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Cameroon: the beating heart of Africa

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Cameroon: the beating heart of Africa

Although Cameroon is only the 25th biggest country in Africa, its extraordinary diversity of landscape, fauna, flora, cultures and peoples makes it seem like Africa in miniature

Cameroon’s reputation as a concentrated form of the entire African continent is well merited. It contains an incredibly amount of ethnic, linguistic, environmental, topographical and economic variation in what is only the 25th biggest country in Africa. However, such differences present both opportunities and challenges, including economic potential but also two highly damaging conflicts.

The country’s incredible diversity extends to its geography. It has the highest mountain in West or Central Africa, the 4,095m high Mount Cameroon, while the Adamawa Mountains stretch across the centre of the country.

Volcanic activity associated with Cameroon’s mountain chains had deadly consequences in 1986 when more than 1,700 people were killed by the release of carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos, resulting in a project to remove yet more gas that had the potential to escape.

The mountains are also partly responsible for the plentiful rainfall across much of the country that helps to support agricultural production and hydroelectric schemes.

Despite its size, Cameroon’s relatively short coastline of just 402km is the result of its wedge-shape and location at the ‘armpit’ of Africa. This means that it has less maritime territory than might be expected, including in comparison with its much smaller neighbours, Equatorial Guinea and Sāo Tomé and Principé. The Equatoguinean island of Bioko lies just 40km offshore, further restricting Cameroon’s exclusive economic zone. 

This gives it less of the hydrocarbon-rich deep-water acreage in the Gulf of Guinea that has helped drive oil and gas production elsewhere in the region and it has never enjoyed the same level of oil production as Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville or Equatorial Guinea. 

The thin wedge of land stretches to the north, growing ever thinner as it goes, separating southern Chad from the northeast of Nigeria. The dominant feature in this area is – or rather was – Lake Chad, but the lake has receded very rapidly over the past few decades, with implications for the environment of the wider Sahelian region. It is possible that the lake will completely disappear, aiding the process of desertification. 

Already disputed borders with Chad and Nigeria have been complicated by the lake’s rapid shrinking as they were determined by its position. The lake’s disappearance is helping to destabilise the area around it, perhaps contributing to the rise of Boko Haram. Economic underdevelopment, environmental decline and porous international borders all too often result in violent conflict.

The Far North’s Sahel contrasts sharply with the lowland equatorial forest that dominates the southeast and which forms part of the wider Congo Basin. Parts of the tropical rainforest are among the most important in the world because of their biodiversity, although there are significant problems with the killing of forest animals for food and degradation by the timber industry.

Korup National Park in the southwest has dense concentrations of different flora species, many of significant medicinal value.

Cameroon’s biggest river is the Sanaga, which starts in the Adamawa Highlands and flows into the Atlantic, while the River Benue, which joins the River Niger in Nigeria, has its source in the same area. A long, low plain runs next to the coast everywhere except around Mount Cameroon, while the area around Douala and Yaoundé has the most productive agricultural land.

A rich history

The country had a rich pre-colonial history, with the Baka people long established in the southern tropical forests, and the Mandara Kingdom set up in the area along the current Nigeria-Cameroon border from the 15th century.

Some European traders and slave traders arrived from the 16th century, wreaking havoc on the coast and disrupting pre-colonial trading systems but African polities continued to rule most of the country. The Fulani invaded the Sahelian part of the country, creating the modern legacy of a predominantly Muslim north, as in much of West Africa. 

Cameroon was ruled by Germany from 1884, when the Protectorate of Kamerun was declared as part of the European partition of the continent, but Berlin lost all of its overseas colonies, including Kamerun, as a result of the peace settlement at the end of the First World War. By the time the fighting had ended, British Empire troops had occupied the western third of the country and French forces the remainder. 

The League of Nations – the forerunner of the United Nations – allocated the territory to the two victorious powers under a mandate along the same lines. It was this division that created the current linguistic division between the Francophone majority and the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest of the country, although it is easy to overlook the many African languages that have far deeper roots in the country.

In the rush towards decolonisation at the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, a referendum on the future of the British-ruled territories was held in 1961: the mainly Muslim north voted to join Nigeria, while the south opted to join Cameroon. The latter came together with the formerly French administered areas later that year to create the independent Cameroon Federation, which eventually became the Republic of Cameroon. 

Just two leaders

The country has only had two heads of states over the six decades that it has existed: firstly, Ahmadou Ahidjo, who was selected by the French governor and who ruled until 1982. Cameroon was effectively a one-party state under the Union Nationale Camerounaise (UNC) and President Ahidjo.

He apparently resigned for health reasons in 1982 but tried to continue influencing politics once he had been replaced by Paul Biya. This resulted in the removal of Ahidjo’s supporters from government and a conviction in absentia that prevented him from returning to the country. Biya had been Prime Minister for seven years before becoming head of state, so he is now one of the world’s longest-standing leaders. 

Biya first stood for election in 1984 but as the only candidate he secured 98% of the vote. Opposition parties were permitted from 1990 but political freedoms remained limited. A multi-party system was introduced in 1991.

While opposition parties have periodically enjoyed limited success, many have boycotted elections. Nevertheless, some opposition politicians joined the cabinet in 1997. 

President Biya was constitutionally banned from standing for the Presidency again after his 2004 election victory but this stipulation was lifted in 2008 and he has remained in office ever since. Most recently, he won the elections in November 2018. Similarly, his party – the Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC) – has dominated legislative elections.

Biya has been more prepared to cooperate with former colonial ruler France than his predecessor and Paris retains a strong influence in the country. Relations with neighbouring Nigeria have fluctuated but one of the main points of conflict was removed in 2006, when Cameroon gained sovereignty over the Bakassi Peninsula, following a referendum in the territory, which had previously been ruled by Nigeria.

Read more from our special report on Cameroon

Cameroon: All Africa in one country

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