By Nellie Peyton
In our Summer 2015 issue, Thierry Vircoulon explores Cameroon’s crucial role as a bridge between West and Central Africa in his article, “Cameroon: Africa’s Pivot.” With an aging leader, piracy off its coast, and Boko Haram spilling in from Nigeria, Cameroon is facing unprecedented security challenges — and the stability of the entire region is at risk. For readers who are unfamiliar with Cameroon, this guide provides the essential background information.
Where is Cameroon?
Cameroon is a country on the Gulf of Guinea, bordered by Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo. At 184,000 square miles, it is slightly larger than California.
(Click image to expand map)
Cameroon is part of Central Africa, but it actually marks the meeting point between West and Central Africa—two very different continental regions. This divide is so evident in the country’s geography (rainforests in the south, deserts in the north) that Cameroon is sometimes called “Africa in miniature.” Its diversity is also reflected in the languages, cultures, and ethnic origins of the population.
Who lives in Cameroon?
Cameroon is home to about 24 million people. The north is predominantly populated by ethnic groups from West Africa, while most inhabitants of the south originate from Central Africa.
The country also has a historic divide between its Anglophone and Francophone populations. Cameroon was ruled by Germany from 1884 until 1916. After Germany lost World War I, a League of Nations mandate divided the territory between France and Britain, with France controlling the larger share. French Cameroon gained independence in 1960, and a year later the southern portion of the British territory (a strip bordering Nigeria) voted to join the new state.
English and French are both official languages in Cameroon, but there is ongoing tension between the two linguistic populations. The Anglophone minority has historically complained of underrepresentation in government and economic disadvantages.
What is the political situation?
Cameroon is technically a multiparty republic, but it has only had one president, Paul Biya, since 1982. Vircoulon describes it as a “sleepy regime with a soft and aging dictator.” Biya’s elections are known to be rigged, but since he effectively shut down opposition during popular uprisings in the early 1990s, he has won re-election by a sizable majority every seven years. The government has maintained a partial balance of power since Biya took control by having a southern Francophone president, a northern Francophone president of the national assembly, and an Anglophone prime minister.
President Paul Biya (right) with French President François Hollande
Cameroon maintains close ties with its former colonizer, France, which has been criticized for providing economic support to the Biya regime despite its violations of civil liberties. Although there is widespread social discontent, Cameroon has benefited in some ways from having a powerful long-term leader — unlike its neighbors, it has enjoyed general stability and economic growth. Biya is now 82, and “hopes of a peaceful transition are running thin,” writes Vircoulon.
What is the economy like?
Cameroon has a fairly strong economy for sub-Saharan Africa, with modest oil resources and good agricultural conditions. It is also a key trade route between West and Central Africa, and a gateway for trade to inland countries such as the Central African Republic and Chad. Cameroon’s Douala port is the only deep-water port in the region, so delays or problems there can have disastrous effects on Cameroon’s economy and those of neighboring countries.
Nigeria has long been Cameroon’s most important partner in trade due to close historical and cultural ties, and a long porous border. Nigeria exports things like household equipment, medicine, and motor parts to Cameroon, and Cameroon exports food crops, cotton, rubber, and livestock to Nigeria. Yet Boko Haram’s activity on the Cameroon-Nigeria border has already destabilized and, in some areas, halted trade.
What big issues is Cameroon facing?
Maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea has been steadily increasing since 2007, and in 2013 the region surpassed the coast of Somalia in number of attacks. Unlike Somali pirates who tend to make profits off of ransom, West African pirates are more likely to kill a ship’s crew and steal the cargo—particularly if it is oil. In June 2013, the UN held a summit of regional heads of state in Yaoundé, Cameroon, to adopt a strategy for maritime security. One of the results is that Cameroon was chosen to be the center of a new transnational security system for the entire Gulf of Guinea.
A Cameroonian Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) boat patrols the coastal waters.
Due to its location, Cameroon is increasingly being drawn into the fight against Boko Haram. The Nigeria-based Islamist group has been carrying out attacks in northern Cameroon for the past two years, and there are reports that Cameroonian youth have been joining. In addition to committing increasingly violent acts against civilians, Boko Haram has kidnapped Cameroonian political figures and attacked the country’s army bases. Since Cameroon shares a 600-mile border with Nigeria, there is little hope of containing the threat, or the flow of Nigerian refugees that are entering Cameroon by the thousands.
After initially downplaying the problem, Biya acknowledged that his country needed help. The U.S. and other powers have pledged to support a regional anti-Boko Haram task force comprised of troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Benin, but it is not yet operational.
Elephant poaching is another serious issue in Cameroon, particularly since the illegal ivory trade is now known to be a source of funding for terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. In 2012, there was an international outcry when hundreds of elephants were reportedly slaughtered by Sudanese rebels in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. Cameroon deployed military units to protect the park, but recent reports show that elephant poaching is still prevalent, and now battles with poachers (who use semi-automatic weapons) are leaving humans dead as well.
An elephant slaughter in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park.
What will happen next?
According to Vircoulon, Cameroon’s participation in regional maritime and military security efforts may indicate that the government is ready to end its historically isolationist and timid foreign policy. But if Cameroon cannot withstand the current threats, it could throw the entire region into turmoil.
For a full analysis of the challenges facing Cameroon and the government’s possible paths to stability, read Vircoulon’s feature article, “Cameroon: Africa’s Pivot”.
Thierry Vircoulon is the project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group.
Nellie Peyton is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.