Crisis Background (1884-1972)

The region of Cameroon was first ruled by Germany in 1884, naming the region ‘Kamerun’ and exporting largerly agricultural produce from a small number of ports they developed. German settlers moved to the region in reasonable numbers, establishing trading stations and settling in towns. During the World War One, the allies invaded Germany Kamerun, successfully occupying the territory in 1916, in a combined British and French operation launched from Nigeria and French Equatorial Africa.

After the conflict, a large number of Germans remained in the region, continuing to trade. The League of Nations classified the Cameroonian territories as ‘Class B Mandates’. The League of Nations was a predecessor to the modern United Nations, being established fully in 1920, although a notable failure of the League was that the USA never joined. Class B mandates were considered to be populations that had achieved a level of development higher than a Class C mandate, but less than a Class A mandate, which were supposed to be near-ready for independence. This arbitrary judgment was passed by the League of Nations, and the mandate power was given the power and responsibility to administer the territory essentially as they see fit, with an eventual goal of independence.

‘Kamerun’ was subsequently split into two sections, with the smaller area of the British Cameroons to the west, bordering the colony of Nigeria, and French Cameroun covering the far larger eastern portion of the country. This occurred in 1922. The British Cameroons were subsequently split into two sections, the Northern and Southern Cameroons. The two areas were seperated by a stretch of the Nigerian border, and this proximity to Nigeria is reflected in the fact that the two territories were generally governed from the larger colony. Little development occured in the the British South Cameroons due to the primacy of its neighbour, with investment often focusing on furthering Nigerian needs as opposed to developing the Cameroons themselves. German nationals retained large stakes in the region, which was problematic at the start of World War Two due to Britain’s reliance on indirect rule. As a result, German property was seized in 1939/40.

After the war, Britain’s mandate over the British Cameroons was essentially renewed as a ‘United Nations Trust Territory’, again with an eventual goal of independence. Still governed from Nigeria, it is important to note that the British Cameroons were administered entirely separately from French Cameroun, creating very different systems and culture. In 1954, British Southern Cameroons became self-governing to some extent when politicians walked out of the relevant Nigerian assembly, creating their own system in Buea, the capital. A peaceful transition of power then occurred in 1959, following a local election.

On the 1st of January 1960, French Cameroun gained independence as the Republic of Cameroon. Later that year, Nigeria also became independent- suddenly the fate of the British Cameroons became a pressing issue.

Despite the fledgling democracy in Buea, there was little support for independent South Cameroons in Britain. Reports suggested that an independent state would ‘not be economically viable’, with a focus on the benefits the putative state could provide to Britain, or the lack thereof. As such, the chance of an independent South Cameroons was ruled out without the consultation of the population of the region, instead being decided by the colonial power.

Two options were thus offered in a 1961 referendum: the people of the South Cameroons could either vote to join Nigeria or the republic of Cameroon. The people of the British North Cameroons voted to join Nigeria (60/40), whilst the people of the British South Cameroons voted to join the Republic of Cameroon (70/30).

Reasons for the overwhelming landslide toward joining the Republic of Cameroon are unclear, yet there is evidence to suggest there was significant discontent at the way they had been governed by Nigeria in the past, with little development. This discontent was deliberately invoked by propaganda from the Republic of Cameroon. There was, however, an intense propaganda effort on both sides, and it is assumed that it was a free and fair election.

It is from these decisions in 1960/1961 that so much trouble has flowed. Regardless of the referendum result, the British Southern Cameroons were never given a chance of independence.

Under Ahidjo, the fledgling democracy of the Federal Republic of Cameroon was swiftly stifled. Strengthening his grip on the country, the FRC became a one-party state, federalism being dissolved in 1972. The subnational states within Cameroon- including the South Cameroons- thus lost power and privileges over their own affairs, and the centralisation of Cameroon was complete. This is a key grievance of the local people.