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Q&A: Does China Benefit From the U.S. Stripping Cameroon of Its AGOA Privileges? Yes. No. Maybe.

Members of the Cameroonian police patrol in the Omar Bongo Square of the majority English-speaking South West province capital Buea, on October 3, 2018 during a political rally of the ruling CPDM, Cameroon Pepole's Democratic Movement of incumbent Cameroonian President Paul Biya. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

At first glance, it would seem that the Trump administration’s decision to revoke Cameroon’s free-trade privileges would be counterproductive at this time when the U.S. is battling hard against the Chinese for influence in Africa. After all, Washington sanctioning Youndé on human rights plays right into the hands of the Chinese who say this is exactly the kind of thing they would never do.

But it’s not that simple.

On Thursday, President Trump notified Congress that he will terminate Cameroon’s preferential trade access to the U.S. market as of January 1 due to “persistent gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

“I am taking this step because I have determined that the Government of Cameroon currently engages in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, contravening the eligibility requirements of section 104 of the (African Growth and Opportunity Act),” Trump wrote in the letter.

The source of the U.S. concern relates to a bloody civil conflict between Anglophone populations in the north and the ruling francophone government. An estimated 20 different separatist groups are battling to carve out their own autonomous territory along the country’s border with Nigeria.

Cameroon: This Has Nothing to do With Human Rights, It’s All About China

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Cameroon’s Minister Delegate at the Ministry of External Relations Felix Mbayu bluntly accused the United States of being disingenuous about its concern for human rights. “The simple truth is that the U.S. is unhappy with a certain stance we take with China,” he said.

There’s no doubt the Trump administration is vulnerable here to Mbayu’s critique. In sharp contrast to his predecessors, the U.S. president has downplayed the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Instead, the administration has embraced the leaders of a number of authoritarian countries with well-documented human rights violations including Saudi Arabia, Russia, North Korea, and Egypt among others. So, by sanctioning Yaoundé on human rights grounds, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a lot of observers regard U.S. policy as inconsistent at best or cynically disingenuous at worst.

Given that the two countries did relatively little trade with one another, the economic stakes are not very high, prompting Mbayu to brush off the White House announcement: “The government has no move to make; we have other partners like China, Russia, and Singapore who are ready to do business with us… We have no reaction to the U.S,” Mbayu told CNN.

The Optics of This in Africa Don’t Look Good for the U.S.

Cameroon is now the second country in as many years to have its AGOA privileges stripped following Rwanda’s suspension last year over its refusal to accept used clothing imports from the United States. This combined with tariffs on South African steel and aluminum exports all give the impression of a more hostile U.S. trade policy towards Africa just as China is making moves in the opposite direction.

In Cameroon, at the same time that its U.S. foreign aid back in February and is now removing trade access, the Chinese instead wrote-off part of the country’s debt earlier and is now hosting Cameroonian officials in Shanghai to participate in this week’s China International Import Expo where they’ll try to gain more access to the Chinese market.

It’s the same in Rwanda where Zhejiang province teamed up with Alibaba and Dubai Ports World to open the country’s newest dry-port.

These examples are admittedly rather small-scale but they do point to a larger, more important narrative that China appears to be open for business, working collaboratively with African countries and the United States is not. Whether that assessment is actually true is beside the point because in this kind of geopolitics these kinds of optics are very important.

But China Doesn’t Necessarily Win Here Either…

For some perspective on the U.S. decision to cancel Cameroon’s AGOA status and if it will benefit China’s position in Cameroon and West Africa in general, I spoke with Chris W J Roberts, a political science instructor at the University of Calgary and a leading expert on Cameroonian international relations.

The following is the full, unedited transcript of our interview conducted via email:

ERIC OLANDER: Given that trade between the US and Cameroon is quite small, do you think this was more of a symbolic act or something genuinely intended to impact the Cameroonian economy?

CHRIS ROBERTS: This presidential removal of Cameroon from AGOA eligibility in 2020 is mostly symbolic, but still potentially important. It comes just a few weeks after the highly touted but predictably ineffective “Grand National Dialogue” organized by President Paul Biya. The level of mainstream media coverage of this announcement, including CNN and Reuters, adds to the potential symbolic importance as it increases public awareness about a crisis that few know anything about. Two major considerations follow. 

First, while trade between the USA and Cameroon is modest — and the Biya government never made it a priority to cultivate AGOA’s trade preferences to drive business investment, employment, and exports — there are still important commercial and security relationships. Exxon-Mobil depends on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline to export its crude from Chad, which generates US$1.32 per barrel in transit fees for the Cameroon government (a major source of hard currency for the regime).

There are still American Special Operations Forces based at Garoua in the north supporting regional efforts to combat regional Islamist extremists. While the U.S. reduced direct military assistance to Cameroon security forces in February 2019, it was not eliminated. And immediately after the harsh Trump White House press release, the US Embassy in Yaoundé softened the blow by reiterating that the “US Commitment to Cameroon Remains Strong Despite Change in AGOA Status,” and that “The United States is a committed partner and friend of Cameroon, and we will continue to pursue robust and diverse commercial ties, working with other tools at our disposal toward realizing the enormous potential of this relationship for our mutual prosperity and economic growth.” Still, the Embassy statement was careful to focus on Cameroon and the private sector and not stress partnership with the current government. 

“As we’ve seen across the continent, elite infatuation with or reliance on China does not necessarily mean the public is completely onside. In the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon, considerable security force reliance on Chinese helicopters, armored vehicles, weapons, and ammunition does not make for many good feelings towards China.”

