Imposing lackadaisical economic sanctions against Cameroon by weaponizing AGOA spells failure. Economic sanctions do not have a high record of success in changing behaviors and rarely bring about the dramatic shifts in policy demanded.
President Trump’s Hobbesian perspective of the world as anarchic and where strength is paramount does not automatically translate into an ability to effectively shape the world as he wishes (Charlie Laderman and Bendan Simms, Donald Trump. The Making of a World View, 2017). His message announcing the punitive measure against Cameroon, because of gross human rights violations, communicates false bravado (since when does he care about human rights?), insouciance towards technical knowledge of sanctions and a disregard for the need to have a deeper understanding of the complexity of the conflict in Cameroon.
None of the criticisms expressed in this article and subsequent articles on the subject are meant to down play the serious allegations of the human rights violations carried out by the Cameroonian government or its armed forces. Strong action should be taken to exert pressure in a way that results in changing the behaviors of the government of Cameroon. But economic sanctions can’t serve as a substitute for serious foreign policy nor can they be used as an echo of Oval Office fury.
Economic sanctions are the bane of foreign policy
You cannot fight persistent human rights violations resulting from internal conflict with economic warfare. Economic sanctions are ultimately effective only when the country being ”punished” is truly dependent on what the sanctions take away or when other countries back the sanctions. Neither is true in the case of Cameroon.
First, excluding Cameroon from AGOA will have a marginal impact on the country’s trade balance. According to the U.S. embassy, Cameroon makes little use of the AGOA mechanism for its exports to the U.S. In 2018, Cameroon exported a total of approximately $220 million in goods and services to the U.S. Less than 29% of these were exported under AGOA, and more than 90% were in the form of crude oil.
China is Cameroon’s main customer. While China accounts for 23.9% of Cameroon’s exports, the U.S. accounts for a mere 2.8%. Both countries have strengthened bilateral cooperation through trade, economic and technical partnership agreements to boost trade exchanges. Cameroon is among the top ten beneficiaries of Chinese investment in Africa and 90% of the country’s economic cooperation is with China. China has also provided non-interest loans and recently forgave Cameroon $78 million out of $57 billion total debt to help ease economic hardship in the central African country. It will clearly come in handy now that the U.S. is imposing economic sanctions.
Second, the worsening crisis in Cameroon calls for a strong reaction from international partners to avoid escalation into brutal civil war, like those that marked Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leon in the past. But using AGOA as a tool for economic coercion is no solution. It ignores the failure rate of economic sanctions, particularly when they are unilaterally imposed by the U.S. (which means no ally support).
History and experience show that economic sanctions are the bane of weak or ineffective foreign policy. While they can be effective in deterring certain behaviors, economic sanctions rarely have the intended effect and instead often produce additional unintended effects. Economic sanctions can adversely affect the relations between countries while adversely affecting the welfare of the citizens of the sanctioned country. But the “sanctions approach” has almost never contributed to creating behavior change in toxic leaders.
A trade-off between economics and human rights should not be used for policy purposes. In most cases, the pressure of economic sanctions makes toxic leaders and their entourage do “whatever it takes”, aggravating the humanitarian situation while strengthening the grip of the “strong man” in charge and his entourage and accelerating their assets-diverting strategies. This leads to more, not less, human rights violations, especially in a situation of escalating conflict.
As University of Memphis professor Durksun Peksen explains, when an external actor demands changes in policies or actions from another regime, the targeted leadership usually perceives the foreign pressure as a threat to regime survival. In order to mitigate any possible loss of domestic influence and “audience costs”, economic sanctions give the regime an incentive to put greater pressure on opposition groups to show its determination against any external pressure for reform and policy change.
Third, the conventional thinking behind Trump’s announced sanctions is borne of a lack of understanding of the history and dynamics underlying the failure of economic sanctions. They just don’t work as tools to coerce a change in behavior. Instead, they hit the most vulnerable sectors of the economy in the targeted country.
Intent is not the same as outcome. Economic sanctions are a blunt economic instrument that hits the whole target economy and affects different segments of society unequally. They have no or very few discriminatory measures to lessen the negative impact on civilians. By intensifying the internal degree of competition for resources, they often fail to impair the capacity of the government being “punished” and instead have adverse consequences for those the sanctions intend to help.
Groups with privileged access to political and economic resources usually incur no major cost from foreign economic pressures. They can use the public and private resources in their favor and to enhance their coercive capacity. Meanwhile, vulnerable groups suffer even more from the major political and economic instability caused by pressure due to their disadvantaged position in society.
