printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Cameroon (05/02)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of Cameroon

Area: 475,000 sq. km. (184,000) sq. mi.), about the size of Califo rnia.
Cities (2000 census): Capital--Yaounde (pop. 1,000,000). Other major cities--Douala (1.5 million), Garoua (170,000), Maroua (150,000), Bafoussam (140,000), Bamenda (130,000), Nkongsamba (110,000), and Ngaoundere (100,000).
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 (2001 est.): 15.2 million (52% in rural areas).
Annual growth rate: 2.5%.
Ethnic groups: About 250.
Religions: Christian 53%, Muslim 22%, indigenous African 25%.
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(1999) --9.5%. Life expectancy(1999)--50 years.
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 January 1996
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state) 7-yr. term, renewable once; appointed prime minister (head of government). Legislative--unicameral National Assembly (180 members, 5-yr. terms; meets briefly three times a year--March, June, November); a new Senate is called for under constitutional changes made in early 1996. Judicial--falls under the executive's Ministry of Justice.
Administrative subdivisions: 10 provinces, 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 (NUDP), and the Cameroon Democratic Union (CDU).
Suffrage: Universal at 20.

Flag: Cameroon flag
GDP (1996): $9.4 billion.
Annual growth rate (2001-02): 5.7%.
Natural resources: Oil, timber, hydroelectric power, natural gas, cobalt, nickel,. Agriculture (2000): 29% of GDP. Products--timber, coffee, tea, bananas, cocoa, rubber, palm oil, pineapples and cotton. Arable land--3%.
Manufacturing (2000): 31% of GDP.
Services (2000): 40% of GDP.
Trade (1997): Exports--$2.1 (2000) billion: crude oil, timber and finished wood products, cotton, cocoa, aluminum and aluminum products, coffee, rubber and bananas. Major markets--European Union, UDEAC/CEMAC, China, U.S., Nigeria (informal). Imports--$1.6 billion (2000): crude oil, vehicle, pharmaceuticals, aluminum oxide, rubber, foodstuffs and grains, agricultural inputs, lubricants, and 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 (subgroup of Beti), Fang (subgroup of Beti), 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 provinces--around Buea and Bamenda--use standard English and "pidgin," as well as their local languages. In the three northern provinces--Adamaoua, north, and far north--either French or Fulfulde, the language of the Fulani, is widely spoken. Elsewhere, French is the principal second 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 the most fertile 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 provinces, where they form much of the business community. About 20,000 non-Africans, including more than 6,000 French and 1,000 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 provinces. 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-l9th 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 death 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. Biya won single-candidate elections in 1984 and 1983 and flawed multiparty elections in 1992 and 1997. His CPDM party holds a sizeable majority in the legislature--116 deputies out of a total of 180.

The 1972 constitution as modified by 1996 reforms provides for a strong central government dominated by the executive. The president is empowered to name and dismiss cabinet members, judges, generals, provincial 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 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 has seldom, until recently, made major changes in legislation proposed by the executive. Laws are adopted by majority vote of members present or, if the president demands a second reading, of a 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 January 1996. The amendments call for the establishment of a 100-member senate as part of a bicameral legislature, the creation of regional councils, and the fixing of the presidential term to 7 years, renewable once. One-third of senators are to be appointed by the President, and the remaining two-thirds are to be chosen by indirect elections. As of March 1998, the government has not established the Senate or regional councils.

All local government officials are employees of the central government's Ministry of Territorial Administration, from which local governments also get 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 followed by municipal elections in 1996 and another round of legislative and presidential elections in 1997. Because the government refused to consider opposition demands for an independent election commission, the three major opposition parties boycotted the October 1977 presidential election, which Biya easily won. The leader of one of the opposition parties, Bello Bouba Maigari of the NUDP, subsequently joined the government. In December 2000, the National Assembly passed legislation creating the National Elections Observatory (NEO), an election watchdog body. Its eleven members were appointed in October 2001 and NEO has since played an active role in preparing the country for local and legislative elections in June 2002.

Cameroon has a number of independent newspapers. Censorship was abolished in 1996, but the government sometimes seizes or suspends newspapers (although none in 2001) and occasionally arrests journalists. Radio and television continue to be a virtual monopoly of the state-owned broadcaster, the Cameroon Radio-Television Corporation (CRTV) despite the effective liberalization of radio and television in 2000. There are nevertheless half a dozen private radio stations which continue to broadcast in Yaounde in defiance of government orders. Radio coverage extends to about 80% of the country but television is a significant medium only in Douala. .

