Last Updated: Thursday, 08 October 2015, 08:45 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Cameroon : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Cameroon : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 9 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Straddling the equator on the western coast of Africa, Cameroon shares a long north-western border with Nigeria, a north-eastern border with Chad, a western border with the Central African Republic, a south-western border with the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), and southern borders with Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The western coastal plain receives heavy rainfall and is heavily forested. Mt Cameroon, an active volcano, is the highest point in West Africa and lies along the northern coast. Other highlands extend from there, along the Nigerian border and into northern Cameroon. Central plateaus are savannah grasslands. Large areas of Cameroon have fertile soils exploited for farming and the country has modest oil reserves.


Main languages: French (official), English (official), Bamiléké, Fang, Ewondo, Kirdi, Fulfulde, Pidgin English.

Main religions: traditional beliefs (40%), Christianity and syncretic Christianity (40%), Islam and syncretic Islam (20%).

Main minority groups: western highlanders (grassfielders), including Bamiléké, Bamoun and other north-western peoples, 6.8 million (38%); southern tropical forest peoples, including Ewondo, Bulu and Fang, as well as 50,000 BaAka, BaKola, BaGyeli and Bedzam ('Pygmies'), 3.2 million (18%); Kirdi, 3.2 million (18%); Islamic northern peoples of the Sahel, including Peulh, 2.5 million (14%); coastal tropical forest peoples, including Bassa, Douala and smaller groups in the south-west, 2.2 million (12%) .

[Note: Figures for religion come from US CIRF, 2007. Percentages for the five regional-cultural groups are taken from the US State Department's background note on Cameroon, 2007. The number for BaAka, BaKola, BaGyeli and Bedzam comes from a Cameroonian submission to CERD, 15 Oct 1997. Numbers are converted to percentages and vice-versa using the CIA's 2007 estimate for total population: 18 million.]

Heavily influenced by German, British and especially French imperial interests, Cameroon is home to more than 250 ethnic groups and sub-groups, many of which spread across neighbouring countries. These can be classified in five major regional-cultural groups.

Western highlanders, also called grassfielders, form the largest of these with about 38 per cent of the population. They include the Bamiléké, Bamoun and other north-western peoples. In a region of fertile soils, Bamiléké are noted and frequently resented for their success in farming and commerce.

Southern tropical forest peoples make up 18 per cent of the population and include the Ewondo, Bulu and Fang, all of which are in the Beti cluster of peoples. Much of the country's political elite has come from the Bulu sub-group. Nomadic forest peoples, commonly referred to as 'Pygmies' eke out precarious livelihoods in the shrinking forests of the south-west and south-east. These groups include the BaAka, BaKola, BaGyeli and Bedzam. They have faced pressure from the Catholic Church and the government to settle in 'pilot villages' and along roadways, and have been exploited by logging companies to assist in the destruction of their forest environment.

Kirdi is a collective name for several non-Muslim peoples in the north who make up around 18 per cent of the total population. They outnumber the Muslim population of the north but are much less organized politically.

Islamic peoples of the northern Sahel make up around 14 per cent of the population. These include the Peulh, who are cotton and rice farmers, as well as livestock herders. Peulh elites have gained national political prominence.

Coastal tropical forest peoples make up around 12 per cent of the population and include Bassa, Douala and smaller groups of the south-west.

Overlaying Cameroon's rich ethnic diversity is a split between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon, a legacy of the country's divided colonial history. Both English and French are official languages, but Francophone Cameroonians outnumber Anglophone Cameroonians by about four-to-one.

Around 40 per cent of Cameroonians still practice traditional religions. Christians, roughly equally divided among Roman Catholics and Protestants also make up around 40 per cent of the population and are more concentrated in the south and west. Muslims, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, are found in all parts of the country, but more concentrated in the north. Many Christians and Muslims integrate traditional beliefs into their religious practices.


The first inhabitants of Cameroon were hunter-gatherer groups such as the BaAka. Bantu speaking groups followed. Peuhl moved into the north of present-day Cameroon beginning late in the 18th century. The Peuhl captured many Kirdi for sale through the trans-Saharan slave trade and introduced Islam.

Europeans first arrived in the south in the 16th century, establishing trading posts along the coast and sending southerners into slavery across the Atlantic.

Germany established a protectorate of Kamerun in 1884, sparking resistance from many local peoples. This was divided between Britain and France after Germany's defeat in World War I under the auspices of the League of Nations. British Cameroon, in the north, was ruled from Lagos, Nigeria, while French Cameroon, which made up 80 per cent of the territory, was divided among other French colonies, with a remnant ruled from today's capital, Yaounde. Britain abolished forced labour, but France continued to use forced labour for the production of cash crops until after World War II.

An armed rebellion against French rule, espousing Marxist ideology, erupted in 1955. The Bamiléké and Bassa ethnic groups were at the centre of the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC). The conflict continued into the post-independence era and cost many thousands of lives.

French Cameroon gained independence in 1960 as the Republic of Cameroon. The following year, the people in the northern part of British Cameroon, mostly Muslims, voted to join Nigeria in a referendum sponsored by the United Nations. The southern part of British Cameroon, home to mostly Christians, opted to join Cameroon, now called the Federal Republic of Cameroon. Under the 24-year rule of the country's first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Peulh from the north, various ethnic groups vied for power through his patronage network. Ahaidjo established one-party rule in 1966, and put down the last of the UPC rebellion by 1970. A constitutional amendment in 1972 ended the federal system and renamed the country the 'United Republic of Cameroon'.

Ahidjo resigned in 1982, handing power to his prime minister, Paul Biya – an ethnic Bulu. However, Ahidjo loyalists attempted a coup two years later, and its failure led him to flee the country. In 1984, Biya changed the name of the country back to 'Republic of Cameroon' and won elections in which he was the only candidate. He has remained in power ever since, staging additional fraudulent elections 1988, 1992 and 1997. He has maintained close ties with France.

President Biya's ethnic group, the Bulu, has dominated politics and the military. Beyond the exclusion of other ethnic groups, Biya has favoured Francophones over Anglophones. In the 1990s, in the face of increasing hostility and repression by central government, Anglophone pressure groups persisted in challenging their second-class status and calling for greater regional autonomy. A group called the Southern Cameroon National Council even called for the secession of the country's two southern, English-speaking provinces, and was promptly banned.


Cameroon is run by the president. He appoints governors, local officials, judges and over 60 cabinet ministers. He also oversees other elements of a vast patronage network, appointing and firing the heads of over 100 large state companies. The National Assembly has no authority, and the judiciary is subject to orders from the president's Ministry of Justice. Corruption is rampant and there are no reliable guarantees of civil liberties.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In August 2006, Nigeria handed control over to Cameroon of the northern part of the disputed Bakassi peninsula, in accordance with a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice. The peninsula, which juts into the Gulf of Guinea, was hotly contested between the two countries because it is rich in oil. The fate of the southern part will be determined in 2008 by referendum of its mostly Nigerian residents who will choose between Nigeria and Cameroon. Since the northern part of the Bakassi peninsula was ceded to Cameroon, residents have complained of harassment by Cameroonian security officials. A group called the Bakassi Self-Determination Movement is seeking independence from both countries.

In the southern forest region, the BaAka and other forest peoples remain threatened by deforestation and government pressure to sedentarize.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld