Throughout history the region witnessed numerous invasions and migrations by various ethnic groups, especially by the Fulani, Hausa, Fang, and Kanuri. Contact with Europeans began in 1472, when the Portuguese reached the Wuori River estuary, and a large-scale slave trade ensued, carried on by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and English. In the 19th cent., palm oil and ivory became the main items of commerce. The British established commercial hegemony over the coast in the early 19th cent., and British trading and missionary outposts appeared in the 1850s; but the English were supplanted by the Germans, who in 1884 signed a treaty with the Douala people along the Wuori estuary and proclaimed the area a protectorate.
The Germans began constructing the port of Douala and then advanced into the interior, where they developed plantations and built roads and bridges. An additional area was acquired from France in 1911 as compensation for the surrender of German rights in Morocco. Two years later, German control over the Muslim north was consolidated. French and British troops occupied the region during World War I.
After the war the area ceded in 1911 was rejoined to French Equatorial Africa, and in 1919 the remainder of Cameroon was divided into French and British zones, which became League of Nations mandates. Little social or political progress was made in either area, and French labor practices were severely criticized. Both mandates, however, remained loyal to the Allies in World War II. In 1946 they became UN trust territories. In the 1950s, guerrilla warfare raged in the French Cameroons, instigated by the nationalist Union of the Peoples of the Cameroons, which demanded immediate independence and union with the British Cameroons. France granted self-government to the French Cameroons in 1957 and internal autonomy in 1959.
On Jan. 1, 1960, the French Cameroons became independent, with Ahmadou Ahidjo as its first president. The British-administered territory was divided into two zones, both administratively linked with Nigeria. In a UN-sponsored plebiscite in early 1961, the northern zone voted for union with Nigeria, and the southern for incorporation into Cameroon, which was subsequently reconstituted as a federal republic with two prime ministers and legislatures but a single president. Ahidjo became president of the republic.
National integration proceeded gradually. In 1966 the dominant political parties in the east and west merged into the Cameroon National Union (CNU). In 1972 the population voted to adopt a new constitution setting up a unitary state to replace the federation. A presidential form of government was retained, but Cameroon was a one-party state, with the CNU in control. Ahidjo resigned from the presidency in 1982 and named Paul Biya as his successor.
Biya established an authoritarian rule and implemented conservative fiscal policies. Opposition to his regime endured after a failed coup attempt in 1984, and his critics called for more substantive democratic reform. An increase in oil revenues resulted in greater investment in agriculture and education, but the collapse of world oil prices in 1986 prompted a variety of austerity measures. In 1985 the CNU changed its name to the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM). Following a prolonged nationwide strike in 1990, Biya ended one-party rule and initiated a multiparty system. In the nation's first democratic elections, held in 1992, Biya again won the presidency, but the result was tainted by widespread charges of fraud, and violent protests followed.
Various IMF and World Bank programs initiated in the 1990s to spur the economy met with mixed results, and privatization of state industry lagged. Critics accused the government of mismanagement and corruption, and corruption remained a significant problem into the 21st cent. In recent years the English-speaking inhabitants of the former British provinces have sought autonomy or a return to federal government. In the 1990s, tensions increased between Cameroon and Nigeria over competing claims to the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula in the Gulf of Guinea, and clashes occurred in 1994 and 1996. Biya was reelected in 1997; however, his refusal to allow an independent board to organize the vote prompted the country's three main opposition parties to boycott the elections.
In 2002 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded the Bakassi peninsula and certain areas in the Lake Chad region to Cameroon; another area in the latter region was awarded to Nigeria. The areas near Lake Chad were swapped late in 2003, and a new border established. The more politically sensitive Bakassi decision was slow to be implemented, but after a 2006 agreement transfer of the region to Cameroon was initiated in Aug., 2006; Nigerian administration of the peninsula ended in Aug., 2008.
Biya was returned to office in 2004 with 75% of the vote. Many foreign observers called the election democratic, but journalists said the turnout appeared low despite the government claim that it was 79%. Opposition politicians and other Cameroonians accused the government of vote-rigging. Elections in 2007 gave the governing party a landslide majority in the National Assembly, but the government was again accused of electoral fraud.
In Feb., 2008, anger over fuel price increases and over Biya's suggestion that he might seek to change the constitution so that he could be reelected again led to a transport strike and violent demonstrations in Yaoundé, Douala, and some other urban areas. In April, the National Assembly lifted presidential term limits. Biya again won reelection in Oct., 2011, against a divided opposition and, again, amid opposition accusations of fraud. In Apr., 2013, elections for the Senate were held for the first time since the constitution was amended (1996) to establish the upper house; Biya's party secured an overwhelming majority of the seats. The September elections for the National Assembly, which had been scheduled for July, 2012, but were postponed several times, resulted in a similar outcome. Political instability in neighboring Central African Republic led to border tensions and incursions into Cameroon in the latter part of 2013.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.