For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Area: 475,000 sq. km. (184,000 sq. mi.), about the size of California.
Cities (2008 World Gazetteer estimates): Capital--Yaounde (pop. 1.677 million). Other major cities--Douala (1.978 million), Garoua (519,000), Maroua (486,000), Bafoussam (348,000), Bamenda (486,000), Loum (221,000), and Ngaoundere (283,000).
Terrain: Northern plains, central and western highlands, southern and coastal tropical forests. Mt. Cameroon (13,353 ft.) in the southwest is the highest peak in West Africa and the sixth in Africa.
Climate: Northern plains, the Sahel region--semiarid and hot (7-month dry season); central and western highlands where Yaounde is located--cooler, shorter dry season; southern tropical forest--warm, 4-month dry season; coastal tropical forest, where Douala is located--warm, humid year-round.
Nationality: English noun and adjective--Cameroonian(s); French noun and adjective--Camerounais(e).
Population (July 2010 est.): 19,406,100.
Annual population growth rate (2010 est.): 2.6%.
Ethnic groups: About 250.
Religions: Christian 40%, Muslim 20%, indigenous African 40%.
Languages: French and English (both official) and about 270 African languages and dialects, including pidgin, Fulfulde, and Ewondo.
Education: Compulsory between ages 6 and 14. Attendance--65%. Literacy--75%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2008)--82/1,000 live births. Life expectancy (2008)--51 yrs.
Work force: Agriculture--70%. Industry and commerce--13%.
Type: Republic; strong central government dominated by president.
Independence: January 1, 1960 (for areas formerly ruled by France) and October 1, 1961 (for territory formerly ruled by Britain).
Constitution: June 2, 1972, last amended in 2008.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state), 7-year term, no term limits; appointed prime minister (head of government). Legislative--unicameral National Assembly (180 members; meets briefly three times a year--March, June, November); a new Senate was called for under constitutional changes made in early 1996. Judicial--falls under the executive's Ministry of Justice.
Administrative subdivisions: 10 regions, 58 departments or divisions, 349 subprefectures or subdivisions.
Political parties: Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) or its predecessor parties have ruled since independence. Major opposition parties: the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP), and the Cameroon Democratic Union (CDU).
Suffrage: Universal at 20.
GDP (2009 est.): $42.55 billion.
Annual real GDP growth rate (2009): 2.5%.
GDP per capita (2009 est.): $2,141 (Economist Intelligence Unit estimate).
Inflation (2009 est.): 5.3%.
Natural resources: Oil, timber, hydroelectric power, natural gas, cobalt, nickel, iron ore, uranium.
Agriculture (2009): 19.8% of GDP. Products--timber, coffee, tea, bananas, cocoa, rubber, palm oil, pineapples, cotton. Arable land (2005 est.)--12.54%.
Industry (2009): 29.7% of GDP.
Services (2009): 50.4% of GDP.
Trade (2008): Exports--$5.246 billion: crude oil, timber and finished wood products, cotton, cocoa, aluminum and aluminum products, coffee, rubber, bananas. Major markets--European Union, CEMAC, China, U.S., Nigeria (informal). Imports--$4.362 billion: crude oil, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, aluminum oxide, rubber, foodstuffs and grains, agricultural inputs, lubricants, used clothing. Major suppliers--France, Nigeria, Italy, U.S., Germany, Belgium, Japan.
Cameroon's estimated 250 ethnic groups form five large regional-cultural groups: western highlanders (or grassfielders), including the Bamileke, Bamoun, and many smaller entities in the northwest (est. 38% of population); coastal tropical forest peoples, including the Bassa, Douala, and many smaller entities in the Southwest (12%); southern tropical forest peoples, including the Ewondo, Bulu, and Fang (all Beti subgroups), Maka and Pygmies (officially called Bakas) (18%); predominantly Islamic peoples of the northern semi-arid regions (the Sahel) and central highlands, including the Fulani, also known as Peuhl in French (14%); and the "Kirdi", non-Islamic or recently Islamic peoples of the northern desert and central highlands (18%).
The people concentrated in the Southwest and Northwest regions--around Buea and Bamenda--use standard English and "pidgin," as well as their local languages. In the three northern regions--Adamawa, North, and Far North--French and Fulfulde, the language of the Fulani, are widely spoken. Elsewhere, French is the principal language, although pidgin and some local languages such as Ewondo, the dialect of a Beti clan from the Yaounde area, also are widely spoken. Although Yaounde is Cameroon's capital, Douala is the largest city, main seaport, and main industrial and commercial center.
