A German colony: AD 1884-1914
In the early 19th century there is considerable activity in Cameroon by British and American missionaries, but a German connection begins only when the Woermann Company of Hamburg builds a warehouse in 1868 on the estuary of the Wouri river. Other German traders follow, in sufficient numbers to send requests home for the appointment of a consul.
Their hopes are met in full by Bismarck’s dramatic decision in 1884 to establish a German empire in Africa. Gustav Nachtigal arrives in Cameroon in that year to make a treaty with one of the local kings and to annexe the region for the German emperor. A consul is appointed before the year is out, followed by a governor in 1885.
This first year is not without local troubles. Chiefs not party to the treaty with the Germans attack their turncoat colleague’s village and tear down the German flag. Unfortunately for them the German warship Bismarck is in the vicinity. The result is savage reprisals, followed in turn by the murder of the Woermann Company’s local representative.
But on the broader international scene, Germany makes very satisfactory progress. In negotiations, begun at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, France and Britain cede their local interests on the coast. Some ten years later, in 1893-4, inland frontiers are agreed with British Nigeria to the west and French Equatorial Africa to the east.
Finally in 1911, in this ongoing game of colonial diplomacy, Cameroon is granted 105,000 square miles of French Equatorial Africa in return for acknowledging French rights over Morocco.
The Germans have considerable difficulty in enforcing their authority over the colony. At first, like other colonial powers in Africa, they leave the local administration largely to commercial companies. These are granted concessions over vast territories and ruthlessly use forced labour to make a profit on banana, rubber, palm-oil and cocoa plantations. But Cameroon is moving gradually towards a more state-controlled administration when its existence as a German colony is brought to an abrupt end.
French and British rule: AD 1916-1960
When World War I breaks out in 1914, aligning France and Britain against Germany, the two German colonies on the Gulf of Guinea are in an impossible position. Both Togoland and Cameroon are sandwiched between British and French colonies. Within weeks of the start of the war military action begins on the borders. By early 1916 the British and French are in control of both German colonies.
The two allies divide Togo and Cameroon between them, administering the regions adjacent to their own colonies. In the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919, Germany renounces sovereignty over all her African colonies. The issue of who shall rule them is referred to the League of Nations.
The mandates granted by the League of Nations in 1922 confirm the working division already established in Cameroon between Britain and France. The British are to adminster by far the smaller share, consisting of two thin strips on the eastern border of Nigeria. They are separated by a stretch of land south of the Benoué river, where the Nigerian border bulges to the east. These two regions become known as the British Cameroons.
On the French side, the large eastern area ceded in 1911 is returned to French Equatorial Africa. The remaining central territory becomes a new French mandated colony, to be known as French Cameroun.
French Cameroun enjoys more rapid economic and political development than the British Cameroons, and it feels sooner the effects of the independence movements sweeping through the continent after World War II. From 1956 the French are confronted by a powerful uprising orchestrated by a nationalist party, the UPC (Union des Populations du Cameroun), demanding immediate independence.
The uprising is suppressed by French troops. When independence is granted in 1960 – after Cameroun has voted to remain within the French Community – the ruling party (the Union Camerounaise, founded as recently as 1958 by Ahmadou Ahidjo) is in favour of retaining a strong link with France.
Meanwhile, with the French mandated territory independent as the Cameroun Republic, the question remains as to the future of the British Cameroons. Should they be merged with Nigeria (now on the verge of independence) or with the already independent Cameroun Republic.
The question is put to a plebiscite in 1961. The northern region votes to join Nigeria. The southern region opts for the Cameroun Republic, which it joins on a federated basis. The new nation becomes known as the Federal Republic of Cameroon.
Independence: from AD 1960
Ahidjo, the first president of Cameroon, inherits a smouldering civil war against the supporters of the more radical party, the UPC. It is gradually (if also brutally) won by the government. But the state of emergency becomes in the long term an easy way for Ahidjo to establish a repressive dictatorship.
He is able to continue his rule for an unbroken period of twenty-two years and then to hand the presidency peacefully in 1982 to a successor of his own choice, Paul Biya. But the calm proves short-lived when it transpires that Ahidjo expects to retain broad control over the nation through his continuing leadership of the only party, the UNC or Union Camerounaise.
A power struggle between Biya and Ahidjo lasts for two years, though Ahidjo himself is in exile in Senegal from 1983. It ends with an uprising by the Republican Guard in 1984 in favour of Ahidjo. When this fails, Biya is in undisputed control.
He continues to run a one-party state (forming his own new party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement), but with a less heavy hand than Ahidjo. By the early 1990s the pressure for constitutional change leads to elections in 1992 which are narrowly won by Biya and his party. In 1997 they win with a wider margin. On both occasions there are complaints of electoral fraud.
Two issues dominate Cameroon politics of the 1990s. One is a long-running constitutional dispute between the English-speaking southwest of the country (one of the former British Cameroons) and the French-speaking majority. The original federal structure has been replaced in 1972 by a unified republic. Towards the end of the century there is mounting clamour from the anglophone minority for a return to two federated provinces.
Internationally Cameroon is engaged in a long dispute with its neighbour Nigeria over rights in the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula. There are occasional armed encounters on the ground while the issue is considered by the International Court of Justice.