The former German protectorate of Kamerun came under the administration of France and Britain in 1916. The French-controlled area (about 80% of today's Cameroon) gained its independence in 1960, with Ahmadou Ahidjo as its president. After a 1961 referendum, the British section was divided between Nigeria and the former French Cameroon. Federalism was replaced by a unitary state in 1972.
Since independence, Cameroon has had a highly centralized, autocratic political system with a strong executive, a judiciary under the control of the executive, and a National Assembly dominated by the ruling party. Until 1990, Cameroon had a single party, the Cameroon National Union (Union Nationale Camerounaise—UNC), later renamed the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM or Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounaise—RDPC).
As democratization swept over Africa in the 1990s, the authoritarianism of President Paul Biya, in office since 1982, began to buckle. In 1990, multiple parties were allowed, but Biya was widely accused of stealing the 1992 elections from Social Democratic Front (SDF) candidate, John Fru Ndi. Biya agreed in May 1993 to hold the Great National Constitutional Debate. In 1994, 16 opposition parties formed a loose alliance, dominated by John Fru Ndi's Social Democrats to work for constitutional and electoral reform. In December 1995, the National Assembly adopted a number of amendments, which were promulgated in 1996. They included a reformed judiciary, a 100-member Senate (one-third of its members appointed), regional councils, and extending the presidential term to seven years, renewable once. Municipal elections were also held in 1996 in which the opposition emerged victorious in nearly every city. In May 1997, legislative elections were condemned by the opposition and international observers as fraudulent, leading to the opposition's boycott of the presidential elections later that October.
In November 2000, deputies staged a sit-in at the parliament building to protest Biya's failure to establish a national elections observatory and to demand state funding for political parties and electoral campaigns. Widespread protests and marches were held in mid-2001 over the government's alleged extra-judicial killings of nine young people charged with robbery. Muncipal elections, scheduled for 21 January 2001, were postponed until June 2002 to allow the newly constituted elections supervisory body (ONEL) to prepare for both local and legislative elections.