The western highlands are among the most fertile regions in Cameroon and have a relatively healthy environment in higher altitudes. This region is densely populated and has intensive agriculture, commerce, cohesive communities, and historical emigration pressures. From here, Bantu migrations into eastern, southern, and central Africa are believed to have originated about 2,000 years ago. Bamileke people from this area have in recent years migrated to towns elsewhere in Cameroon, such as the coastal regions, where they form much of the business community. About 20,000 non-Africans, including more than 6,000 French and 2,400 U. S. citizens, reside in Cameroon.
The earliest inhabitants of Cameroon were probably the Bakas (Pygmies). They still inhabit the forests of the South and East regions. Bantu speakers originating in the Cameroonian highlands were among the first groups to move out before other invaders. During the late 1770s and early 1800s, the Fulani, a pastoral Islamic people of the western Sahel, conquered most of what is now northern Cameroon, subjugating or displacing its largely non-Muslim inhabitants.
Although the Portuguese arrived on Cameroon's coast in the 1500s, malaria prevented significant European settlement and conquest of the interior until the late 1870s, when large supplies of the malaria suppressant, quinine, became available. The early European presence in Cameroon was primarily devoted to coastal trade and the acquisition of slaves. The northern part of Cameroon was an important part of the Muslim slave trade network. The slave trade was largely suppressed by the mid-19th century. Christian missions established a presence in the late 19th century and continue to play a role in Cameroonian life.
Beginning in 1884, all of present-day Cameroon and parts of several of its neighbors became the German colony of Kamerun, with a capital first at Buea and later at Yaounde. After World War I, this colony was partitioned between Britain and France under a June 28, 1919 League of Nations mandate. France gained the larger geographical share, transferred outlying regions to neighboring French colonies, and ruled the rest from Yaounde. Britain's territory--a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad, with an equal population--was ruled from Lagos.
In 1955, the outlawed Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC), based largely among the Bamileke and Bassa ethnic groups, began an armed struggle for independence in French Cameroon. This rebellion continued, with diminishing intensity, even after independence. Estimates of deaths from this conflict vary from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
French Cameroon achieved independence in 1960 as the Republic of Cameroon. The following year the largely Muslim northern two-thirds of British Cameroon voted to join Nigeria; the largely Christian southern third voted to join with the Republic of Cameroon to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The formerly French and British regions each maintained substantial autonomy. Ahmadou Ahidjo, a French-educated Fulani, was chosen President of the federation in 1961. Ahidjo, relying on a pervasive internal security apparatus, outlawed all political parties but his own in 1966. He successfully suppressed the UPC rebellion, capturing the last important rebel leader in 1970. In 1972, a new constitution replaced the federation with a unitary state.
Ahidjo resigned as President in 1982 and was constitutionally succeeded by his Prime Minister, Paul Biya, a career official from the Bulu-Beti ethnic group. Ahidjo later regretted his choice of successors, but his supporters failed to overthrow Biya in a 1984 coup attempt. Biya won single-candidate elections in 1984 and 1988 and flawed multiparty elections in 1992, 1997, and 2004. His Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) party holds a sizeable majority in the legislature following 2007 elections--153 deputies out of a total of 180.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
The 1972 constitution (amended in 1996 and 2008) provides for a strong central government dominated by the executive. The president is empowered to name and dismiss cabinet members, judges, generals, regional governors, prefects, sub-prefects, and heads of Cameroon's parastatal (about 100 state-controlled) firms, obligate or disburse expenditures, approve or veto regulations, declare states of emergency, and appropriate and spend profits of parastatal firms. The president is not required to consult the National Assembly.
The judiciary is subordinate to the executive branch's Ministry of Justice. The Supreme Court, in the absence of a constitutionally mandated Constitutional Court, may review the constitutionality of a law only at the president's request.
The 180-member National Assembly meets in ordinary session three times a year (March-April, June-July, and November-December), and seldom makes major changes in legislation proposed by the executive. Laws are adopted by a majority vote of members present or, if the president demands a second reading, of total membership.
Following government pledges to reform the strongly centralized 1972 constitution, the National Assembly adopted a number of amendments in December 1995, which were promulgated in a new constitution in January 1996. The amendments called for the establishment of a 100-member Senate as part of a bicameral legislature, the creation of regional councils, and the installation of a 7-year presidential term, renewable once. One-third of senators would be appointed by the president, and the remaining two-thirds would be chosen by indirect elections. As of January 2010, neither the Senate nor the regional council had been created. In April 2008, the National Assembly acceded to constitutional changes proposed by the presidency that, inter alia, removed presidential term limits and provided the president with immunity from prosecution for acts committed while in office.
