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The Republic of Cameroon is an independent state in western Africa bordered by Nigeria to the northwest; Chad to the northeast; the Central African Republic to the east; Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon to the south; and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest (see map). A German protectorate from 1884, the area was divided between France and Britain after World War I and known as the Cameroons. French influence remains strong in independent Cameroon, especially in Yaoundé, the capital.
Cameroon has a diverse topography. In the south a densely forested plateau extends from the Sanaga River to the Gabon border; a coastal plain separates these highlands from the Atlantic. Terrain in the central region rises gradually, culminating in the Adamawa (Adamaoua) Plateau. In the far north the land drops toward Lake Chad. Western Cameroon is mountainous; there Cameroon Mountain, the highest point in the country, rises to 4,070 m (13,354 ft). (In 1986, in a rare natural disaster, a release of carbon dioxide from Lake Nyos, in northwestern Cameroon, killed some 1,700 people. More than a decade later, the threat of additional lethal gas eruptions at Lake Nyos remained, despite efforts by scientists to eliminate the gas.)
The climate is tropical. Average temperatures range between 21° and 28° C (70° and 82° F). In the south, rains fall between April and November and are rare the rest of the year. The central zone has two dry seasons and two wet periods; in the north, rain falls only between May and October. Average annual rainfall ranges from 10,160 mm (400 in.) in the west to 386 mm (15.2 in.) in the north. Vegetation is correspondingly varied, and most species of African wildlife are also present. These are protected in several national parks and faunal reserves, including the Dja Faunal Reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
PEOPLE AND ECONOMY
Cameroonians belong to more than 150 ethnic groups that fall into two broad divisions. The northern savanna is home to cattle keepers and semipastoralist grain growers, most of whom are Muslims; the south shelters settled agricultural peoples. Although many southerners are Christians, most adhere to traditional African religions.
Languages can be divided into five groups. In the southeast, peoples such as the Douala and Fang speak Bantu languages. The highlands are home to Bantoid speakers, notably the Bamileke. Speakers of Sudanic languages such as the Hausa, Margi, and Kapsigi inhabit the north, along with Fulani immigrants from West Africa. In the east central region live the Gbaya and Mbum, who speak Adamawa Eastern languages. Hausa, Fulani, Pidgin English, and Douala serve as trade languages; French and English are used in government.
Cameroon is mainly rural, and the central and southeastern parts of the country are sparsely populated. Education and health services have greatly expanded since independence. Nearly 90% of the children now attend primary schools.
The economy remains predominantly agricultural. Staple foodstuffs include yams, plantains, cassava, and millet; coffee, cocoa, and cotton are the major commercial crops. Exports of petroleum from offshore fields, begun in 1977, are the chief source of government revenue. Since 1994, Cameroon has been involved in a border dispute with Nigeria involving offshore oil reserves, although the two countries vowed in 1999 to settle the dispute peacefully.
The country has various other resources, including natural gas, bauxite, iron ore, uranium, tin, and timber, but few are exploited. The industrial sector includes petroleum refining, food processing, and the smelting of imported aluminum. Hydroelectric power and a good transportation network have encouraged industrial growth. Possessing both heavy industry and light manufacturing, Cameroon is rapidly becoming one of the major industrial centers of Francophone Africa. Nevertheless, the real per capita income declined between 1985 and 1995 due to population growth, rampant official corruption, and falling world prices for the country's leading exports.
HISTORY AND GOVERNMENT
Little is known about the country's early history, but the population probably included migrants from the north who had abandoned the increasingly arid Sahara. In addition, it appears that the Bantu languages, now found throughout Africa to the southeast, spread from the Cameroon region. Later the Fulani filtered into northern Cameroon, where they founded Muslim states with economies based on cattle keeping and slave raiding among neighboring non-Muslim peoples.
Germany proclaimed Cameroon a protectorate in 1884. It remained a German colony until World War I, when it was divided into French- and British-administered zones under the League of Nations mandate system and later the United Nations trusteeship system. The French zone became a sovereign state in 1960, and a year later the southern half of the British zone federated with it. The federal system ended in 1972 under a new constitution.
Alhaji Ahmadou Ahidjo governed the country from 1960 until his resignation in 1982. His successor, Paul Biya, was reelected in 1984, 1988, and 1992. Cameroon was a de facto one-party state until 1990. A new constitution was adopted in December 1995 to satisfy regional aspirations while retaining a strong central government. It provided for the establishment of decentralized territorial communities, created a Senate representing regions, traditional chiefdoms, and special economic and social interests, and allowed Biya to run for two additional 7-year terms. Biya's party won a majority in May 1997 legislative elections, and he was reelected in October amid a boycott by the main opposition parties.
Dennis D. Cordell, Assistant Professor of History, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Tex.
Source: 2001 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, ©2000 Grolier Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Bibliography: Edwin and Shirley Ardener, Kingdom on Mount Cameroon: Studies in the History of the Cameroon Coast, 1500-1970 (1996); Greg O. Asuagbor, Democratization and Modernization in Multilingual Cameroon (1997); Richard Bjornson, The African Quest for Freedom and Identity (1994); Philip Burnham, The Politics of Cultural Difference in Northern Cameroon (1996); Emmanuel Chiabi, The Making of Modern Cameroon (1997); Miriam Goheen, Men Own the Fields, Women Own the Crops (1996); Victor T. LeVine, The Cameroon Federal Republic, 2d ed. (1971) and The Cameroons from Mandate to Independence (1964; repr. 1977); Ekema J. Manga, The African Economic Dilemma: The Case of Cameroon (1997); Wilfred A. Ndongko and F. Vivekananda, Economic Development of Cameroon (1990); Martin Njeuma, Introduction to the History of Cameroon (1990); Michael G. Schatzberg and I. William Zartman, eds., The Political Economy of Cameroon (1985); Joseph Takougang and Milton H. Krieger, African State and Society in the 1990s: Cameroon's Political Crossroads (1998).
Images: Map of Cameroon © Lonely Planet. Cameroon's national football team, from Common Link at the Commonwealth Institute (U.K.) All Rights Reserved.