One of the world’s most interestingly named countries, Cameroon is both one of the largest West African countries, and is not Portuguese-speaking, but Francophone (in addition to numerous other local languages).
The history of Cameroon closely resembles the history of many other West African nations, at least in its general outlines. The area had changed hands among different colonial masters, starting with the Portuguese, and later the British, Germans, and finally, the French.
Independence came both as a result of agitation by locals, and also as a result of France’s political disintegration following WWII, as well as European and international opposition to colonization.
But, as with many other West African countries, independence has been bittersweet. In Cameroon, the government of the new nation wasted little time in attracting violent opposition, and subsequently curtailing democracy by creating a one-party state. In recent decades, the country has not suffered as much violence as many of its neighbors, yet Cameroon can still hardly be called a success story.
The Portuguese explored the coast of what is now Cameroon in the late 15 th century. They named the estuary south of Cameroon Mountain, Rio das Camarões (“river of prawns”) beacause of the many mud lobsters they saw in the river.
Merchants set up trading outposts along the coasts the 17th century. They bought slaves, ivory, and rubber.
During the mid 1840s British traders and missionaries went about their business and after 1860 both the Germans as well as the British, moved further inland. The Germans, by cutting the British out, proclaimed the Douala area a German protectorate.
A European Rule
The Germans set up large cacao, palm, and rubber plantations despite local resistance and transportation problems. They built roads and began a railroad and even a new port, port Douala, on the Atlantic coast.
During WWI, the British and French took the opportunity to invade Germany’s colony in Cameroon in 1916. In 1919 one-fifth of the colony’s territory went to the British, adding to their territory in eastern Nigeria. The French took the remaining four-fifths with the blessing of the new League of Nations, the international organization formed by the victors of WWI.
At the end of World War II, the colonies in Cameroon were made trust territories of the United Nations (UN).
Opposition to colonial rule grew rapidly in the French colony. One hundred parties were formed between 1948 and 1960. The French granted self-government in December 1958. Full independence came on January 1, 1960. Ahmadou Ahidjo, Prime Minister since 1958, became the first President.
As a result of a 1961 UN-sponsored plebiscite, the Southern Cameroons, which had been part of the British colony, joined the Republic of Cameroon to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon in October 1961. The Northern Cameroons, meanwhile, became part of Nigeria, another former British colony.
Rebellion and Unity
Independence began with a rocky start. The Cameroonian People’s Union led a popular rebellion against the government which lasted until 1963 before the government finally won through.
In 1966 the six major parties were merged into the National Cameroonian Union. The new party was made the country’s only legal party. The government's power was further strengthened when a 1972 constitution made the country a highly centralized state, called the United Republic of Cameroon.
President Ahidjo stayed in office until he suddenly resigned in 1982. Paul Biya, the former Prime Minister, became President. The country’s name was changed to the Republic of Cameroon in 1984, the same year Biya suppressed a coup attempt.
In 1986 an explosion caused by carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from Lake Nios, a volcanic lake near the Nigerian border, killed more than 1,700 people.
The first multiparty elections since Cameroon had become a one-party state were held in the early 1990s, but Biya won with about 40 percent of the vote.
In 1994 Nigerian troops invaded the Cameroon’s Bakassi Peninsula, which was rich in petroleum. Nigeria claimed that a 19th century treaty made it the owner of the peninsula. The matter was sent to the UN for resolution, but skirmishes continued between the troops of the two countries.
Biya, having been president for decades, was growing less popular by the time of the 1997 elections, which were marked by violence. Cameroon’s three most important parties boycotted the presidential elections, believing that the ruling party had committed fraud in the preceding legislative elections. Biya won the elections in a landslide, but less than 30 percent of voters had actually voted.
President Biya is still in power in 2012 although people's political rights and freedoms are deemed 'not free' with widespread suppression of opposition groups and persons. Cameroon last held parliamentary elections on 22 July 2007.
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