I don't suppose most Plain Truth readers know very much about the Cameroon Republic, or even know where it is. If they do, they probably think of it as being just another country somewhere in Africa. But there is something about this West African nation that sets it apart.
In a region where progress is often measured by how far things haven't gone backward, the Cameroon Republic has been quietly solving the problems of nationhood.
Since it became an independent nation, Cameroon has followed a path of common sense and realism. I asked an American government official who had served in that country to describe it in one word. He thought for a moment and then said, "Humility." Humility— that's a strange way to sum up a country. But in the Cameroon's case, it fits.
You will find the Cameroon Republic in West Africa, right underneath the bulge. It is about the same size as California, and has a population of about eight million. The name Cameroon, incidentally, comes from the Portuguese word for prawn. The Portuguese explorer Fernando Po was astonished at the number of prawns in the rivers and offshore waters. So, not very imaginatively, he named the area Rio dos Camaroes (River of Prawns).
At first impression, the country does indeed seem like a typical Third World nation. An elaborate visa uses up two pages of your passport, and upon arrival there is the usual airport hassle. The officials are not beyond receiving a little financial token in exchange for speeding things along. And once in the country, everyone seems concerned about your taking photographs of anything that might be considered government property. (I was politely asked by a policeman not to take a picture that included a mailbox.) But the visitor should not be deterred- Cameroon is not a totalitarian state where one travels in fear. You will feel and you will be welcome.
Cameroon is one of the most stable countries in Africa. The first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, remained democratically in power longer than any other elective African head of state-nearly 25 years. He resigned recently, voluntarily, in favor of the prime minister, Paul Biya. Such an orderly transfer of power is unusual on a continent that is more used to changing governments by coup d'état, civil war, assassination or military takeover.
Cameroon is by no means a rich country. Like most African states, it has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. It has some built-in handicaps. Until 1918, the area was a German colony. After the First World War the Cameroon territory was divided between France and Britain. Then in the rush of African independence in the late fifties and early sixties, the United Republic of Cameroon was formed from the ex-British and French colonies.
At first the Republic was anything but united. Four fifths of the population were French speaking and accustomed to French administration. The remaining 20 percent, who lived mainly in the Southwest, were familiar with the British colonial systems. To complicate matters further, the north of the country was Moslem and the south, Christian. Add to this that the population was subdivided into nearly 300 different tribal groups, and you have all the makings of an international basket case.
It is to Mr. Ahidjo's credit that he led his country cautiously and fairly toward a greater unity. He realized that a strong and prosperous country could not be built in a day. The new nation was not permitted "pie-in-the-sky" delusions of grandeur. Upon taking office Mr. Ahidjo firmly announced that his nation would not be embarking on any wild ventures. He realized that with independence should come a sense of responsibility. All too often, inexperienced and/or irresponsible leaders try to prove that their country has "come of age" by grandiose projects that they don't need and can't afford... five-star hotels to impress the trickle of visitors... six-lane highways that lead nowhere, or a color television service before most of the people even have radios. Or, worse still, full-scale industrialization is started before an adequate pool of trained manpower is available, or a transportation and distribution system established. Foreign capital and precious assets are frittered away in vanity, and the people become poorer than ever.
Cameroon has not made these mistakes. Superficially, the country looks poorer than it is. As of my last visit, there was still no national television service (although one is planned when technicians are trained). The main trunk roads are still largely unpaved. There is a slow but dependable rail service between main centers. Yaoundé, the capital, is a pleasant town, lacking the flash and dazzle of other capital cities.
By resisting the path of self-aggrandizement Cameroon has conserved her real wealth. This, of course, is her land and her people. Instead of driving themselves to the edge of bankruptcy through ill-conceived industrial extravaganzas, the Cameroonians have kept agriculture as the basis of the national economy. The government has understood the value of maintaining the right relationship between the farmer and his land. Although there are large plantations, full support is also given to the small planter. Many own freehold title to their property. Some major nations could learn a lesson from this. If people have the pride of ownership, they produce better and more. Also, they tend to stay with their land during tough times. Cameroon's few large towns and cities are not crowded with dispossessed farmers. The nation has the lowest rate of urbanization in Africa. The great majority of its people still work on the land.
The smaller farmer is recognized and respected as the backbone of the economy. No unnecessary restrictions are put on him, and he can expect help when, through no fault of his own, prices for his products fall. The nation is one of the few that are self-sufficient in food and energy. And- unusual for a Third World nation- food production is rising faster than the population. The people may not have much cash, but they are not hungry.
Because of their investment in agriculture, the Cameroonians have been able to make a constructive and humane gesture to 40,000 or so refugees who have fled from the civil war in neighboring Chad. The government has offered free land in the under populated north of the country, if the refugees will take up coffee production Cameroon's chief export.
One can see why "humility" is a fair description of the Cameroon Republic. The nation has resisted the trend to get rich quick and become something they are not- while others around them took off on flights of fancy. (The prime example was the short-lived Central African Empire whose now deposed "emperor" spent vast amounts of his impoverished country's assets on a lavish coronation that rivaled Napoleon's.)
Still, Cameroon's leaders understood at the time of independence that the country could not prosper in the modern world if it remained totally agricultural. Fortunately, there are other resources available for development. But not in a headlong rush for industrialization, and not by mortgaging the future by becoming dependent on foreign aid. While accepting some outside assistance, President Ahidjo told his people: "All our investment needs cannot be satisfied by external aid. We can only profit from what costs us something." He also cautioned them, "Industrialization is not an end in itself."
These were sensible words, and they were followed up with equally sensible policies. The government was aware of the danger of dependency on imported oil. Instead, the hydroelectric potential of the rivers is being harnessed, supplying much of the still modest energy needs. Consequently, the nation is a net oil exporter- not yet in the big leagues, but the future looks bright, if a territorial dispute with Nigeria can be solved. There are also healthy reserves of aluminum, natural gas, iron ore and coal. There is also the possibility of deposits of precious metals.
After two decades of independence, Cameroon still has many problems to solve. Education is a priority. Most of the people are still illiterate, and there is a great shortage of skilled labor. The Cameroonians kept a sound and friendly relationship with the old colonial countries-especially France. There is no false sense of pride about asking for the help that is needed if it can be afforded without losing national dignity.
It is a fact of life today that nearly all the nations of Black Africa have serious problems- not entirely of their own making. The years under colonial masters were a mixed blessing. Many nations seized- or were granted- independence before they were maturely ready. They were often saddled with frontiers that were long ago decided by committee in Europe rather than by those who really understood Africa. The people of Africa generally suffer from diseases that have been eradicated everywhere else on earth. In spite of a high rate of infant mortality, populations are rising faster than the supply of developed resources. One can only look at the tragic conditions with a sense of deep compassion. But they must realize that they have brought much of this on themselves by borrowing heavily and then spending it unwisely. They embark on expensive prestige projects that fall apart before they are finished. And then waste precious resources and brainpower seeking influence on the international stage, instead of working on problems at home.
That is what sets the Cameroon Republic apart. While there is still a long way to go, solid progress has been made. The country's leaders haven't made a name for themselves internationally- as I said at the beginning, most people know practically nothing about them. But as Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs, "... before honour is humility" (Prov. 15:33). The Cameroonians have been humble. They faced their situation realistically, and have not tried to become something they are not. Their example should not go unnoticed or unrecorded.
No nation is going to escape completely the problems of the next few years. Events on the European continent are soon to change the shape of all the world. The Black African nations may not be in a position to have much say in what happens. Nevertheless the Cameroon Republic at the moment is in a better position than most to weather the storm. May the new president continue to lead his country along the same commonsense path to national success.