The Cameroonian Government's human rights record has been improving over the years but remains flawed. There continue to be reported abuses, including beatings of detainees, arbitrary arrests, and illegal searches. The judiciary is frequently corrupt, inefficient, and subject to political influence.

Principal Government Officials
President--Paul Biya
President of the National Assembly--Djibril Cavaye Yeguie
Prime Minister--Peter Mafany Musonge

Ambassador to the United States--Jerome Mendouga
Ambassador to the United Nations--Martin Belinga

Cameroon maintains an embassy in the United States at 2349 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel.: 202-265-8790).

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 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 IMF beginning in the late 1980s. Many of these measures have been painful; the government slashed civil service salaries by 65% in 1993. The CFA franc--the common currency of Cameroon and 13 other African states--was devalued by 50% in January 1994. The government failed to meet the conditions of the first four IMF programs.

The Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) signed recently by the IMF and Government of Cameroon calls for greater macroeconomic planning and financial accountability; privatization of most of Cameroon's nearly 100 remaining nonfinancial parastatal enterprises; elimination of state marketing board monopolies on the export of cocoa, certain coffees, and cotton; privatization and price competition in the banking sector; implementation of the 1992 labor code; a vastly improved judicial system; and political liberalization to boost investment.

Recent signs, however, are encouraging. In October 2000 the IMF commended the government for sound macroeconomic management and market-oriented reforms which have led to strong growth, low inflation, and contained budget deficits. Cameroon consequently qualified for $2 billion debt relief under the heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) initiative. In December 2000, the IMF also approved a new 3-year program worth $133.7 million aimed at reducing poverty and improving social services. By the end of 2001, four of Cameroon's 11 state-owned enterprises earmarked for privatization were sold to the private sector under this aegis of this program.

Legal and political obstacles as well as difficult negotiations with the government on issues such as the sale price, financial disclosure, tax arrears, and cross debts have delayed the privatization of remaining major parastatals.

France is Cameroon's main trading partner and source of private investment and foreign aid. Cameroon has an investment guaranty agreement and a bilateral accord with the United States. U.S. investment in Cameroon is about $1 million, most of it in the oil sector.

For further information on Cameroon's economic trends, trade, or investment climate, contact the International Trade Administration, U. S. Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 20230, and Commerce Department district office in any local federal building.

Cameroon's noncontentious, low-profile approach to foreign relations puts it squarely in the middle of other African and developing country states on major issues. It supports the principles 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 sits on the UN Security Council in the Africa rotational seat since January 2002 for a 2-year term.

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. Cameroon enjoys generally good relations with its African neighbors, except for Nigeria, with whom it is engaged in a sporadic border dispute and armed conflict in the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula. Cameroon has repeatedly demonstrated its preference for resolving this conflict through peaceful legal means and has submitted its case to the International Court of Justice. Cameroon is a member of CEMAC (Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa) and supports UN peacekeeping activities in Central Africa.

The Cameroonian military generally has been an apolitical force dominated by civilian control. Traditional dependence on the French defense capability, although reduced, continues to be the case as French military advisers remain closely involved in preparing the Cameroonian forces for deployment to the contested Bakassi Peninsula. The armed forces number approximately 28,000 personnel in ground, air, and naval forces, the majority being the army and naval ground forces.

U.S.-Cameroonian relations have been affected by concerns over human rights abuses and the pace of political and economic liberalization, as well as U.S. budget realities. There is no longer a bilateral USAID program in Cameroon. However, approximately 140 Peace Corps volunteers continue to work successfully in agroforestry, community development, education, and health. The Public Affairs section of the U.S. embassy in Yaounde organizes and funds diverse cultural, educational, and information exchanges. It maintains a library and helps to 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 United States and Cameroon work together in the United Nations and a number of other multilateral organizations. Since joining the UN Security Council earlier this year, Cameroon has 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, that provide financial and other assistance to Cameroon.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--George M. Staples
Deputy Chief of Mission--Frances T. Jones
Administrative Officer--Stephanie L. Brown
Public Affairs Officer--Andree Johnson
Political/Economic/Commercial Officer--Harry R. Sullivan
Defense Attach´┐Ż--Lt. Col. Scott Rutherford
Peace Corps Director--James Dobson
Consular Officer--J. Marinda Harpole

The U.S. Embassy in Cameroon is located on Rue Nachtigal, Yaounde (te1: 237 - 22-25-89/23-40-14; fax: 237-23-07-53, B. P. 817, Yaounde.

The U. S. mailing address is American Embassy Yaounde, Department of State, Washington, DC 20521-2520.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.