Last updated 1 May 2002. Map of Cameroon

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.

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.

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