PEACE in Action

Cameroun's Transition to Independence

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Cameroun's Transition to Independence

This is a success story in adjusting to complicated internal political situations involving civil war and the integration of different religious and ethnic groups.

When it received its independence from France in January 1960, Cameroun had to deal with an insurgency that had started in 1955 against the French colonial administration. The communist-supported UPC party continued the fight against the new government, declaring it a puppet of the French. The new government requested French military forces to assist in quelling the rebellion and to train a Camerounian Army and Gendarmerie. The government also worked to get help from France, the UN and the US in 1961 to improve economic conditions in all parts of the country, including areas where the insurgents had been operating.

In February 1961, the southern part of former British Cameroons (West Cameroon) voted to join the ex-French Republic of Cameroun. At the time of reunification in October 1961, West Cameroon had: a two-house parliamentary form of government; a legal system based on common law and a British system of administration; Nigerian pounds in circulation; membership in the British Commonwealth; British weights and measures in use; English as the official language; cars being driven on the left side of the road; and import licenses required only for imports from the Communist Bloc. The Republic of Cameroun, on the other hand, had: a presidential system of government (there also was a Prime Minister); a legal system based on the Napoleonic code and a French system of administration; CFA francs (which were based on the French franc) in circulation; membership in the Franc Zone; the metric system in use; French as the official language; cars driving on the right side of the road; and a rather rigid system of import licensing and exchange control.

West Cameroon, with a much smaller area and a population one-fifth that of East Cameroun, was fearful of domination by East Cameroun and a loss of separate identity. It insisted, therefore, on a federal governmental structure with a Constitution with some guarantees for the minority partner, e.g., the President and the Vice President could not come from the same state; the National Assembly, which was based on population, could not approve amendments to the Constitution (or some laws) without the approval of a majority of the deputies from each state voting separately. Some temporary arrangements were made to facilitate the transition, e.g., by leaving some tasks with the state governments for a period of time, having the heads of the two states become the first President and Vice-President, having the existing legislatures elect from their own membership the first members of the Federal Assembly. In this way, Federal elections were postponed for over three years.

Although not required, President Ahidjo appointed a number of West Cameroonian Ministers and Vice Ministers and reserved a number of senior civil service positions in the Federal Government for West Cameroonians. West Cameroonians were also taken into the Armed Forces, originally as units because of the language problem. The president, although a Muslim from the North, also broadened his government by including Christian and other representatives from all of the major tribal groupings in East Cameroun. He also offered amnesty to the rebels and initiated activities to improve economic and social conditions in all areas of the country, including those in opposition to the government. As trained Camerounians became available, the President had them replace the Frenchmen who had originally held the posts and let the French stay on as advisors for a year or so.

The President of Cameroun gave highest priority to the unity and growth of his country rather than pursuing policies to help him become a dictator. This also was an important element in the success of this transition — as it would be of any transition, especially one involving multiple ethnic, tribal and religious groups.

James L. Roush, Editor

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