Born under the threat of violence, quiet Cameroon has set an impressive African post-colonial record of political stability linked with steady if modest economic growth.

Ahmadou Ahidjo, 55, Cameroon's low-key premier then president for 21 years, has managed through political maneuvering and the infrequent use of a mailed fist to set this "miniature Africa" on the road to self-sufficient prosperity.

In recent years, Cameroon has been overshadowed by its larger and more powerful western neighbor, Nigeria. It also has been overlooked as international attention focused on the allegations of gross violations of human rights in the Central Africa Empire and Equatorial Guinea, its neighbors to the east and south.

Ahidjo, an unflappable Fulani Moslem from northern Cameroon, was given little chance of holding this country together when he came to power two years before independence in 1960.

A leftist insurgency, backed with arms from China, began in 1955 and continued through the first decade of independence. The rebellion finally was crushed in the early 1970s with the help of France, Ahidjo's main supporter.

Since then, Ahidjo has built up a strong, paternalistic one-party rule that has brought 200 potentially antagonistic tribal groups into economic development efforts.

Ofen called "Africa's melting pot," Cameroon's landscape, ethnic groups and religions reflect the diversity of the African continent. Cameroon stretches 770 miles from the thick tropical forest at the Atlantic coast north through central savanna grasslands and tapers into the papyrus reeds of Alex Chad, an area of semiarid desert. In all, Cameroon is slightly larger than California.

Cameroon's 7.6 million population includes most of Africa's major ethnic groups, from forest-dwelling pygmies on the southern border with Gabon to the Choa Arab people in the north.

About 50 percent of the people follow traditional African religions while the rest are Moslems or Christians.

Ahidjo also has managed to assuage most of the fears of the English-speaking minority -- another possible source of friction -- who make up one-fifth of the population. Both French and English are the official languages of Cameroon, a legacy of divided colonial rule between France and Britian.

Cameroon reportedly has one of Africa's most effective -- and pervasive -- police forces but citizens talking to a stranger in public are not afraid to criticize the government. It keeps tight rein on the country's press, however, with blank spaces in the newspapers that attest to the censorship.

Critics and supporters say Ahidjo cleverly has maneuvered his major political opponents into the government, even some of the former insurgents.

"He is the best co-opter i've seen," said a Western diplomat. "He brings his critics right into the center" of government.

Cameroon was a German colony for 35 years until it was taken over under a League of Nations mandate by Britain and France after World War I. The smaller western part was administered by the British as an integral part of its former Nigerian colony until 1961.

After the larger eastern, French-speaking part was granted independence in 1960, Ahidjo, lobbied political leaders in the English-speaking area to rejoin Cameroon. The Northern part of English-speaking Cameroon voted to join Nigeria and the south voted to rejoin Cameroon in a federation in 1961.

Ahidjo, still under pressure from the armed rebels, fused the country's four political parties through persuasion and coercion in 1966 into the Cameroon National Union.

Under Ahidjo's orders, the federaton form of government was scrapped in 1972 and replaced with highly centralized, unitary government.

The minority English speakers complain that their tenth of the country has been neglected since the onset of the French-oriented unitary government.

But Emmanuel Endeley, a former prime minister in the English-speaking area and a member of the 120 member National Assembly, said actual discrimination against English speakers is not clearcut.

"Our situation is like that of Canada," where the French-speaking minority are forced to learn English to communicate with the English-speaking majority, said Endeley. In Cameroon, the English speakers usually speak some French.

"The president feels we are neither French or British," continued Endeley, "but that we can take some from each side. Some [government ministers] from the French side are French orientated," he added, "but pressure from the British side tries to keep things even."

School children are required to study English and French from age 11, all business in the National Assembly is done in the two languages simultaneously and bilingual programs are provided on the government run radio.

"There are some problems," said Marc-Joseph Omgba, editior of the Cameroon Tribune, the leading government-owned newspaper.It comes out daily in French but weekly in English.

"The problem here is money," Omgba said. "The majority of the population is French speaking and we don't have enough money for two dailies. One day we will."

Cameroon, since the end of the rebellion has produced little exciting news. Most foreign journalists use the international airport at Douala as a transit point to African trouble spots.

During the past seven years, however, Cameroon has been building up its transportation system and stepping up production of its major revenue earners, cocoa and coffee.

French and American oil companies began pumping modest amounts of oil offshore in 1977 but Ahidjo has maintained that oil production will be secondary to agricultural development.

"He's seen what's happened to his neighbors," said a foreign observer. "When the oil revenues started pouring in, the farmers stopped farming in Nigeria and Gabon."

Nigeria and Gabon, as a consequence, spend foreign exchange to purchase food from abroad, including from Cameroon.

"We still have some way to go," said Paul Fouda-Onambele, director of press relations, "but we want to be a food exporter, how do you say it, a breadbasket" for West Africa.

Cameroon's economic planning follows a vaguely defined party policy called "planned liberalism," which amounts to government involvement in cash crop production, commerce enterprises and industries.

"It is very complicated to explain," said Fouda-Onambele, "but it is not socialism mixed with capitalism. It is just government guidance and participation so development doesn't all take place around one commerical center like Douala," Cameroon's largest city and busy port.

The government can buy up to 60 percent of any enterprise.

In June, the National Assembly amended the constitution to allow Ahidjo's handpicked prime minister to succeed him in case the president is incapacitated or desires to step down. The present prime minister is Paul Biya, 46, a technocrat who has come up through the ranks of government office.

Ahidjo, who has been reelected without opposition three times since independence, recently expressed the desire to step down. But after more than two decades of governing Cameroon, Ahidjo is finding that "it's easier to get in then to get out," said politician Endeley. "There is tremendous pressure on hims to stay in office."