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Cameroon - History

The earliest inhabitants of Cameroon were probably the Bakas (Pygmies). They still inhabit the forests of the South and East regions. From time immemorial stretching back to prehistoric times, the land called Cameroon was inhabited, as attested by many cut and polished stone objects found almost everywhere on its territory. Indeed one of the world’s most important prehistoric sites is found on the Makabai Mountains, a small village near Maroua. It has stone objects mixed with huge grottos which form a thick covering of about one meter.

Cameroon’s contact with the Mediterranean world stretches back to Antiquity and was made through the Sahara routes and, by all accounts, through the ocean. The centers of trade were Egypt, Fezzan, Libya and Chad. Cameroon exported ivory, panther skins, ostrich feathers, natron, and imported pearls, bronze objects, salt and fabric. The Sahara, which was a sprawling green and humid expanse at the time, was crossed by means of cows, horses and donkeys. 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.

The area around Mount Cameroon, an active volcano some 4,000 meters (13,000 feet ) above sea level, was known to the Cartharginians - the foes of ancient Rome - long before Portuguese explorers navigated the estuary of the Wouri river in 1472. Spotting mud lobsters in the waters, the explorers named them Rio dos Camaroes, Portuguese for River of Prawns. The name Cameroon was born.

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.

Modern Cameroon was created as the German protectorate of Kamerun in 1884. 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 Duala (Douala) and later Buea and then Jaunde (present day Yaounde). After the Great War, this colony was partitioned between Britain and France under a June 28, 1919 League of Nations mandate. France was awarded administration of Eastern Cameroon, and Britain Northern and Southern Cameroons. France gained the larger geographical share, transferred outlying regions to neighboring French colonies, and administered the rest from Yaounde. Britain's territory--a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad, with an equal population--was governed from Lagos. French Cameroon refused to accept the armistice which followed the fall of France in 1940. Gen. Charles de Gaulle's envoy, Col. Jacques Le Clerc, landed at Douala in August and seized the territory for the Free French. Troops trained in Cameroon later saw action in North Africa and Syria. In 1946 the French and British mandates over the territory were converted by the United Nations into trusteeships.

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 and Ahmadou Ahidjo was elected as President. In February 1961 the populations of British administered Cameroons were asked to decide their future in a UN organised plebiscite. The largely Muslim territory of Northern Cameroon, the northern two-thirds of British Cameroon, voted to join Nigeria. On October 1, 1961, in a move unique in Africa, the small British-influenced largely Christian Southern Cameroon joined the larger French-influenced polity as the federated states of West Cameroon and East Cameroon, respectively. Cameroon thereby became a federal republic encompassing East Cameroon (the former French territory) and West Cameroon (the former British territory). The formerly French and British regions each maintained substantial autonomy.

Differences between the two states of the new Federal Republic of Cameroon in political outlook and practice, trade orientation, educational systems, and administration remained to be accommodated. Problems imposed by the union of these two political entities divided the republic along the lines of regionalism, ethnicity, language, religion, and colonial heritage. Ahmadou Ahidjo, a French-educated Fulani, became President of the federation in 1961. Adjustments were undertaken through the personal guidance and effective leadership of President Ahmadou Ahidjo, who immediately embarked on a course that aimed for true national unity. Ahidjo made Cameroon a one-party state in 1966, following a major rebellion in the center of the country, and concentrated power in presidential hands. Ahidjo, relying on a pervasive internal security apparatus, outlawed all political parties but his own (the Cameroon National Union, CNU) in 1966. He successfully suppressed the UPC rebellion, capturing the last high-ranking rebel leader in 1970. In 1972, following a referendum in West Cameroon, Ahidjo introduced a new constitution, which replaced the federation with a unitary state, the United Republic of Cameroon.

In 1982 Ahidjo resigned on grounds of ill health, handing power over to his Prime Minister Paul Biya, a career official from the Bulu-Beti ethnic group. Ahidjo retained chairmanship of the ruling party, the National Union of Cameroon. Ahidjo later regretted his choice of successors, and a power struggle ensued between the two men. In 1984, factions of the army seen as close to Ahidjo staged a coup. Biya survived, and later reasserted control over the army and ruling party, stating his intention to reform and reinvigorate Cameroonian politics and the omnipresent Cameroonian state. The ruling party’s name was changed to the Cameroonian People’s Democratic Movement. Biya won single-candidate elections in 1984 and 1988. In 1990, in response to domestic and international pressure, Biya approved the introduction of a multi-party system. Biya won flawed multiparty elections in 1992, 1997, 2004, and 2011. His Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) party, formerly the CNU, held a sizeable majority in the legislature following 2007 elections--153 deputies out of a total of 180.

In Cameroon's gradual transition from traditional village society to statehood, its history has been marked by a human diversity that has fostered uneven rates of social, political, and economic development. In the years before its recorded history, the area that was later to become the United Republic of Cameroon was the meeting ground for many of the major ethnic groups of the African continent: Bantu-speaking peoples who dominated central and eastern Africa, peoples of the great Sudanic plains south of the Sahara Desert, and peoples from the coasts of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean along the West African bulge. Not only did these diverse peoples differ notably in language and culture, but they also introduced into the area a variety of traditional social and political systems that included egalitarian village societies, socially stratified kingdoms, and portions of vast, feudally organized empires.

The territorial boundaries established in the area by European powers in the scamble for Africa at the end of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the twentieth century did not take into account the region's long history of ethnic and political differences. Peoples were split and regrouped according to the convenience such boundaries offered the political and military interests of the European powers. After thirty years as a German colony, the area containing Cameroon and portions of present-day Nigeria was divided after the Great War between the British and the French. First the area was adminis- tered as two mandates under the League of Nations and later as two trust territories of the United Nations. The cultural and political traditions as well as the colonial policies of the British and the French were as different from one another as they were from those of the earlier German administration.

The growth of African political awareness among Cameroonians in the 1950s resulted in demands for self-government, independence in 1960, and eventually for reunification of the two territories. Tradi- tional ethnic hostilities and divergent political traditions, which at times had led to violence, continued to impede the government's quest for national unity.

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Page last modified: 02-02-2017 19:34:09 ZULU