Chris W. J. Roberts, POLITICAL SCIENCE INSTRUCTOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY

Second, then, the real test of how seriously the White House is about the deteriorating situation in Cameroon will come in the next few weeks. Does the US Executive Director at the IMF continue to vote “yes” on subsequent tranches of Cameroon’s Extended Credit Facility first approved in 2017? While the US does not have sufficient weighted-voting power to stop an IMF decision to move ahead, it could try and convince other executive directors to vote no or at least increase policy thresholds for future disbursements. But that is unlikely: the World Bank’s IDA (concessional lending arm) just a couple of weeks ago approved another US$200 million loan package for Cameroon that will be administered directly by its Ministry of Finance, and the African Development Bank just made another US$20 million loan agreement to complete a ring road that transits the NW region of Cameroon, one of those hardest hit by violence between security forces and self-described Ambazonian restorationist armed groups.

The International Finance Institutions are much more important to the Biya regime than AGOA, and there seems to be little appetite by IFI member states to reconsider how these loans enable the Biya regime to use its hard currency to buy weapons and not make any significant political compromises or economic reforms. Or, that the Biya regime is already heavily indebted and a collapsing economy is not going to generate the returns to pay back even these concessional loans. 

“The data reveals that Cameroon makes little use of the AGOA mechanism for its exports to the United States. According to the figures published by the embassy, only 28.3% of Cameroon’s exports to the United States are done under the AGOA mechanism. Moreover, exports benefiting from this US facility are largely dominated by crude oil.”

By Brice R. Mbodiam, Business in Cameroon

So, loss of AGOA eligibility will have minimal, direct economic effects on the Biya regime. But it signals that at least someone in the Trump White House is aware of the situation, and it may curtail planned or future investment in Cameroon (for instance, in industrial zones planned for the new Kribi container port). So, if AGOA eligibility is actually lost in 2020, that could have longer-term consequences on investment by domestic and international businesses in export-oriented industries, from agriculture to textiles. But there are more substantial pressures that the Americans and other concerned states could do, and that’s where any test of seriousness will be. 

ERIC: Last week the Chinese attacked the U.S. by saying they are not the “human rights guardians” and then two weeks ago at the Russia-Africa Summit President Putin said this is exactly the kind of thing that Russia would NOT do. With the Chinese and Russians in mind, how do you think this move is interpreted by both the Biya administration and in other African capitals?

CHRIS: The White House statement uses extremely tough language directed at the Biya regime, probably the toughest official language yet from the USA related to Cameroon. Even the strongly-worded House of Representatives resolution passed in July 2019 (H.Res. 358, spearheaded by California Congressmember Karen Bass) did not single out the Biya regime so directly. But in 2019, increasing frustration with the intransigence of the Biya government to deal effectively with a series of cascading crises has led to an escalation in the language (though few deeds) by some Western governments and legislators. 

The Biya administration and some other African governments that are not particularly interested in the rule of law or accountability, of course, prefer the Chinese and Russian approaches. It doesn’t help that Western governments, not solely the American, often talk about human rights but then overlook human rights or governance abuses when direct economic or security interests seem to be at stake. Biya has manipulated that hypocrisy since 1982. Cameroon officials have already commented on the low impact of the AGOA eligibility withdrawal, not for the first time attacking US criticism about how it is handling the “Anglophone” and other crises. 

That said, there is an ongoing tension between simply dealing with the governing elites (the fallback Chinese and Russian position) and a more complicated Western approach which at least tries to understand that governing elites should have some domestic legitimacy and are not the embodiment of the state concerned. But with significant French, American, British, Canadian, and other Western economic and security interests at stake in Cameroon and the region, until there is more domestic public understanding and pressure in those countries, it is difficult for them to get out of a general policy inertia that, sadly, does not provide any incentives for the regime to change practices or tactics. And millions of Cameroonians continue to suffer, including those escaping the country and enduring the long and dangerous trek from Latin America to the USA.    

ERIC: Paul Biya is already close with the Chinese and now that Cameroon no longer has duty free access to the U.S. market, does this open the way for Beijing to further tighten its relations with Yaoundé?

CHRIS: Yes, it cracks open the door a bit further for both China and Russia. But both countries have already been expanding their economic and diplomatic presence in Cameroon for some time, including military exports and mining exploration licenses. 

Yet, they also face challenges. As you’ve noted before, Cameroon’s public and parastatal debt owed to the Chinese government and export credit banks is already significant, and there are signs that China is unwilling to keep up that flow unconditionally. For instance, in August, an agreement with a Chinese engineering firm to work on a major road infrastructure project in Douala was canceled by the Ministry of Public Works citing both technical and financial capacity problems. Perhaps surprisingly, the project may be taken over by a Canadian Crown corporation that can put together a better technical and financial package (as a Canadian, that does not make me particularly happy either). 

And as we’ve seen across the continent, elite infatuation with or reliance on China does not necessarily mean the public is completely onside. In the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon, considerable security force reliance on Chinese helicopters, armored vehicles, weapons, and ammunition does not make for many good feelings towards China there. But elsewhere in the country, there have been concerns expressed about Chinese gold miners destroying farmland and the level of support Chinese suppliers (including Huawei) have provided to build out the telecommunications surveillance capabilities of the government. As elsewhere, China faces challenges expanding its official and commercial presence in Cameroon due in large part to the crisis of governance its discursive and financial supports have enabled.

Suggested Reading:

About Chris W.J. Roberts:

Chris W. J. Roberts is an instructor in political science at the University of Calgary and president of African Access Consulting. Chris is also a regular commentator on African political affairs on Twitter at @cwjroberts.

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