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Atlas Cameroon

Country (long form)
Republic of Cameroon
Total Area
183,568.41 sq mi
475,440.00 sq km
15,421,937 (July 2000 est.) note: estimates for this country explicitly take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS
Estimated Population in 2050
24 major African language groups, English (official), French (official)
63.4% total, 75.0% male, 52.1% female (1995 est.)
indigenous beliefs 40%, Christian 40%, Muslim 20%
Life Expectancy
54.01 male, 55.64 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
unitary republic; multiparty presidential regime (opposition parties legalized in 1990)
1 Communaute Financiere Africaine franc (CFAF) = 100 centimes
GDP (per capita)
$2,000 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
agriculture 70%, industry and commerce 13%, other 17%
petroleum production and refining, food processing, light consumer goods, textiles, lumber
coffee, cocoa, cotton, rubber, bananas, oilseed, grains, root starches; livestock; timber
Arable Land
crude oil and petroleum products, lumber, cocoa beans, aluminum, coffee, cotton
machines and electrical equipment, transport equipment, fuel, food
Natural Resources
petroleum, bauxite, iron ore, timber, hydropower
Current Environmental Issues
water-borne diseases are prevalent; deforestation; overgrazing; desertification; poaching; overfishing
Telephones (main lines in use)
60,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
2,800 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

Little is known about Cameroon before 1472 when the Portuguese arrived shouting 'Camarões, camarões!' in amazement at the many giant shrimp - hence the country's name. For the next 400 years, southern Cameroon's history, like that of the rest of West Africa's Atlantic seaboard, revolved around the slave trade. Northern Cameroon, by contrast, was a battleground for various empires, notably the Kanem-Bornu in Chad. When the Germans arrived in the late 19th century, 'feudal' northern Cameroon was under the control of the Fulani empire in Sokoto (Nigeria).

Despite an invitation from a Douala chief to set up a protectorate over the area in the 1850s, Great Britain dillied and dallied for decades and finally lost to the Germans in 1884, intent on forging their own African empire, who beat them to an agreement by five days. The Germans were active colonisers, building schools, railways and plantations. But German rule was harsh: at one plantation a fifth of the labourers died in a single year from overwork.

After WWI Cameroon received new overlords courtesy of the League of Nations, which gave the French a mandate over 80% of the territory, and the British control of two separate areas, one in the south-western highlands (Southern Cameroons) and the other in the north (Northern Cameroons, now part of Nigeria). As a result, a single nation was divided into three parts governed by two colonial powers - hardly a situation conducive to later unification. What was worse, the British neglected their territories and instead lavished attention on their administrative capital in Nigeria. Within a few years the Brits sold their Cameroons holdings back to the Germans, who didn't last much longer - the outbreak of WWII saw them repatriated and stripped of their land by the Allies.

By contrast, the French improved the railway (with forced labour, forbidden by their mandate), developed cocoa and palm-oil plantations and exported timber, increasing the value of trade fivefold in its portion of the country between the world wars. After WWII, new political parties formed in French Cameroon, pressing for independence. A northern-based party, the Union Camerounaise, gained control of the national assembly, aggravating the resentment of southerners. Following independence in 1960, that ill will blossomed into a full-scale rebellion that took five battalions of French troops and a squadron of fighter planes eight months to put down. Thousands were ruthlessly killed and a state of emergency was declared that lasted two decades. The Union Camerounaise held onto power and its leader, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a northerner and ardent Muslim, became president.

In 1961, Northern Cameroons voted to become part of Nigeria; the south opted for federation with French Cameroon, forming a single republic 11 years later. Ahidjo was re-elected as president unopposed in 1975, continuing an exceedingly brutal and autocratic reign, filling jails with tens of thousands of political prisoners and censoring the press. Ahidjo's positive contribution was to invest wisely in agriculture, education, health care and roads, while resisting the temptation to borrow heavily and build expensive show projects. As a result, school enrollment reached 70% and farms produced enough food to keep the country self-sufficient and export a wide range of commodities. At the height of his power and success, Ahidjo unexpectedly announced his resignation in 1982. His hand-picked successor was Prime Minister Paul Biya, a southerner and a Christian who immediately set about removing Ahidjo's northern cronies, known as the 'barons'. By 1984, the barons had had enough and staged a coup that was such a surprise it almost succeeded. But Biya quickly regained control and was re-elected unopposed in 1988.

Cameroon made international headlines in 1986, when a toxic cloud erupted from a remote volcanic lake in the western mountains, asphyxiating nearly 2000 people in their sleep. Experts have said the phenomenon could reoccur at any time. In 1990, furious with Biya's inept handling of the economy, Cameroonians began openly accusing the government of corruption and formed a new party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF). The government's murderous attempt to wipe out the new threat backfired, and in less than a year there were 30 political parties and nearly a dozen independent newspapers. After Biya refused to call a constitutional convention in 1991, strikes brought the country to a standstill.

Biya eventually capitulated, calling the first multi-party elections in over 30 years. Various opposition parties took 52% of the vote and a new prime minister, Simon Achidi Achu, formed a coalition government in 1992. Later that year, Biya narrowly won re-election as president, defeating scattered and unprepared opposition. Biya's victory prompted accusations of electoral fraud from international observers and set off widespread rioting in western Cameroon.

The government devalued the CFA franc in 1994, raising exports but sending public-sector salaries plunging 70%. Soon after the National Assembly (dominated by the Union Camerounaise) extended the presidential term from five years to seven, Biya won re-election again in 1997, this time unopposed but with less than a third of voters bothering to turn out.

In 2002, the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Cameroon in its territorial disputes with Nigeria. These long-simmering disputes - particularly that over the Bakassi peninsula - are strategically important to both countries as they include oil-rich territories. Nigeria refuses to accept the decision, and while negotiations continue under the auspices of the UN the region is the scene of occasional flare-ups of violence.