Economic embargoes and financial and aid restrictions not only hit export-oriented sectors. They also create unemployment in other areas of the economy, by slowing the economic exchange in the domestic market, increasing inflation, and creating a black market for scarce market products. These economic difficulties generate unemployment and usually affect women first, who already face economic discrimination. In addition, economic sanctions tend to increase gender-specific violence and lead to more violation of women’s human rights in target societies.
The humanitarian impact on growing poverty, unemployment and the gap in income distribution causes increased economic frustration and feelings of injustice. These in turn combine to motivate increased emergence of violent acts, which decreases women’s security by making them targets of attack because they are already among society’s most vulnerable groups. Furthermore, economic coercion also strains gender relations at the household level as a result of more domestic violence and abusive treatment of women.
Fourth, a delayed reaction negatively affects U.S. credibility. Conflict in Cameroon is not recent. It broke out three years ago, after years of increasing dissatisfaction among the English-speaking people of the South West and North West regions with the state of the Union between La Republique du Cameroun (Republic of Cameroon) and British Southern Cameroons.
In 2016, the disgruntlement escalated into a full-blown conflict, after the government ignored the grievances of Anglophone lawyers and teachers about the erosion of the Anglophone education and legal systems in favor of Francophone systems and practices. The conflict has now, three years later, become vicious in response to efforts by the Francophone administration to erase the federal structure of the state and assimilate - or annihilate - the English-speaking parts and a devolution into unrealistic secessionism on the part of the disgruntled Anglophones.
Neither the United States nor any other international power took any significant measures during the early phases of the conflict to address ongoing gross human rights violations. People continued to be killed and their property and homes destroyed with impunity by state security forces. Today, more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the conflict and at least 1,800 people have been killed. Calls for an all-inclusive dialogue came too late and have fallen on deaf ears, and the mediation initiative led by a Swiss humanitarian organization has failed to deescalate the crisis.
It was not until it became too obvious to ignore how the military aid provided by the U.S. to Cameroon was being improperly used against citizens that the U.S. government took some incremental steps to reset the terms of its relationship with Biya’s government. Rather than trying to understand where and how U.S. oversight failed, the Trump administration decided in February of this year to suspend $17 million of military aid to Cameroon in protest for egregious human rights abuses and inappropriate battlefield behavior.
Cameroon is a key U.S. partner in fight against Boko Haram, in the Far North region on the border with Nigeria, so doesn’t suspending security assistance work against U.S. goals in Africa? In addition, we cannot ignore the fact that the U.S provides military assistance to 142 countries in 2018 (at $17.88 billion). Among them are Niger, Chad or Nigeria, who, like Cameroon, violate human rights. Human rights violations are also well documented in Egypt, yet the country is one of the top recipients of U.S. military aid. So human rights violations don’t seem to be a top priority for the Trump administration. How does suspending aid rather than improving U.S. oversight of the use of that aid work in favor of U.S. policy goals in Africa?
Cameroon is the second most targeted country by Boko Haram. While the Cameroonian government is focused on suppressing the Anglophone separatists, Boko Haram thrives. Since May 2014, when Cameroon declared war on Boko Haram, there has been an uptick in attacks as the sect has intensified its activities in the Far North Region of the country. Attacks now alternate between low-intensity operations requiring only about ten fighters on motorbikes and conventional ones mobilizing more than 1000 fighters and using armored vehicles and mortars. How is suspension of U.S. military assistance over what are clearly facetiously considered human rights violations going to support U.S. security goals in Africa?
Cameroon’s other major Western military cooperation partner, France, seems to better understand that internal conflict does not occur in a vacuum and is extremely sensitive to regional factors, such as Russia’s expanding military footprint with deployment of advisers – military and civilian – and the provision of security assistance and arms deals with several States, including Cameroon. A lack of U.S. presence in Africa could enable Russian success. And let’s not forget that in July 2018 a protocol was signed between China and Cameroon for a Chinese donation of 50 million Yuan Renminbi in military wares. France has an obviously more realistic understanding of the situation; it has said it will not follow the U.S. lead despite a call by Amnesty International for other donors to take similar action.
The Trump administration would do well to learn from African billionaire Mo Ibrahim, founder of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Ibrahim has understood Paul Ormerod’s theory (Why Most Things Fail, 2005) on why most things related to coercive policy fail. In constantly changing and evolving economic and social worlds, the connection between events and their effects is neither routine nor mechanical.
Desirable social and economic outcomes are the joint product of individual actions and the institutional framework in which individuals operate. Therefore, part of the solution lies in giving toxic leaders such as Biya and his coterie a sense of perspective and a big enough incentive to show them the way out through influence not force.