Trump needs a more realistic understanding of the “sanctions approach”. They almost never contribute to creating behavior change in toxic leaders. Stripping Cameroon of access to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is not only ineffective (see my previous article on The Consequences of Trump’s Lackadaisical Foreign Policy in Africa) given Cameroon’s negligible use of it, but is very unlikely to induce behavioral change in the Cameroonian government or exact significant damage to its coercive capacity.
Sanctions against Cameroon may provide a visible feel-good and less expensive alternative to doing nothing, while perhaps being a useful distraction for his beleaguered administration’s domestic politics, but axing a major U.S. anti-terrorism partner from AGOA evidences the Trump administration’s inability to employ meaningful diplomacy. It will ultimately be harmful to the innocent populations that Trump purportedly aims to help. Civilian pain does not lead to political gain.
Cameroonians deserve better than shortsighted U.S. attempts at coercion
As well stated by Joel Ademisoye in a November 7, 2019 Letter to the Editor of The Washington Post: “Axing AGOA is an inappropriate way to address a volatile political issue that centers on historic, cultural and linguistic fault lines in Cameroon”. Cameroonians definitely deserve better than Paul Biya. But expecting longstanding tensions to be resolved by reducing access to what amount to insignificant trade advantages is shortsighted at best and counterproductive at worst.
Axing Cameroon from AGOA leaves the U.S. at a loss on three fronts: economic, diplomatic, and security-wise. Neither China nor any other U.S. foreign competitor in Cameroon, including France, restrict their ability to do business there. The U.S. sanctions will simply permit them to exploit U.S. policy and erode the already small U.S. market share.
Beyond putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage, the move to use AGOA as an economic weapon also casts U.S. companies as unreliable partners. Other countries in the sub-Saharan region considering long-term partnerships will most likely have increasing concerns that U.S. contracts can be nullified for actions taken by their governments considered sanctionable by the U.S. It might just seem easier to work with a foreign company not hostage to what seems like haphazard political maneuvering.
In addition, while they may seem relatively painless for the U.S., economic sanctions actually undermine the New Africa Strategy, launched in December 2018. The Strategy aims to advance U.S. trade and commercial ties with African nations, expand security ties between the U.S. and African nations to counter the threat from radical Islamic terrorism and violent conflict, and ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars for aid are used efficiently and effectively.
Better, smarter alternatives to weaponizing aid
Rather than being selective and using AGOA as an economic tool against Cameroon, punitive measures to coerce change in the behavior of Cameroon’s government need to be smart. They should focus on deeping their impact on those leaders, political elites and segments of society responsible for objectionable behavior, while reducing collateral damage to the general population and third countries.
Targeting sanctions evidently requires an in-depth understanding of the specific situation. The structural aspects of vulnerability to sanctions need to be disentangled - including such factors as states’ trading relations, and their relative power and regime-type - from temporal factors, such as domestic political crisis.
In the case of Cameroon, it is critically important to understand how structural and temporal factors interact with transient crisis to together catalyze or inhibit the susceptibility of the targeted country to economic coercion and, therefore, to the effectiveness of sanctions. The key thing to keep in mind is that although coercive strategies, like economic sanctions, are imposed from the outside in, they must work from the inside out.
Diplomacy is the key
In the words of former U.S. ambassador to NATO (1993-98) Robert E. Hunter, “the U.S. should invest more in serious diplomacy and the tools to make it effective.” The Trump administration has significantly reduced the ranks of able diplomats and the resources for them to be effective, but the U.S. State Department still has a good number of highly-professional, dedicated and knowledgeable professionals who are up to the challenge to work to achieve constructive foreign policy goals in Africa through intelligent, well-crafted diplomacy. What are some better, smarter alternatives to weaponizing aid?
The U.S. should partner with regional African allies who currently sit on the United Nations Security Council to organize a national conference – for example, in Ethiopia - to draw up a road map to peace and stability. Participation should include an equitable spectrum of Cameroonian society, including opposition leaders and political prisoners, civil society figures, press unions, professional organizations, the Cameroon Bar Association, and key diaspora leaders.
