Cameroon | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 1998

1998 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


President Paul Biya and the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) continued their autocratic rule and sporadic attacks on media and opposition supporters in a country divided by ethnic and linguistic differences. A new coalition government brought at least the appearance of a broader base for the Biya regime by including groups outside of the CPDM. In 1997, Biya was returned for a seven-year term as Cameroon's president in an election largely boycotted by the opposition and devalued by rampant intimidation, manipulation, and fraud.

Cameroon’s people are comprised of nearly 200 ethnic groups. A German colony from 1884 until 1916, Cameroon was seized in World War I and divided between Britain and France. Distinct Anglophone and Francophone areas were reunited as an independent country in 1961. Approximately one-fourth of Cameroonians are Anglophone, and this linguistic distinction constitutes the country's most potent political division.

For more than three decades after independence, Cameroon was ruled under a repressive one-party system. In March 1992, President Biya held fraudulent multiparty elections, which he won after a boycott by the Social Democratic Front (SDF), the main opposition party. The CPDM’s October 1992 and 1997 legislative elections wins were even more clearly fraudulent.

In April 1998, tensions with neighboring Nigeria over the disputed and oil-rich Bakassi peninsula remain flared into armed clashes.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cameroon’s constitution provides for a multiparty republic, but citizens have not been allowed to choose their government by democratic means. The 1997 legislative and presidential elections were marred by serious irregularities and outright fraud. The ruling CPDM won 116 seats and the SDF won 43 in legislative elections overseen by regime loyalists in the Ministry of Territorial Administration. Demands for creation of an independent election commission were dismissed by the Biya regime, and most election observers were barred.

Institutions of representative government are largely a facade. The National Assembly meets only two months each year; for the other ten months, the president rules by decree. Constitutional amendments in 1995 gave even more power to the presidency and only nominally strengthened a pliant judiciary. Nearly all power is held by President Biya and a his cronies, most of whom are senior CPDM figures from the president’s own Beti ethnic group.

The Beti ethnic group often receives preference in employment, and Anglophone Cameroonians claim discrimination that amounts to disenfranchisement. Pygmy people indigenous to southeastern Cameroon often toil under conditions tantamount to slave labor. Reports of actual slavery reportedly persist in the country’s north. There, powerful traditional chiefs known as lamibée run their own private militia, courts, and prisons that are used against the regime's political opponents. In these unofficial prisons and in government prisons, conditions are reportedly extremely harsh and life-threatening. Detainees and convicts are said to be routinely subject to torture and other mistreatment. Legal requirements regarding detention periods and access to detainees and prisoners are often ignored. Indefinite pretrial detention under extremely harsh conditions is permitted after a warrant is issued or to “combat banditry.”

The executive branch controls the judiciary and appoints provincial and local administrators. Courts and local administration are often corrupt and subject to heavy political influence. Various intelligence agencies operate with impunity, and opposition activists are often held without charges. In August, police used water cannon to disperse thousands of people protesting against police brutality. Despite occasional arrests, attacks, and intimidation of opposition supporters and other activists, numerous nongovernmental organizations still operated. Freedom of religion is generally respected, but most other civil liberties remain at risk.

Serious restrictions and intimidation of media inhibits open political exchange. The regime retains its tight monopoly on broadcasting. In May, a program offering parliamentary parties free air time was resumed after a year’s suspension. Nevertheless, authorities continue to censor, suspend, seize, and close independent publications, which in any case have little impact outside of urban areas. Pre-publication censorship is permitted, and criminal libel law is regularly used to silence regime critics. Licensing was made more difficult under 1995 legislation that expanded government seizure and banning powers. In April, Pius Njawe, the editor of Le Messager, was sentenced to one year in prison for suggesting that President Biya suffered from heart problems.

Violence against women is reportedly widespread. Women are often denied inheritance and land ownership rights even when these are codified, and many other laws contain unequal gender-based provisions and penalties. Female genital mutilation is widely practiced in some parts of the country.

Trade unions formation is permitted under the 1992 labor code, but some of the code’s provisions have not been implemented, and many government workers are not covered. The Confederation of Cameroonian Trade Unions is technically independent, but still influenced or intimidated by the ruling party. In 1996, the regime launched the Union of Free Trade Unions of Cameroon to further undermine union autonomy.

Privatization is underway, but graft and the absence of independent courts inhibit business development. Transparency International has ranked Cameroon as the world’s most corrupt country.