A Brief History of Cameroon

Location of Cameroon
Location of Cameroon. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The Republic of Cameroon is an independent country in Central and West Africa in a region often referred to as the “hinge” of Africa. It is bordered by Nigeria to the northwest; Chad to the northeast; the Central African Republic to the east; the Republic of the Congo to the southeast; Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to the south; and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. With a population of over 26 million people, speaking over 250 languages, Cameroon is considered one of the most culturally diverse countries in Central Africa. With a land area of 183,569 square miles (475,442 square kilometers), it is slightly smaller than Spain and slightly larger than the U.S. state of California. Dense jungle, a vast river network, and tropical rainforests characterize Cameroon’s southern and coastal areas.

Fast Facts: Cameroon

  • Official Name: Republic of Cameroon
  • Capital: Yaoundé
  • Location: Central West Africa
  • Land Area: 183,569 square miles (475,442 square kilometers)
  • Population: 26,545,863 (2020)
  • Official Languages: English and French
  • Form of Government: Democratic republic
  • Date of Independence: January 1, 1960
  • Main Economic Activity: Petroleum production and refining

Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, Cameroon has enjoyed relative stability allowing for the development of roads and railways, as well as profitable agricultural and petroleum industries. The country’s largest city of Douala is the economic hub of commercial and industrial activities. Yaoundé, the second-largest city, is the capital of Cameroon.

History: From Ancient Times to Present

Having been under the colonial control of no less than three European powers for over 76 years before achieving full independence in 1960, Cameroon’s history has been characterized by periods of apparent peace and stability followed by periods of often-violent unrest.

Precolonial History

According to archaeological evidence, the region of Africa that now comprises Cameroon may have been the first homeland of the Bantu peoples around 1,500 BCE. Distant descendants of the ancient Bantu still live in the dense forests of Cameroon’s southern and eastern provinces where they proudly maintain their ancestral culture.

The first Europeans arrived in 1472 when Portuguese explorers and traders settled along the banks of the Wouri River in what is now the southwestern part of Cameroon on the Gulf of Guinea.

In 1808, the Fulani, a nomadic Islamic people from the Sahel region of western and north-central Africa, migrated to what is now northern Cameroon, displacing the area’s largely non-Muslim population. Today the Fulani continue to farm and raise cattle near the Cameroonian towns of Diamaré, Benue, and Adamawa.   

Despite the presence of the Portuguese in the 16th century, outbreaks of malaria prevented large-scale European colonization of Cameroon until the late 1870s. The pre-colonial European presence in the country was limited to trade and the acquisition of enslaved persons. After the slave trade was suppressed in the late 19th century, European Christian missionaries established a presence in the country where they continue to play a significant role in Cameroonian life.

Colonial Period

For 77 years, Cameroon was controlled by three European powers before becoming fully independent in 1960.

In 1884, Germany invaded Cameroon during the so-called “Scramble for Africa,” the period of imperialism that saw European countries dominate most of the continent. While the German government substantially improved Cameroon’s infrastructure, particularly the railroads, the German’s practice of harshly forcing the indigenous peoples to work on the projects against their will proved highly unpopular. Following the defeat of Germany in World War I, the League of Nations mandated that the territory be divided into the French Cameroons and British Cameroons.

Colonies of the European Powers in Africa
Colonies of the European Powers in Africa. Culture Club/Getty Images

By combining their capital with that of Cameroon and providing skilled workers, the French also improved the infrastructure while ending the German colonial practice of forced labor.

Great Britain chose to administer its territory from neighboring Nigeria. This did not sit well with the indigenous Cameroonians, who complained of becoming little more than a “colony of a colony.” The British also encouraged droves of Nigerian workers to migrate to Cameroon, which further angered the indigenous peoples.

Modern History

Political parties first emerged during Cameroon’s colonial period. The largest party, the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) demanded that the French and British Cameroons be combined into a single independent country. When France banned the UPC in 1955, a rebellion claiming thousands of lives led to Cameroon gaining full independence as the Republic of Cameroon on January 1, 1960.

President of Cameroon Paul Biya in China
President of Cameroon Paul Biya in China. Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

In elections held in May 1960, Ahmadou Ahidjo was elected the first president of the Republic of Cameroon, promising to build a capitalist economy maintain close ties to France. When Ahidjo resigned in 1982, Paul Biya assumed the presidency. In October 1992 Biya was reelected and in 1995, Cameroon joined the Commonwealth of Nations. In 2002, the International Court of Justice ceded long-disputed petroleum-rich border areas of Nigeria to Cameroon.

In 2015, Cameroon joined with nearby countries to battle the Boko Haram jihadist group, which had been carrying out bombings and kidnappings. Despite having some success, Cameroon faced allegations that its military had committed widespread human rights violations in their fight against the group.

