US cuts Cameroon trade benefits following human rights violations

Margaret Taylor

When US President Donald Trump announced in October that he planned to sever preferential trade ties with Cameroon, international rights organisations hailed it as a positive step.

The announcement came several months after the US scaled back security assistance as a result of Cameroon’s Francophone military committing multiple human rights abuses against Anglophone-secessionist civilians. As the country had not addressed America’s concerns since, President Trump said that from January 2020 the country would not be entitled to the privileged market access it has enjoyed under the terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

AGOA, which was originally signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, enables sub-Saharan African countries to export goods to the US on a duty-free basis on condition that they take action to address issues around the rule of law, human rights and labour standards.

The United States [may be] using Cameroon as an example to send a signal to the rest of Africa that the US is taking human rights violations seriously

Eric Emerson
Co-Chair, IBA International Trade and Customs Law Committee; partner, Steptoe & Johnson

Human Rights Watch has documented Cameroonian abuses for the past two years, documenting the killing of civilians, the burning of homes and the systematic use of torture. The organisation said the move would serve as a warning to President Paul Biya’s government that its actions will not be tolerated.

‘The US termination of the designation of Cameroon as a beneficiary country under AGOA should be a wake-up call to the Cameroon government and should stir action from other international partners to Cameroon to publicly address serious human rights concerns in the country,’ says Ilaria Allegrozzi, a senior Central Africa researcher at the non-governmental organisation.

Despite this, Eric Emerson, Co-Chair of the IBA International Trade and Customs Law Committee and a partner at US law firm Steptoe & Johnson, says the impact President Trump’s actions are likely to have on the ground will be minimal. Just three per cent of Cameroon’s exports go to the US and only around a quarter of that figure are sent under the AGOA programme.

‘Whether this will be effective or not is unclear,’ Emerson says. ‘The US accounts for a small fraction of Cameroon’s total exports so from an economic perspective it will have no impact. Its main export is petroleum and Cameroon will have numerous other options for that.’

Indeed, while figures from Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics show that in 2018 Cameroonian products were exported to 127 countries around the world, and China, which accounted for 24 per cent of total exports, was by far the country’s biggest customer. The next largest at 15 per cent was Italy, followed by the Netherlands at nine per cent.

This, Emerson believes, makes Trump’s move appear particularly weak. ‘China is Cameroon’s main export partner and it will not only take anything that doesn’t go to the US but historically it has not tied its relationships to any human rights issues,’ he says. ‘Because this is an action that will have very little practical economic impact in Cameroon, it may be that the United States is using Cameroon as an example to send a signal to the rest of Africa that the US is taking human rights violations seriously.’

For Sternford Moyo, Senior Partner and Chairman of Zimbabwean firm Scanlen & Holderness and a member of the IBA African Regional Forum Advisory Board, this is key. Noting that even though Trump can be criticised for the inconsistency – considering his warm relations with countries such as North Korea and Brazil, whose own records on human rights and the rule of law are questionable – the US’s approach towards Cameroon should nonetheless be interpreted positively.

‘It’s the right approach for the US to encourage African countries, particularly those struggling with the transition to democracy such as Cameroon, to embrace fully democratic values and the rule of law,’ says Moyo. ‘A leading superpower such as the US has some responsibility to ensure it says something about countries that violate human rights.

Moyo explains that AGOA opened a window of opportunity for developing countries to be able to export specific goods into the US on preferential terms. He points to South Africa as another country risking its preferential arrangements with the US if it doesn’t tackle ongoing reports of xenophobia.

He believes the US’ decision is ‘an excellent stick and carrot approach to international relations: if you do the right thing we’ll try to assist you to achieve what you’re trying to achieve, but if you are abusive to your own people then we will withdraw the benefits you enjoy. That approach is right and proper.’

Ultimately, while the sanction of removing trade preferences may be weak economically – and while the moral authority of the American President wielding it may be questionable – it may be enough to spur long-overdue dialogue that could set Cameroon on the road to constitutional stability.

Regis Simo is a senior researcher at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand. ‘Current events have given the Cameroon government an opportunity to address issues of decentralisation which have remained dormant since the promulgation of the [country’s] 1996 constitution,’ he says.

‘The constitution was supposed to grant a certain level of autonomy to local governments. Twenty years down the road, decentralisation has remained a dead letter. This is why the latest separatist calls have taken root.’

Simo believes that dialogue is needed not only to end the brutal repression of the secessionist movement, but also to address the latent causes of the crisis. ‘If the dialogue doesn’t take place, Cameroon’s AGOA membership may be just another casualty of the ongoing Anglophone crisis.’

Margaret Taylor is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at