Renewed U.S. -Africa relations: Beyond AGOA, What Can Cameroon Gain?

Contextual Background

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, several states have, in the majority, been forced to re-strategize their priorities to leverage on economic challenges further exacerbated by the Russian-Ukrainian war. In December 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden, extended an official invitation to 49 Heads of States from Africa, alongside a host of regional organizations and civil society movements, within the context of the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ summit of 2022. (I) By hosting this summit, it is believed that the U.S. government was seeking to renew and consolidate existing ties with African states, which it had long lost to the benefit of predominant states like China and Russia.

The implementation of the resolutions adopted in this summit can obviously be witnessed through the recent trip to Africa by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, which was aimed at rebuilding economic ties with some African states. (II) In this summit, bringing together 49 other African States, Cameroon was actively represented by its Head of State H.E. President Paul Biya.

It is worthy to note that, Cameroon headed into the summit with underlying local challenges of inflation, a deteriorating economy, global financial restrictions, and supply chain disruptions. The country also had nation-wide instability fueled by the armed conflict in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon and the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northern Regions of the country. Cumulatively, these have all led to increasing violence, uneven distribution of resources, a neglected humanitarian crisis and a plethora of economic defiance.

It is undoubted that Africa boasts of rare natural deposits, a favorable climate, a growing and vibrant youth force, an open market confined in its wide geographical landscape. In spite of this, the necessity for cross-border cooperation is increasingly on the rise as Cameroon equally seeks to re-negotiate its membership into the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), (III) the pillar of trade relations between the US and Africa.

This act defines the operational road map for both countries specifically in the areas of trade and investment accords and tax-free treatment on almost all products exported by the beneficiary countries of Sub-Saharan Africa toward the U.S. But, beyond AGOA, what more can Cameroon gain from renewed US-Africa relations?

This article will primarily situate Cameroon’s interest in AGOA, (I) highlight prospects for diplomatic assistance in mitigating conflicts, (II) and examine a renewal security cooperation. (III)

Economic Advantages Offered by the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Further aggrieved by the economic effects of the Russia-Ukraine war, global financial restrictions and supply chain disruptions, the government of Cameroon has manifested its interest to be re-integrated into the African Growth Opportunity Act, AGOA. This comes after an earlier suspension of Cameroon from the Act in January 2020 by the Trump-led administration, for “failing to address concerns regarding persistent human rights violations committed by Cameroonian security forces. These violations include extra judicial killings, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and torture.” (V)

It is fair to think that this move by the government of Cameroon is aimed at diversifying economic partners in order to boost its hardly hit economy and provide debt service coverage, a present-day challenge to the government. Prior to its suspension from AGOA, Cameroon’s main exports to the U.S. comprised of minerals, fuels, cocoa, rubber, wood, coffee, beverages and crude oil, a major export, which all benefited from tax exemptions.

According to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, U.S. imports from Cameroon totaled a sum of $218.66 in 2021 (COMTRADE database on International Trade). With a limping economy evaluated at 0.5% in 2020, a recent IMF projection (VI) positions Cameroon at 4.3% of economic growth in 2023. Cameroon’s re-admission into AGOA will therefore strategically grant them access to the U.S. market where they can benefit from preferential treatments and improve exports.

Bilateral Diplomatic Assistance in Mitigating Conflicts and Achieving Sustainable Peace

Besides growing economic challenges, Cameroon is equally plagued by persisting conflicts in the Far North, North West and the South West Regions which have provoked a humanitarian crisis affecting about 4.2 million citizens. (VII) Added to these, Cameroon plays host to hundreds of thousands of refugees in the East Region, originating from Central Africa Republic (CAR) equally displaced by conflict in CAR.

Efforts meted by the government of Cameroon to alleviate the causes and effects of the conflict have been largely insufficient as violence and unrest still reign in the affected regions. The U.S. government is already active in the country providing humanitarian and health assistance through various relief programs and funding through international and civil society organizations.

Even though the U.S. government has never officially recognized the self-proclaimed state of Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia), it should be noted that the U.S. situates itself as a major destination and hub for many activists, sponsors and asylum seekers most of whom now benefit from a temporary protected status (VIII). Based on this, the U.S. not only reaffirms her stance as a globally influential state capable of influencing states reputed for anti-democratic practices, poor governance, and human rights abuses but equally as a strategic partner capable of providing alternative modes of dispute resolution to conflict affected countries.

Faced with the increasing conflicts and insecurity situation the Cameroon government if led by political will, can recourse to diplomatic assistance for third party dispute resolution to provide in-depth recommendations or approaches aimed at mitigating the prevailing conflict in the North West and South West Regions of the country within the context of inter-governmental cooperation.

Even though this may be a complex process with a potential to undermine Cameroon’s sovereignty and threaten the interests of other strategic partners, renewed US-Africa relations offer a plethora of bilateral solutions among which a globally reputed actor for likely conflict mediation.

Renewed Security Cooperation

The U.S. has for many years established itself as an active partner and advocate of regional stability and the respect of human rights across many regions and states in the world. However, security cooperation between the government of Cameroon and the U.S. has primarily been centred on the intentional will of both parties to end terrorism and to strengthen military ties, especially the ability to contain terrorist groups, Boko Haram, and ISIS-West Africa.

Furthermore, the U.S. government through its Department of Defence has strengthened military justice and assisted maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. A breakdown in relation between both states led to the suspension of security assistance and subsequent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Cameroon. (IX) This suspension was initially triggered by a reproach tabled by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. government, highlighting an indirect support and participation of the U.S. in human rights abuses in Cameroon through the Cameroonian military’s excessive abuse of power and violence on civilians residing in the North West and South West Regions of the country.

Faced with increasing violence in the Northern regions from the terrorist group, Boko Haram, it would be in the best interest of the government of Cameroon to exploit renewed U.S.-Africa relations to benefit from improved security assistance in the domain of logistics, humanitarian training, and technology to revamp military operations in conflict hit areas.

Conclusion

This paper has examined the possible bilateral options Cameroon can gain from renewed U.S.-Africa relations. As the government of Cameroon is committed to renegotiating its re-admission into the African Growth Opportunity Act, which actually offers a multitude of economic preferences for an economically and highly indebted country.

It would be largely profitable to the government of Cameroon to further exploit possibilities of bilateral diplomatic assistance to curb the effects of the Anglophone conflict and re-negotiate security cooperation between both states to effectively leverage on persistent attacks meted by the terrorist group, Boko Haram, in the Northern regions of the country.

Antem Anthony
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Antem Anthony is a Policy Analyst in peace & security at the Foretia Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as conflict, policy and security assistant at the International Crisis Group, Kenya. Anthony is a certified administrative and operations professional from the United Nations University for Peace and the Pan African Institute for Development, West Africa (PAID-WA)

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