President's Palace by night, Yaounde, Cameroon, West Africa
President's Palace by night, Yaounde, Cameroon, West Africa. Tim Graham/Getty Images

A 2008 constitutional amendment abolished presidential term limits allowed Paul Biya to be reelected in 2011, and most recently, in 2018. Biya’s Cameroon People's Democratic Movement party also holds a strong majority in the National Assembly. 

Culture: Importance of Folklore and Tradition

A man wears a Bamileke mask in Cameroon
A man wears a Bamileke mask in Cameroon. Paul Almasy/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Each of Cameroon’s some 300 ethnic groups contributes its festivals, literature, art, and handicrafts to the country’s colorful and diverse culture.

As common throughout Africa, storytelling—the passing down of folklore and tradition—is a key way of keeping the Cameroonian culture alive. The Fulani people are best-known for their proverbs, riddles, poetry, and legends. The Ewondo and Douala peoples are revered for their literature and theater. In ceremonies commemorating dead ancestors, the Bali people use masks representing elephant heads, while the Bamileke use carved statuettes of humans and animals. The Ngoutou people are famous for two-faced masks, as are the Tikar people for their ornately decorated brass smoking pipes.

Robe by an unknown Cameroonian artist, mid 1900s
Robe by an unknown Cameroonian artist, mid 1900s. Indianapolis Museum of Art/Getty Images

Traditional crafts comprise a large part of Cameroonian culture. With examples dating back to 8,000 BCE, exhibits of Cameroonian pottery, sculpture, quilts, elaborate clothing, bronze sculptures, and other creations are displayed in museums worldwide.

Ethnic Groups

Cameroon is home to as many as 300 distinct ethnic groups. Each of the country’s ten regions is dominated by specific ethnic or religious groups. Cameroon Highlanders, including the Bamileke, Tikar, and Bamoun peoples make up nearly 40% of the total population. The Ewondo, Bulu, Fang, Makaa, and Pygmies of the southern rainforests account for 18%, while the Fulani represent nearly 15% of the population.

The Pygmies are the oldest inhabitants of the country. Living as hunters and gatherers for over 5,000 years, their numbers continue to fall due to the decline of the rainforests in which they live. 

Government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches

Cameroon is a democratic presidential republic. A popularly elected President of Cameroon serves as head of state and commander in chief of the military. The president is directly elected by the people to an unlimited number of seven-year terms.

Legislative power is vested in a National Assembly and Senate. The National Assembly has 180 members, each elected to five-year terms. The Senate is made up of 100 members, 10 from each of Cameroon’s 10 regions. Within each region, 7 senators are elected and 3 are appointed by the president. All senators serve five-year terms.

Cameroon’s judicial system is comprised of a Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, and local tribunals. A Court of Impeachment passes judgment on charges of treason or sedition by the president or other government officials. All judges are appointed by the president.

Political Parties and System

Cameroon’s current constitution allows multiple political parties. The Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement is the dominant party. Other major parties include the National Union for Democracy and Progress and the Cameroon Democratic Union.

Every Cameroonian is assured the right to participate in the government. While the constitution grants all ethnic groups the right to take part in the political process, it does not guarantee them proportionally equal representation in the National Assembly and Senate. Women have long played a major role in Cameroon’s government and political system.

Foreign Relations

Cameroon takes a low-key, noncontentious approach to foreign relations, rarely criticizing the actions of other countries. An active participant in the United Nations, Cameroon is recognized for its support of peacekeeping, human rights, environmental protection, and the economic advancement of Third World and developing countries. While it still grapples with sporadic attacks by Boko Haram, Cameroon gets along well with its African neighbors, the United States, and the European Union.

Economy: A Prosperous Nation

Since becoming independent in 1960, Cameroon has become one of the most prosperous Africa states, standing as the largest economy in the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC). To protect its economy from recession and maintain confidence in its currency, the Central African CFA franc, Cameroon employs strict fiscal adjustment measures.

Exxon Cameroon/Chad oil pipeline
Exxon Cameroon/Chad oil pipeline. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Cameroon enjoys a positive trade stance thanks to its exports of natural resources, including petroleum, minerals, timber, and agricultural products, such as coffee, cotton, cocoa, maize, and cassava. Based mainly on its production of natural gas, Cameroon’s economy was predicted by the World Bank to grow by 4.3% in 2020.

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Longley, Robert. "A Brief History of Cameroon." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-cameroon-43616. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). A Brief History of Cameroon. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-cameroon-43616 Longley, Robert. "A Brief History of Cameroon." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-cameroon-43616 (accessed May 31, 2023).