All local government officials are employees of the central government's Ministry of Territorial Administration, from which local governments receive most of their budgets.
While the president, the Minister of Justice, and the president's judicial advisers (the Supreme Court) top the judicial hierarchy, traditional rulers, courts, and councils also exercise functions of government. Traditional courts still play a major role in domestic, property, and probate law. Tribal laws and customs are honored in the formal court system when not in conflict with national law. Traditional rulers receive stipends from the national government.
The government adopted legislation in 1990 to authorize the formation of multiple political parties and ease restrictions on forming civil associations and private newspapers. Cameroon's first multiparty legislative and presidential elections were held in 1992. Because the government refused to consider opposition demands for an independent election commission, the three major opposition parties boycotted the October 1997 presidential election, which Biya easily won.
Each of Cameroon's national elections has been marred by severe irregularities. In December 2000, the National Assembly passed legislation creating the National Elections Observatory (NEO), an election watchdog body. NEO played an active role in supervising the conduct of local and legislative elections in June 2002 and July 2007, which demonstrated some progress but were still hampered by irregularities. The NEO also supervised the conduct of the presidential election in October 2004, as did many diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy. The incumbent, Paul Biya, was re-elected with 70.92% of the vote. NEO reported that it was satisfied with the conduct of the election but noted some irregularities and problems with voter registration. The U.S. Embassy also noted these issues with the election, as well as reports of non-indelible ink, but concluded that the irregularities were not severe enough to impact the final result. The U.S. Embassy provided monitors for the July 2007 parliamentary and municipal elections and concurred with the analysis of other observers and diplomatic missions, who noted some improvements but persistent flaws, especially in the registration of voters and the prevention of voter fraud.
In December 2006, the President enacted the law creating Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), an independent body responsible for the organization, management, and supervision of all election operations and referendums. The decree stipulated its creation by the end of June 2008. In December 2008, well outside the timeframe outlined in the 2006 law, a 12-member ELECAM Council was appointed. Most members (10 out of 12) are from the President’s CPDM party, thus ELECAM is not seen as independent or impartial. During its March 2010 session, the National Assembly amended the law creating ELECAM in order to allow political parties and the administration to play a significant role in the electoral process at the level of the various commissions that will govern voter registration, vote count, and disputes. The amendment also empowered the Directorate General of Elections, the technical branch of ELECAM. ELECAM has been hiring staff and setting up offices. The next presidential election is scheduled for October 2011.
Cameroon has a number of private newspapers, radio stations, and private television stations. Censorship was officially abolished in 1996, but the government has on occasion seized or suspended newspapers, radio stations, and television stations.
In recent years the harassment and arrests of journalists has increased. In February 2008, the government closed Magic FM radio, a Voice of America (VOA) affiliate, and confiscated its equipment, which included VOA transmission equipment, and shuttered Equinoxe Radio and Television after the three media outlets carried controversial reports and critical commentaries about Biya’s regime. In September 2009, the government shut down the Yaounde-based Sky One FM Radio station after the station refused to stop broadcasting its most popular program, Le Tribunal, which allowed listeners to air grievances and seek assistance in redressing outstanding issues with government entities. Journalists have been fired from their jobs allegedly for openly discussing the change of the constitution and criticizing the government. The government also banned a popular song on the radio about constitutional change.
Radio and television continue to be a virtual monopoly of the state-owned broadcaster, the Cameroon Radio-Television Corporation (CRTV). However, there are several independent television stations and many more regional private radio stations, although many are owned by or financed by parliamentarians, mayors, or party officials.
Since the issuance of the decree authorizing the creation of private radio and television on April 3, 2000, only two stations have received a license from the government. Licensing fees are more than $100,000 for radio stations and $200,000 for television stations, which many in the press consider exorbitant. On April 9, 2008, the Minister of Communication gave two television stations and one radio station until July 2008 to pay the remainder of their license fee or be shut down. Previously, most media houses applied for their licenses and operated under what the government called “administrative tolerance” while their applications were pending and they raised the necessary funds for licensing fees. However, in January 2010, the Minister of Communication indicated that the government was ending “administrative tolerance” and would crack down on stations operating without a fully-paid license.
There are a dozen community radio stations created and supported by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and local councils, which are exempted from licenses and have no political content. Radio coverage extends to about 80% of the country, while television covers 60% of the territory.
Despite strong civil rights on the books, the government recurrently infringes upon rights and liberties in practice. Discrimination against women, homosexuals and indigenous peoples is pervasive. Criticism of the president, ranking officials or the government at large continues to be met by harassment and physical force by the government. Similarly, the rights to assemble and of association are often curtailed according to ideology and political alignment. The public’s ability to seek recourse from the courts remains minimal due to insufficient resources and physical access, and corruption. Government prisons are at times life-threatening, plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation, and corruption by security forces. In May 2010, a journalist died in prison as a result of poor health care. Reports of torture, excessive force, unlawful arrests and detention, and unlawful killings by police and security forces remain widespread. Forced labor and human trafficking are also chronic problems.
Principal Government Officials
President of the National Assembly--Djibril Cavaye Yeguie
Prime Minister--Philemon Yang
Minister of External Relations--Henri Eyebe Ayissi
Minister of Defense--Edgar Alain Mebe Ngo’o
Ambassador to the United States--Joseph Bienvenu Charles Foe Atangana
Ambassador to the United Nations--Michel Tommo Monthe
Cameroon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2349 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel.: 202-265-8790).
Cameroon is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, including in agriculture, mining, forestry, and the oil and gas sectors. Cameroon is the commercial and economic leader in the sub-region, though regional trade, especially with Nigeria, remains under-realized.
Cameroon's economy is highly dependent on commodity exports, and swings in world prices strongly affect its growth. Cameroon's economic development has been impeded by economic mismanagement, pervasive corruption, and a challenging business environment (for local and foreign investors). Cameroon remains one of the lowest-ranked economies on the World Bank's annual Doing Business and similar surveys and regularly ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world. Over the last three years, GDP growth has averaged around 3%, which is roughly on par with population growth but not enough to significantly reduce high poverty levels. Despite boasting a higher GDP per capita than either Senegal or Ghana, Cameroon lags behind these two countries in important socio-economic indicators, including health and education. The government has professed a determination to foster urgent economic growth and job creation, and there is a decided uptick in interest in the mining sector and infrastructure development, but it is not yet clear how well these promises will translate into improved performance.
For a quarter-century following independence, Cameroon was one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. The drop in commodity prices for its principal exports--oil, cocoa, coffee, and cotton--in the mid-1980s, combined with an overvalued currency and economic mismanagement, led to a decade-long recession. Real per capita gross domestic product (GDP) fell by more than 60% from 1986 to 1994. The current account and fiscal deficits widened, and foreign debt grew.
The government embarked upon a series of economic reform programs supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) beginning in the late 1980s. Many of these measures have been painful, including the government’s slashing of civil service salaries by 50% in 1993. The CFA franc--the common currency of Cameroon and 13 other African states--was devalued by 50% in January 1994. The conjunction of these two events meant an overall drop in purchasing power of nearly 65%. The government failed to meet the conditions of the first four IMF programs. A three-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) approved by the IMF in October 2005 ended in 2008. Cameroon has not negotiated any new IMF program but is continuing cooperation with the Fund under Article IV consultations. In 2009, the IMF disbursed $144 million to Cameroon under its Exogenous Shocks Facility to help with the effects of the global economic crisis.
Official statistics for 2009 had inflation at 5.3%, indicating a weakening of Cameroonians’ spending power. Public frustration over rising prices was partly to blame for an outbreak of social unrest and violence in many Cameroonian cities in February 2008. In March 2008, the government announced a reduction in food import tariffs and other measures designed to reduce the cost of basic commodities. The global economic crisis has seriously impacted Cameroon’s oil, cotton, timber, and rubber sectors, depressing exports, growth, and overall consumption.
The government has made halting progress on its privatization program. The National Water Utility Corporation (SNEC) was split into two entities. CAMWATER--to handle infrastructure--remains in government hands, and a reformed SNEC is now owned by a consortium led by Moroccan Water Utility. Plans to privatize the national air company CAMAIR and national telecom CAMTEL, however, have repeatedly faltered because of political sensitivities and concerns about corruption. CAMAIR was declared officially defunct and ceased to operate in May 2008, and a new CAMAIRCO has yet to get off the ground. CAMTEL remains under the control of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.
The European Union is Cameroon's main trading bloc, accounting for 36.6% of total imports and 66.1% of exports. France is Cameroon's main trading partner, but the United States is the leading investor in Cameroon (largely through the Chad-Cameroon pipeline and energy provider AES Sonel). According to press reports, China recently became the number one importer of Cameroonian exports, especially unprocessed timber.
