November 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

CameroonWho lives there?: About 19 million people. The linguistic, tribal and cultural situation is complicated: there are something like 250 different cultural or linguistic groups. The national languages include 55 Afro-Asiatic languages, two Nilo-Saharan languages, and 173 Niger-Congo languages.

The groups can be divided variously: About 50% are urban and 50% are rural. Over two million people in the west speak English as a lingua franca, the rest French. Another way to divide the country is between the Sudanese tribes of the north and the Bantu tribes of the south. A fourth way is to divide into the 40% Christian, 20% Muslim and 40% indigenous religious groups.

A more sophisticated approach is to divide the ethnicities into five groups:

  1. Western highlanders: Semi-Bantu groups living in the grassland of the north west. 38% of the population.
  2. Coastal tropical forest peoples: Bantu tribes living in the south west. 12% of the population.
  3. Southern tropical forest peoples:Bantu and pigmy tribes living in the south. 18% of the population.
  4. Arid highlands peoples: Sudanese groups living in the north and central highlands and believing in Islam. 14% of the population
  5. Kirdi: Animist tribes of the Mandara mountains (central north west) 18%

In addition there are reasonably large numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers from less stable neighbouring countries – and many of the ethnic groups overlap state lines. This map looks at the demographics of whole area including neighbouring countries:

Nigeria Benin and Cameroon languages

How does the system work? (the theory): Cameroon has a very powerful president, elected by first past the post with a runoff if required. The President has all executive power, appoints the government, the judiciary, all levels of local government, and the directors of the 100+ state-owned firms. The President has also sponsored every bill passed by parliament since 1992. Term limits have been abolished. The President does not need the approval of Parliament to do any if these things.

There is a unicameral Parliament, the National Assembly. It has a strange electoral system. 180 members are elected via 49 constituencies. Some are single member, some elect up to seven members. Single member seats are elected by first past the post. Multi member seats are elected as follows: if a party gets over 50% of the vote then they receive all the seats; if no party gets over 50% of the vote then the party with the highest share of the vote wins half the seats – the other half of the seats are distributed amongst the other political parties by PR (largest remainder, Hare Quota).

Cameroon is divided into 10 regions, which in turn are divided into 58 divisions, which in turn are divided into sub-divisions. In rural areas the sub divisions are divided into districts. Each tier has its own administration which has a great deal of autonomy in theory. However as all these administrations are appointed directly by the President, and as the President takes a very hands-on approach to local government, the autonomy is only theoretical.

Cameroon is the only country in the world to have two simultaneous constitutions. The official position of the government is that both the 1972 and the 1996 constitutions are in force – and no comment is made on the matters upon which the constitutions differ.

How does the system work? (the practice): Few people would regard Cameroon as a democracy. Constitutional reforms approved in 1996 agreed term limits, an upper house (the Senate), decentralised elected regional government, and an independent constitutional court. These reforms have never been implemented.

In addition the courts can only intervene in political matters at the invitation of the president, the judiciary have imprisoned political rivals on the basis of dubious evidence, and the election commission is staffed by ruling party hacks. The press is not free and the best anyone can say about elections in the country is that they are “tainted”.

That said there was a ray of hope last year, when the previously toothless government-created “National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms” produced a deeply scathing report, and the Government shocked everybody by allowing it to be published.

Tribal rule is tolerated where it does not conflict with national law and traditional tribal leaders receive stipends (cynics would say backhanders) from the state.

How did we get here?: Cameroon had been an important trading basin for many decades but was never brought under united rule until it was conquered by the Germans in 1884. Following WW1 it was split between Britain and France. A brutal civil war led by the left wing UPC caused instability and indirectly led to French Cameroon receiving independence in 1960. This, and the independence of Nigeria, made British Cameroon unsustainable, and so it was split in half: the north going to Nigeria and the south to Cameroon.


Orange=Germany, Blue=France, Red=UK, Green=independent Cameroon, Pink=ceded to, or always was, a neighbouring nation

The borders were only finalised when, in 2008, following an International Court of Justice decision, the peninsular of Bakassi was ceded from Nigeria to Cameroon. Many Anglophile residents, distraught at finding themselves in a majority French nation, have been campaigning for partition ever since – wishing to create the English speaking nation of Ambazonia in the formerly English held area.

