The U.S. Should Bid Biya Goodbye

It’s time for Washington to renegotiate its ties with Cameroon's absentee leader.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya looks toward supporters from his motorcade in Yaoundé on Nov. 6, 2018.
Cameroonian President Paul Biya looks toward supporters from his motorcade in Yaoundé on Nov. 6, 2018. STR/AFP/Getty Images

It is not hard to find fault with Cameroonian President Paul Biya and his government. The overall stability of the country he has led since 1982, often from the luxury of the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, has crumbled over the past three years. After last year’s deeply flawed election—the norm in Cameroon—Biya has done little to resolve increasingly violent demands for secession from armed groups fighting to carve out a new Anglophone state called Ambazonia from the country’s Northwest and Southwest regions. He has failed to give any indication that his regime will scale back its efforts to crush dissent, and there have been no signs that his family will rein in their lavish spending beyond the country’s borders.

Cameroon deserves better—from its 86-year-old leader, and from every foreign power that enables his enduring misrule. Increasingly, Cameroonians at home and abroad are demanding that outside powers examine their ties to the long-ruling Biya regime. On June 29, hundreds of protesters in Geneva endured tear gas from Swiss authorities to do just that. It is well overdue for the United States to fundamentally recalibrate U.S.-Cameroon relations.

The rise of violent Anglophone secessionist militias in Cameroon’s west and of Boko Haram in the Far North region has left 4.3 million people—roughly one-fifth of the country’s population—in need of humanitarian assistance. In addition, at least 1,800 people have been killed and 500,000 more displaced due to these conflicts, with regular reports emerging of war crimes committed by the government, including torture and the burning of villages.

Cameroon deserves better—from its 86-year-old leader, and from every foreign power that enables his enduring misrule.

Biya has exacerbated Cameroon’s multiple, cascading crises by further cracking down on political dissent and opposition voices. Beyond not taking credible steps toward resolving conflict in the country’s Anglophone regions, the Francophone government of Cameroon is actively constricting opposition to Biya’s policies and efforts to challenge his authoritarian grip on power. On June 1, an estimated 350 supporters of the country’s main opposition party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, were arrested during demonstrations in which protesters demanded the release of party leader Maurice Kamto.

In October 2018, Kamto declared victory after the country’s presidential election, which resulted in Cameroonian authorities charging him with treason and a host of other major crimes, including “inciting violence” and “disrupting public peace.” Kamto has been in detention since Jan. 26 of this year, and if he is convicted in Cameroon’s notoriously biased courts, he could potentially face the death penalty. Kamto has already been denied access to legal counsel, a violation of both Cameroonian law and international legal norms.

Despite Biya’s recent clampdown on political dissent and his detachment from Cameroon’s multiple conflicts, the response from the United States and other foreign powers has been tepid up to this point.

Much more needs to be done to confront a regime that has routinely and unabashedly violated the rights of its own citizens.

The U.S. government has taken some incremental steps to reset the terms of its relationship with Biya’s government. In February of this year, the Trump administration suspended $17 million of military aid to Cameroon due to ongoing human rights abuses. And last week, Rep. Karen Bass, the top Democrat on a key subcommittee that focuses on Africa and the current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, led a visiting U.S. congressional delegation to the country to assess the situation and call for peace talks between the government and separatists. However, much more needs to be done to confront a regime that has routinely and unabashedly violated the rights of its own citizens—one that relies on international disinterest and a steady stream of foreign lobbyists to clean up its image.

There are a number of concrete steps that the United States in particular should immediately consider.

First, Washington should halt all U.S. security assistance to Cameroon that does not go to battling Boko Haram in the country’s north, going beyond the initial cuts that have already been made. Several high-ranking Democratic senators on June 25 introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that is intended to do exactly that.

This suspension of additional military aid to Cameroon is crucial for two main reasons. First, it would demonstrate to the Biya regime, and other world leaders, that continued U.S. security cooperation, regardless of its merits, does not trump respect for human rights and democratic freedoms. Second, the proposed amendment states that Cameroon must “have demonstrated progress in abiding by international human rights standards,” which could prove an important precedent moving forward, not just for Cameroon, but for other U.S. partners. To be sure, the proposed amendment has its limitations: The fact that it is not presently a bipartisan effort is one major obstacle.

Washington should halt all U.S. security assistance to Cameroon that does not go to battling Boko Haram in the country’s north.

What is more, there is potentially a long legislative process to undergo before it becomes part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Nevertheless, this effort remains a necessary start. Support for democracy and human rights in Africa has traditionally been an issue of convergence and cooperation in the U.S. Congress, and that needs to continue when it comes to ties with Cameroon.

In addition to the proposed military cuts, all current and earmarked aid to Cameroon should be comprehensively reviewed in order to ensure that it is being disbursed effectively. For example, humanitarian projects, food aid, and refugee assistance programs, which are currently channeled through the Biya regime, should be redirected to more responsible third parties. Preferably, this would include civil society groups that can better guarantee consistent service to all beneficiaries, regardless of geographic location, language, or political affiliation.

Connections between the United States and Cameroon extend well beyond intergovernmental ties. Cameroonian diaspora leaders based in the United States have the ability to make a substantial impact on the ground. Already, several groups in the Washington area are regularly meeting with congressional staffers to draw their attention to the conflicts and democratic backsliding that are roiling the country, and they have organized public events to discuss the roles and responsibilities those abroad can play in pro-democracy efforts, in Cameroon and elsewhere across the continent.

The United States can individually target Biya—who has amassed a fortune of around $200 million—and members of his inner circle by restricting their travel and barring those implicated in state-sponsored human rights abuses from spending time in the country.  Cameroonians in the United States also have a powerful tool at their disposal in the form of the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, a multi-agency organization—including experts from  the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security—the mission of which is to deny safe haven to war criminals and those implicated in grave abuses of human rights. This could provide an avenue to block members of the Cameroonian government or its security forces who fit this brief.

The United States should also pull Cameroon from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants trade incentives to African countries for opening their economies. The Biya regime has clearly failed to meet specified requirements, which include “continual progress toward establishing … the rule of law, political pluralism, and the right to due process, a fair trial, and equal protection under the law.” The United States has taken such action before against governments that abuse their own citizens, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali, among others.

The United States should partner with regional allies—such as Ivory Coast, which currently sits on the United Nations Security Council—to organize a national conference that consists of an equitable spectrum of Cameroonian society. This event would ideally include the participation of opposition leaders and political prisoners like Maurice Kamto, as well as civil society figures, press unions, professional organizations, the Cameroon Bar Association, and key diaspora leaders, to draw up a road map toward lasting peace and stability in the country. This week, the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government endorsed a similar idea, proposing Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, as a place to convene.

The limited suspension of security assistance and the proposed congressional move to further restrict aid have represented necessary first steps, however cautious, to hold the Biya regime accountable for its ongoing abuses. But now is the time for bolder action. The United States must make clear that it no longer takes the chronically abusive Biya regime at its word. Cameroon is experiencing an unacceptable absence of leadership, and punitive measures from Washington would provide a much-needed jolt in the halls of power in Yaounde while also signaling to other abusive leaders that even the most established military and security relationships are untenable if governments trample on basic human rights.

Samuel Woodhams, a journalist and researcher at Top10VPN, a digital rights group, contributed to this article. 

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

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