 1961, at which point northern Cameroons opted in a plebiscite to join Nigeria while the southern half voted to become part of independent Cameroon.
Human Development Index 0.512, 153rd of 188 (Gabon 0.684, France 0.888).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Inequality is not as severe as in many other African states, with a lower GINI coefficient than the US, in part because of subsidies on food and fuel. But poverty remains widespread, with about 40% of the population living on less than $2 a day.
Literacy Over three-quarters of the population are reported to be literate, but only half of Cameroon’s children get a secondary education.
Life expectancy 55 years (Gabon 64, France 82); barely improved over its 1990 figure of 53.6 and lower than the regional average.
Freedom Independent media exist – both press and broadcast – and some criticism of the government is tolerated, though journalists face harassment by security forces and sanction by the state regulator. Civil-society meetings and demonstrations are denied permission or forcibly disrupted.
Position of women 2013 elections saw a doubling of female MPs, to 31%, but women face systematic discrimination, widespread harassment and sexual violence – including a recent campaign against ‘indecent dressing’ – and a disproportionately high maternal mortality rate.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality has been illegal since 1971 and is punishable by five years’ imprisonment. Though there has been a drop in arrests in recent years, there is widespread harassment, discrimination and violence against individuals, activists and defenders of LGBT rights.
Previously reviewed 2000
New Internationalist assessment President Biya’s 33-year rule has traded stability for stagnation, successfully managing Cameroon’s internal contradictions and a dangerous neighbourhood, but at the cost of inertia, corruption and an addiction to government subsidy. Though nothing is likely to change in the short term, Biya’s inevitable departure will be a huge challenge for a political system that seized up decades ago. Change could bring much-needed opportunity for Cameroon’s discontents – young, angry, urban and unemployed – but may also expose long-buried social faultlines.

mag cover This article is from the March 2016 issue of New Internationalist. You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial now »

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