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History

The coast of present-day Cameroon was explored late in the 15th century by the Portuguese, who named the estuary to the south of Cameroon Mountain Rio dos Camerões (“river of prawns”). Merchants established trading stations along the coast in the 17th century, buying slaves, ivory, and rubber. British traders and missionaries were especially active in the area after 1845. The Germans and British began to explore inland after 1860, and in 1884 the former established a protectorate over the Douala area; the British, taken by surprise, offered no resistance to their claim.

A. European Rule
Transportation difficulties and local resistance slowed German development of the area, but they managed to cultivate large cacao, palm, and rubber plantations. They also built roads and began the construction of a railroad and the port of Douala on the Atlantic coast.

Anglo-French forces invaded the German colony in 1916. In 1919 one-fifth of the territory, which was contiguous with eastern Nigeria, was assigned to Britain, and the remaining four-fifths were assigned to France as mandates under the League of Nations.

The British Cameroons consisted of the Northern and Southern Cameroons, which were separated by a 72-km (45-mi) strip along the Benue River. The northern territory, peopled by tribes of Sudanese origin, was always administered as a part of Northern Nigeria. The Southern Cameroons, peopled by a variety of tribes, was administered as part of the Nigerian federation but had a locally elected legislature. The French Cameroons was administered as a separate territory. Neither area, however, experienced much social or economic progress.

B. Independence
After World War II ended in 1945, the mandates were made trust territories of the United Nations (UN). In the following years political ferment grew enormously in the French territory, where more than 100 parties were formed between 1948 and 1960. The campaign for independence, intermittently violent, gained steady momentum during the 1950s, until the French granted self-government in December 1958; full independence was achieved on January 1, 1960. Ahmadou Ahidjo, prime minister since 1958, became the first president. The new republic was admitted to the UN in September 1960.

The following year the UN sponsored a plebiscite in the British Cameroons. As a result, the Southern Cameroons joined the Republic of Cameroon to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon in October 1961, while the Northern Cameroons joined Nigeria.

C. Rebellion and Unity
When Cameroon became independent, President Ahidjo's government was faced with a rebellion incited by the Cameroonian People's Union, a pro-Communist party. By 1963, however, the revolt had been suppressed, and Ahidjo soon established the authority of his regime. In 1966 the six major parties merged into the National Cameroonian Union, which was declared the only legal party in the country. In 1972 Ahidjo sponsored a national referendum that changed Cameroon from a federal to a unitary state, called the United Republic of Cameroon.

Reaffirmed in office in 1975 and again in 1980, President Ahidjo resigned unexpectedly in November 1982. He was succeeded in office by Paul Biya, the former prime minister. Relations between Biya and Ahidjo deteriorated, and in July 1983 Ahidjo (who had retained the leadership of the National Cameroonian Union) went into exile in France and gave up his party post, which Biya assumed. Biya won election to his first full term as president in January 1984. During the same month, the constitution was amended to abolish the office of prime minister and to change the country's name to the Republic of Cameroon. Biya suppressed a coup attempt that April.

In late August 1986 an explosive discharge of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from Lake Nyos, a volcanic lake near the Nigerian border, killed more than 1,700 people in the valleys below. International medical and economic aid was sent to the area. 

Biya ran unopposed in the presidential election of April 1988, held a year ahead of schedule to coincide with legislative balloting. Facing rising popular discontent in the early 1990s, he began to implement political reforms. Biya won a 40 percent plurality in the nation's first multiparty presidential election, held in October 1992. In November 1995 Cameroon became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Early in 1994 a border dispute arose between Nigeria and Cameroon after Nigerian troops invaded the petroleum-rich Bakassi Peninsula of Cameroon. The Nigerian government claims a 19th-century treaty makes Nigeria the rightful owner of the peninsula. The Cameroonian government filed a complaint with the International Court of Justice, and the two nations started negotiations in March. Short skirmishes sporadically broke out between January and May 1996 while each nation accused the other of being the aggressor. In late May both nations agreed to allow a UN fact-finding mission access to Bakassi to help settle the dispute.

Biya faced increasing opposition leading up to 1997 legislative and presidential elections. Legislative elections held that May were accompanied by violent confrontations between rival political groups. Biya's party, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (formerly the National Cameroonian Union), won 60 percent of the seats, but the vote was marred by allegations of electoral fraud. October presidential elections were boycotted by Cameroon's three main opposition parties, and Biya was reelected in a landslide. Election observers estimated that voter participation was less than 30 percent in the presidential elections.

 

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