Meanwhile the first leader of Cameroon was Ahmadou Ahidjo. He used the ongoing war with the UPC (who hadn’t stopped fighting for control fo the country with the exit of the French) as an excuse for increasingly authoritarian rule. Between 1966 and 1990 his CNU was the sole legal political party. Ahidjo finally stood down in 1982 leaving another CNU member, Paul Biya, to become President. However Ahidjo attempted to continue to rule from behind the scenes. This had three effects. Firstly, it led to Biya forcing Ahidjo into exile in 1983. Secondly it meant that Biya, who when he started out was considered a moderate and a democrat, became increasingly paranoid and authoritarian. Thirdy it meant that in 1985, to shed himself of Ahidjo’s legacy, Biya changed the name of the CNU to the RPDC.

Elections were first held in 1990 but had no real effect, except to give a voice to Anglophiles calling for the separation of Ambazonia. Their Social Democratic Front is the only real opposition to the RPDC but, despite creating a leftist platform to increase their appeal, they win hardly any seats outside the English speaking west. Nevertheless, Biya has made various concessions to the Anglophile community in an attempt to undercut the SDF, including appointing an English speaking Prime Minister, Philémon Yang, in 2009.

Who’s in charge?: Biya and the RPDC; the 180 odd other political parties are deeply divided along ethnic, religious and linguistic lines and might struggle even if fair elections were held.

At the last Presidential election Biya won on the first round with 71% of the vote. The SDF candidate came second with 17%.

Meanwhile at the last National Assembly election the RPDC won 153 of the 180 seats and the SDF 16 (this was significant as under Cameroonian law you need 15 members to be considered an official group in parliament).

The remaining 11 seats went to three small parties: The UNDP who won 6 seats, the UDC who won 4 and the MP (Progressive Movement) who won 1.

Drawing their support mostly from the far north of the country, and from Muslims in general, the UNDP consider themselves to be the true torch-bearers of Ahidjo’s legacy and the true continuation of the CNU. They have decided to participate in the government, a decision which has led to a fair few of its members quitting.

The UDC were formed out of an attempt to form an opposition anti-RPDC umbrella group. They have struggled to win seats anywhere other than in Noun Department (a region in the centre of the country – to the west, but not so far to the west as to be English speaking). Here, due to their local links, they tend to win most or all the seats.

Tthe MP (Progressive Movement) are another opposition group, they have an electoral alliance with the UDC whereby they do not compete against each other – and only one party will stand in each province (the SDF were part of this alliance until the last election but withdrew so they could stand in the central provinces). The MP have only ever made breakthroughs in the coastal Littoral Province.

cameroon parties

With democratic opposition to the government so problematic, opposition occasionally spills out onto the streets. The Taxi drivers unions have traditionally played an important role in organising protests. This last happened when Biya abolished term limits in 2008, triggering weeks of rioting – particularly in English speaking areas.

What does it look like?: Cameroon is about the size and length of California and contains within it pretty much every type of landscape contained within Africa. It can be divided into five regions – although to do so is to hugely simplify.

Around the sea is the coastal plain. It is covered in lush rainforest and contains some of the hottest and wettest (most humid) places in the world. Rising from the coastal pain is the south Cameroon plateau. It dominates southern and central Cameroon, is about 600m high (but flat) and whilst dominated by rainforests, does have savannah land and definable seasons. It is bordered to the south and east by the Congo river basin and rainforest. North west of the plateau is the Cameroonian highland forest – a set of mountains that go up to 4000m and are covered in moist forest interspersed with grassland. East of this (and north of the southern plateau) is the Adamawa Plateau – flat but rugged and about 1000m high, it is mostly covered in savannah and is only sparsely populated. Finally in the far north we have the northern lowland region – a low area of scrub and desert which ends (as Cameroon does) in lake Chad.

Rhumsiki Peak

What are the issues?: Cameroon has one of the most stable governments in the region, and a level of development which, whilst not stunning, compares favourably with its neighbours. Its education system in particular was thought to be reasonable and it was thought that, rather than the bread and butter issues that dominate the concerns of neighbouring countries, the bigger issue was the authoritarian police state.

That view changed in the late eighties and early nineties when a serious economic crisis hit. GDP per capita fell 60% in real terms in eight years, the government had to cut all salaries by 65% in 1993, four consecutive IMF bailouts failed, and in 1994 the CFA franc (a currency used in 14 African countries) was devalued by 50% – largely as a result of the crisis in Cameroon’s economy. The fifth IMF bailout in 1998 did however seem to do the trick and it appears Cameroon’s economy is slowly recovering.

A good source of impartial information is: The press are much freer than broadcast media but are still subject to severe censorship. As a result there have been various attempts to bypass censorship laws using blogs such as the vanguard.

A good book is: I’m just going to recommend one book because it is apparently brilliant and bang up to date: Cameroon: Politics and Society in Critical Perspective.

When are the next elections?: Presidential elections will be next year, legislative elections in 2012.


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