At the same time, the U.S. should join forces with the international community to unequivocally condemn violent acts committed by splinter groups. Secessionist leaders must also shoulder their share of the blame.
At a more individually targeted level, the U.S. can work to force Biya to do the right thing. For instance, he spends a significant amount of vacation time in Switzerland. There’s no reason why journalists can’t speak out about how he spend his country’s resources in Switzerland, France and other places. It certainly wouldn’t be fake news, and it would serve to pressure other governments into backing the U.S. position. At the same time, much more needs to be done to confront a regime that routinely and unabashedly sends a steady stream of foreign lobbyists to Washington to clean up its image.
The African Union also has an important role to play that it is shirking. It may be waiting for more concerted efforts from European powers, but well-focused diplomatic efforts on the part of the U.S. can help mobilize African states to join forces, demonstrate leadership and demand vigorous action. Ditto for specific diplomatic efforts in the UN Security Council to mobilize African members to join forces to get Cameroon on the Council’s agenda.
As Mausi Segun, Human Rights Watch Executive Director for Africa, rightly points out, “this would demonstrate that African governments can have the courage and conviction to address pressing crises on the continent.” The African Union could also “threaten to withdraw the hosting of next year’s African Nations Cup if Biya doesn’t offer a clear timeline for solving the Anglophone crisis. This threat to a major money spinner and point of prestige could shock Biya into action.”
In the realm of international institutions, the U.S. Executive Director at the IMF will have to decide whether to continue to vote “yes” or “no” on subsequent tranches of Cameroon’s Extended Credit Facility first approved in 2017. Trump may disparage international institutions, but international finance institutions are much more important to the Biya regime than AGOA. A nay vote does not have sufficient weighted-voting power to stop an IMF decision to move ahead, but via diplomatic means the U.S. can try to convince other executive directors to vote no or at least increase policy thresholds for future disbursements.
The Trump administration needs to overcome its isolationist bent and see beyond the president’s transactional view of U.S. alliances so that diplomacy can be used to increase IFI member states’ seemingly limited appetite to reconsider how international loans enable the Biya regime to use its hard currency to buy weapons. Diplomacy can also serve to pressure member states to not make any significant political compromises and at the same time get them to not ignore the fact that the Biya regime is already heavily indebted and cannot easily generate the returns to pay back even concessional loans.
Timing is everything…but not everything is lost
Timing is everything, and the U.S. missed the right timing. Sanctions succeed best when they increase the political capacity of opposition groups relative to the elite. They are most effective when they signal outside support gives the opposition the legitimacy it might lack in the domestic political environment.
The initial protests that began in 2016 in Cameroon could have been the seed to building an effective opposition to the authoritarian Biya regime. But their devolution into a bloody civil conflict that then became a separatist movement has weakened any claims to legitimacy. This has bolstered the Biya regime’s punitive policies, as well as its accusations that U.S. sanctions have nothing to do with human rights, and everything to do with Cameroon’ stance with China.
Given Trump’s characterization of African countries as “s****holes” and in view of the Trump administration’s inconsistent foreign policies and its embrace of the leaders of a number of authoritarian regimes, Cameroon’s disdain for U.S. sanctions comes as no surprise. But not everything is lost. The real test for the deteriorating situation in Cameroon is still to come.
It is now time for the United States to consider alternatives to economic sanctions. When human lives are concerned, making a weak political or moral statement by imposing negligible sanctions is a way to do nothing. Sanctions are no magic bullet and are usually a dead end.
History and experience show that economic coercion remains a counterproductive policy tool, even when they are specifically imposed with the goal of improving human rights. They should not be used out of habit or as a substitute for smart diplomacy. Regardless of whether the intent to weaponize AGOA as a coercive economic tool is borne of good intentions or lazy thinking, it is the wrong tactic and ill-serves U.S. strategic goals in Africa.
Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC