The Economy after Independence

The French and British territories gained independence in 1960 and 1961, respectively. Two of the four former British provinces voted to join the former French colony as the new federated state of Cameroon; however, they continued to be shaped by their colonial language, education system, laws, and economic institutions. President Ahidjo, a Francophone who led the newly independent nation from 1960 to 1982, pushed through a transition to one-party government in 1966 and the merger of Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon into a unitary state in 1972 (see below) under the banner of political and economic integration.

The first two decades after independence saw no radical departure from the colonial economic structure. The economy remained oriented toward agriculture, which was the main source of employment and livelihood and contributed most of the country’s GDP and foreign earnings, and to resource extraction. Relatively high prices for agricultural commodities on world markets contributed to increased prosperity. The discovery of offshore oil deposits in the Gulf of Guinea and their exploitation beginning in the mid-1970s further stimulated economic growth and significantly reduced agriculture’s dominance. In 1977, cash crops made up 72 percent and oil just 1 percent of total exports, but the situation was reversed by 1985, with oil and cash crop exports representing 65 and 21 percent, respectively. As a result of this fortunate confluence of circumstances, Cameroon enjoyed an annual economic growth rate of about 8 percent during the 1960s and 1970s, considerably exceeding even its rapid population growth. This growth was accompanied by increased government revenues and increasing personal prosperity, which translated into significant strides in living conditions, education, infrastructure, roads and transportation, housing, public health, and government services. A trend toward urbanization also emerged.

The new government endorsed capitalism and oriented itself toward the Western block—especially France—the source and destination of over half of its foreign trade. Despite this free market orientation, the government assumed a strong role in planning economic development. The initial emphasis in economic development policy—reflected in government-designed five-year economic development plans—was agriculture. The government continued to operate the large monoculture plantations established in the colonial era; however, it also invested money in new plantations aimed at the domestic market, growing crops such as rice and palm oil. It also endeavored to strengthen small-scale agriculture by setting up agricultural research facilities, offering loans to small farmers, and establishing marketing boards to buy and market crops.

Over time, however, there was a gradual shift from giving priority to cash crops to economic diversification and “planned liberalism,” which the government described as embodying self-reliant, balanced development accompanied by reducing the economic disparities among men, women, and youths and among villages, towns, and regions. This was to be accomplished by a combination of initiatives. First, the government created about 150 parastatals not only in plantation agriculture, but also in oil production, agricultural produce purchasing and marketing, paper production, and banking. These parastatals became a major segment of the economy, employing many workers. Some were only partly owned by the government and tried to attract foreign investment by using various incentives to channel investment to priority areas. Unfortunately, the parastatals were frequently used as a way to maintain the loyalty of key factions by offering employment opportunities, and most had to be heavily subsidized. Second, the government undertook the “Cameroonization” of the management of agro-industrial enterprises and encouraged Cameroonian ownership of small- and medium-sized enterprises. Ownership in the economy remained, however, concentrated in the parastatals and in the hands of foreign investors, primarily the French, who repatriated most of their profits. Indigenous entrepreneurs were largely limited to small businesses. Third, the government attempted to reduce dependence on European imports and promote trade with neighboring African states. Growing oil revenues played a role in financing these initiatives, but there was also likely considerable corruption, as oil revenues were controlled directly by the president and treated as a state secret.

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