Archaeological evidence suggests that the region may have been the first homeland of the Bantu peoples, who developed methods of working iron and an advanced agriculture. After around 200 BCE, the Bantu peoples spread east and south, to become the dominant ethnic group of sub-Saharan Africa.
European exploration began in the 15th century with the Portuguese who established sugar plantations and gained control of the slave trade around the coast in the following century. Dutch slave traders subsequently gained the ascendancy. Slavery ravaged West African societies until the middle of the 19th century, when Britain’s abolition of the slave trade (in 1807) and the activities of the anti-slavers became effective. In northern Cameroon, during the 19th century, nomadic Fulani arrived and settled.
Germany (a late entrant into the European scramble for colonial possessions in Africa) claimed Cameroon as a German Protectorate in 1884; it remained so until 1916, when Britain, France and Belgium took it by military force in a combined operation. The German administration built the railways between Douala and Eséka and between Douala and Nkongsamba in the west; and German farmers settled in the areas that are now North-West and South-West Regions.
After World War I, the country was divided into two zones. The western zone (comprising two separate areas, later known as the Northern and Southern Cameroons) was administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. The rest of the country (comprising four-fifths of the total) was administered by France, directly from Paris. During the French administration, the port at Douala was built, the coffee and cocoa industries increased and extensive road-building was undertaken. In the British area, there was local participation in government, and both Northern and Southern Cameroons were joined to parts of Nigeria for administrative purposes. After 1945, the UK and France continued to administer the country as UN Trust Territories.
During this period, political parties emerged, the largest being the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) led by Ruben Um Nyobe. The UPC, which demanded that French and British Cameroons should be united into one independent country, was banned in the mid-1950s, leading to a rebellion in which thousands of people were killed, including Um Nyobe in 1958. Nonetheless, the country proceeded to partial self-government in 1957 and full independence on 1 January 1960.
After a UN plebiscite in 1961, Northern Cameroons chose union with Nigeria, as part of the Northern Region. Southern Cameroons joined the Republic in October 1961. The country became a federal republic in the same year, with both components retaining their local parliaments. In 1972 the federation was dissolved and the country became a unitary republic (the United Republic of Cameroon), the name changing once again to the Republic of Cameroon in 1984.
Following independence, the country was ruled first by President Ahmadou Ahidjo (from 1960 to 1982) and then by President Paul Biya, who took office as President in 1982. A one-party regime was established in 1966 through the merger of the two governing parties and several opposition groups. In 1968 the ruling party was reconstituted as the Union National Camerounaise (UNC) and was renamed once again the Rassemblement démocratique du peuple camerounais (Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement – RDPC or CPDM) in 1985.
Cameroon has never had a successful military coup. A plot by military officers was uncovered in 1979. A further planned coup was discovered in 1983 and in February 1984 the former President Ahmadou Ahidjo (then in exile where he subsequently died) was tried in absentia and found guilty, along with two of his military advisers. Two months later, the Republican Guard attempted a coup. This was foiled by the army, but 500–1,000 people were killed in the fighting; the Republican Guard was then disbanded.
Political protest against the one-party system was widespread up to 1992, through a campaign of civil disobedience known as villes mortes or ‘ghost towns’, when towns were virtually closed down to prompt reform. Multiple political parties became legal in 1990 and legislative elections were held in March 1992. They were contested by 48 political parties but boycotted by the Social Democratic Front (SDF). The ruling CPDM took 88 seats, the opposing parties a total of 92 seats. The CPDM formed a coalition with the Movement for the Defence of the Republic, which had six seats, thus securing a majority of eight.
At presidential elections in October 1992 Paul Biya was re-elected with 40 per cent of the votes (in 1988 he had stood unopposed, winning 98 per cent of the vote). Of the eight candidates, his nearest rival was John Fru Ndi of the SDF, who gained 36 per cent.
In 1995, with the approval of all other member countries, Cameroon joined the Commonwealth.
Before the May 1997 general election there was an outbreak of violence in the North-West Region, which was attributed to the Anglophone separatist movement. A curfew was enforced and public meetings banned. In the election, with Commonwealth observers present, CPDM took 109 of the 180 Assembly seats, the SDF 43, the National Union for Democracy and Progress 13, and the Union for Democracy and Change five.
In the run-up to the presidential election, the leading opposition parties, the SDF, the National Union for Democracy, and Progress and the Union for Democracy and Change, were urging reform of the presidential electoral system, and introduction of a two-tier process. The three parties boycotted the election and advised their supporters not to vote. The Commonwealth therefore declined to send an observer mission. In October 1997 President Paul Biya was re-elected for a seven-year term, defeating the six other candidates in a landslide victory, receiving more than 92 per cent of the votes cast.
Relations with Nigeria
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that the long disputed and fought-over border areas of Nigeria should be ceded to Cameroon. These areas include the Bakassi peninsula in the south which is believed to contain very large offshore reserves of oil and gas. In a UN-brokered agreement in June 2006, the two countries agreed on a phased transfer of the peninsula. Nigerian troops withdrew in August 2006 and Nigeria formally ceded the border areas to Cameroon in August 2008.