Republic of Cameroon

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Republic of Cameroon

Type of Government

By constitution Cameroon is a multiparty republic. In reality, however, it operates as a presidential regime, in which the executive branch is dominant. The president and members of the unicameral legislature are chosen by direct, popular vote. The judicial branch is constitutionally independent but is functionally subordinate to presidential influence.


Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have been living in what is now Cameroon continuously for at least fifty thousand years. The first known inhabitants of the region were members of the Bantu ethno-linguistic group and Baku Pygmies. In subsequent centuries a succession of migratory groups lived in the region. Then, in the fifth century AD, the Sao Kingdom, which originated near the Nile River, conquered the native tribes and established the first major empire. It lasted until the fifteenth century, when it was overtaken by the Kotoko Kingdom.

Portuguese explorers visited Cameroon during the reign of the Kotoko, forming economic relationships with the kings but no lasting presence in the region. The Bornu Empire conquered the Kotoko in the 1800s and transformed Cameroon into a predominantly Muslim nation. The Islamic rulers established a thriving slave trade with Portugal and other European nations.

By the mid nineteenth century, British, Portuguese, and French missionaries had established permanent settlements in Cameroon. In 1884 German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), who had overseen the unification of Germany, decided to expand his country’s colonial territories to Africa. He negotiated with Britain, Denmark, France, and Spain to divide up Africa for colonization, obtaining the “rights” to the Cameroon coast. He then dispatched explorer and statesman Gustav Nachtigal (1834–1885) to negotiate with the Bornu and to establish the first German colony.

The Germans expanded inland, setting up military installations and agricultural communities. Some of the native tribes resisted the occupation but were overwhelmed by the superior German military; by 1890 Germany had eliminated the last pockets of resistance. In 1914, at the start of World War I, Britain and France united against Germany and forced the Germans to vacate their colonies in Africa. By 1916 the allied powers had gained control of Cameroon.

Britain and France divided Cameroon into two parts, with Britain retaining what is now Nigeria and a small strip of Cameroon between the Sea of Chad and the coast, while France controlled the remaining territory. In the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, Germany officially relinquished its African colonies. The British and the French met with the League of Nations to legitimize their territorial agreements and formally divided Cameroon into two administrative territories.

Though both Britain and France experienced economic gains from territorial Africa, neither nation was able to maintain control over the native populace. The independence movement grew quickly in French Cameroon, which was the larger and more economically prosperous of the two. Though the French altered their territorial government to allow greater native participation, many Cameroonians believed that the French were exploiting local labor and resources. By the 1940s work boycotts, protest gatherings, and political lobbies were being organized. The Union des Populations du Cameroun (Union of the Peoples of Cameroon), or UPC, became the most radical pro-independence group during the 1950s.

The French refused petitions for independence, prompting more radical action and eventually armed rebellion. When the independence war began in 1955, the French officially designated the UPC as an illegal terrorist organization. As they tried to destroy the UPC, other independence organizations began to rise, and it soon became clear to the French that independence was inevitable.

In 1958 Amadou Ahidjo (1924–1989), who had served within the colonial government as an emissary to France, helped found the Union Camerounaise (Cameroonian Union), or UC, a moderate independence organization that favored maintaining strong economic and social ties to France. Ahidjo established the first Republic of Cameroon in 1956, though the French had not formally relinquished control. Independence was “granted” by France in 1960, after which Ahidjo remained the leader of the new government.

Although the independence movement in British Cameroon never turned violent, by late 1960 the British government had decided to relinquish its control. Hoping to avoid a civil war, Britain sponsored a plebiscite in 1961 that allowed the British Cameroonians to determine their political allegiance—they could either join the newly established Republic of Cameroon (former French Cameroon) or become part of Nigeria. The vote was split, with the northern portions of the territory joining Nigeria and the southern region becoming part of the Republic of Cameroon.

Government Structure

Cameroon is divided into ten provinces, each headed by a provincial governor. All local leaders are appointed and funded by the central government. A revised constitution, adopted in 1996, provides for multiparty elections and a stronger legislative system, but it still grants most of the power to the executive branch.

According to that constitution, the president serves as head of state and commander of the armed forces while the prime minister serves as head of government. In practice, the prime minister is subordinate to the president and functions as the president’s chief deputy. The president, who is elected by direct, popular vote to serve up to two terms of seven years, has the power to appoint and dismiss members of the judiciary, provincial governors, military leaders, sixty-four cabinet ministers, and executive officers of approximately one hundred corporations that are wholly or partly owned by the state. The president is not bound to confer with the legislature before restructuring the government and has the freedom to utilize emergency powers and presidential degree without oversight. The 1996 constitution abolished censorship, but the president still maintains control over television, radio, and print media and has the authority to shut down media organizations.

The unicameral National Assembly has one hundred eighty members, who are elected by direct, popular vote for five-year terms. They can run for re-election. The president has the authority to extend or dissolve legislative terms. Legislation originates in both the executive and legislative branches and is passed by a simple majority vote in the legislature. The president has the power to veto legislation. When the National Assembly approved constitutional reforms in 1966, it called for the establishment of a one-hundred-member Senate and a new system of state councils. As of 2007 the government had not yet fulfilled those constitutional requirements.