For further information on Cameroon's economic trends, trade, or investment climate, contact the International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC 20230 and/or the Commerce Department district office in any local federal building.
The Cameroonian military generally has been an apolitical force dominated by civilian control. International military advisers remain closely involved at senior levels of all the armed forces and the gendarmes. The armed forces number approximately 28,000 personnel in ground, air, and naval forces, with the majority being in the army and gendarmes.
The goal of the Cameroonian military is to improve the security of its maritime and land borders as well as to develop a force with the capacity to contribute to peacekeeping operations. While equipment needs pose a significant challenge, Cameroonian officers are already receiving peacekeeping training both in Africa and abroad through multilateral partnerships.
Cameroon's noncontentious, low-profile approach to foreign relations puts it squarely in the middle of other African and developing states on major issues. It supports the principle of noninterference in the affairs of third countries and increased assistance to underdeveloped countries. Cameroon is an active participant in the United Nations, where its voting record demonstrates its commitment to causes that include international peacekeeping, the rule of law, environmental protection, and Third World economic development. In the UN and other human rights fora, Cameroon's nonconfrontational approach has generally led it to avoid criticizing other countries.
Cameroon enjoys good relations with the United States and other developed countries. It has particularly close ties with France, with whom it has numerous military, economic, and cultural agreements. China has a number of health and infrastructure projects underway in Cameroon, and provides some military assistance. Cameroon enjoys generally good relations with its African neighbors. Cameroon successfully resolved its border dispute with Nigeria in the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula through peaceful legal means after having submitted the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). With the support of the UN, both countries worked closely together to peacefully implement the ICJ ruling, and a genuine, peaceful turnover of the peninsula by Nigeria was completed on August 14, 2008. In December 2009, both countries laid the first pillar to demarcate the border. Cameroon is a member of CEMAC (Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa) and supports UN peacekeeping activities in Africa (Sudan, Central African Republic) and Haiti.
U.S.-Cameroonian relations are close, although from time to time they have been affected by concerns over human rights abuses and the pace of political and economic liberalization. The bilateral U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program in Cameroon closed for budgetary reasons in 1994 but USAID runs a number of programs in Cameroon, mainly through its regional office in Accra, Ghana, and mainly in the health sector. As of 2010, USAID has a Cameroon-based coordinator. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also has activities in Cameroon, mainly in HIV/AIDS prevention.
Approximately 140 Peace Corps volunteers continue to work successfully in agroforestry, community development, education, and health. The Peace Corps plans to double the number of volunteers in Cameroon by 2011. The Public Affairs section of the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde organizes and funds diverse cultural, educational, and informational exchanges. It maintains a library and helps foster the development of Cameroon's independent press by providing information in a number of areas, including U.S. human rights and democratization policies. The Embassy's Self-Help and Democracy and Human Rights Funds are some of the largest in Africa.
Through several State Department and USAID regional funds, the Embassy also provides funds for: biodiversity protection, refugees, HIV/AIDS, democratization, and girl's scholarships. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided a commodity grant valued at $6 million in 2003 to fund agricultural development projects in the North and Far North regions. Similar programs were approved in 2004, 2005, and 2006. The $4 million 2004 program was to fund an agricultural development and nutrition enhancement project in the East and Adamawa regions. The $4 million 2005 program was to integrate tree crops and agribusiness to enhance household livelihood security in vulnerable communities of the Center and Southwest regions. The 2006 project was to focus on an agroforestry program to be carried out in the Northwest and West regions. In 2009, a USDA-funded program was launched to promote primary school education in the Northwest region.
The United States and Cameroon work together in the United Nations and a number of other multilateral organizations. While in the UN Security Council in 2002, Cameroon worked closely with the United States on a number of initiatives. The U.S. Government continues to provide substantial funding for international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, IMF, and African Development Bank, which provide financial and other assistance to Cameroon.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Janet E. Garvey
Deputy Chief of Mission--Lisa Peterson
Public Affairs Officer--Richard Johannsen
Political/Economic Officer--Scott Ticknor
Peace Corps Director---LaHoma Smith Romocki
Consular Officer--Steve Royster
The U.S. Embassy in Yaounde is located adjacent to the golf course at the base of the Mont Fébé. The Embassy Chancery contacts are: Tel: (237) 2220 15 00/Fax: (237) 2220 16 20, while the Consular Section can be reached directly at Tel: (237) 2220 16 03/Fax: (237) 2220 1752. The mailing address is: B.P. 817, Yaounde, Cameroon. The U.S. mailing address is American Embassy Yaounde, Department of State, Washington, DC 20521-2520.