The Ministry of Justice, which is part of the cabinet, is in charge of the judicial branch. Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed directly by the president with the consultation of the minister of justice. The Supreme Court functions as a council of presidential advisers and has little power to defend constitutional law without presidential approval. Below the Supreme Court are the high courts, with justices appointed by the National Assembly. They supervise the nation’s regional and district courts.

In addition to the central and provincial governments, Cameroon maintains an informal system of local leadership based on tribal and ethnic affiliation. The federal government sometimes provides stipends as a way of keeping local leadership responsive to central authority.

Political Parties and Factions

The Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounaise (Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement), or RDPC, is Cameroon’s dominant political party and represents the French-speaking majority in Cameroon. The RDPC evolved from the Cameroonian Union. President Paul Biya (1933–), Prime Minister Ephraïm Inoni (1946–), a majority of the National Assembly, and 44 percent of the executive ministers are members of the RDPC.

The Front Social-Démocratique (Social Democratic Front), or SDF, is the leading opposition party. Formed by politician and business leader Ni John Fru Ndi (1941–), it receives support from the nation’s English-speaking minority and special-interest groups. The SDF opposed the RDPC during the 1992, 1996, and 2004 elections. Fru Ndi has repeatedly accused the RDPC and Biya of corrupting election procedures; some believe that Fru Ndi was the official winner of the 1992 presidential election. In the 2004 elections Fru Ndi received 17.4 percent of the popular vote.

In 1991 Amadou Ndam Njoya (1942–) founded the Union Démocratique du Cameroun (Democratic Union of Cameroon), or UDC. It focuses on the rights of the nation’s ethnic minorities and draws support, like the closely related SDF, from the English-speaking minority. During the legislative elections of 2002, five members of the UDC won seats in the National Assembly. Unlike the SDF, Ndam Njoya and the UDC work closely with the RDPC.

Major Events

The republic’s first president, Amadou Ahidjo, faced substantial resistance from the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon and used its threat to justify authoritarian policies. For example, he censored the media and prohibited opposing political parties. By 1970 Ahidjo’s military had defeated the UPC but was facing potential rebellion. The president’s attempts to expand the industrial sector were unsuccessful, and poverty remained rampant.

At first Ahidjo did little to integrate the French and British territories, allowing both to remain under the control of local administrations. In 1972 a new constitution effectively ended the autonomy of former British Cameroon, leading to protests in the English-speaking community. The government maintained control through the police and militia but the threat of rebellion intensified.

Ahidjo abdicated the presidency in 1982, claiming health concerns, and left the office to his successor, Biya. Ahidjo hoped to remain in control by retaining leadership of the CU, but Biya responded by replacing Ahidjo’s cabinet members with his own supporters and enacting legislation that reduced the influence of the CU. Ahidjo and Biya became political opponents. In 1984 Ahidjo’s supporters attempted a presidential coup, but failed, leading to Ahidjo’s exile.

Biya’s restructured political organization, the RDPC, maintained most of the former administration’s policies, including the prohibition of opposition parties and restriction of civil liberties. As dissent became widespread and the economy floundered, however, Biya allowed moderate democratic reforms. Changes to the constitution, proposed and adopted between 1990 and 1992, intended to establish a multiparty democratic system. The legislative and presidential elections of 1992 were controversial, as many felt that Fru Ndi had defeated Biya. The election results, as announced by the government, indicated that Biya had won 39 percent of the popular vote and Fru Ndi had won 37 percent. After Fru Ndi and other opponents complained of election fraud, they were placed under house arrest.

The constitution was amended in 1996, allowing for further democratic reforms and calling for an upper chamber in the parliament and a system of state councils to provide greater regional representation for the populace. The presidential elections of 1997 were boycotted by most of the opposition parties, who did not believe that Biya’s administration would allow a fair election. That move allowed Biya to win re-election with more than 90 percent of the popular vote.

Twenty-First Century

In 2000 the legislature voted to create the National Elections Observatory (NEO), an independent organization to monitor elections for fraud and other irregularities. The local and legislative elections of 2002 were considered the most democratically legitimate in the nation’s history, though questions of misconduct remained. For the 2004 presidential elections, the NEO was joined by several international human-rights organizations to monitor election procedures. The NEO certified that the results were reliable, despite some irregularities. Biya won re-election in 2004 with more than 70 percent of the popular vote. His term expires in 2011.

The Cameroonian economy has shown signs of improvement since the 1990s, but poverty is still widespread. The government has worked with international aid organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to reduce the nation’s debt and to improve the infrastructure. A better human-rights record and more political stability could potentially encourage additional foreign investment.

Ardener, Edwin. Kingdom on Mount Cameroon: Studies in the History of the Cameroon Coast, 1500–1960. Rev. ed. Edited and with an introduction by Shirley Ardener. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003.

Gros, Jean-Germain, ed. Cameroon: Politics and Society in Critical Perspectives. Lanham: University Press of America, 2003.

Mukum Mbaku, John, and Joseph Takougang. eds. The Leadership Challenge in Africa: Cameroon Under Paul Biya. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2004.