Americans are heading to the polls to elect members to the US Congress and governors on the same day that Cameroonians will see their incumbent President Paul Biya sworn in for the seventh time. While these events may seem remotely connected, the outcomes of the mid-term elections in the US will likely affect how Biya governs Cameroon in the next two years.
The United States of America has invested billions of dollars into Cameroon’s security apparatus. The US has been a key player in Cameroon’s fight against Boko Haram in the Northern part of Cameroon, as well as terrorism and pirates across the gulf of Guinea and other parts of Africa. It has provided military hardware and training to Cameroon’s defence forces. It is one of the key donors of military and economic aid in Cameroon, giving over $120 million to the central African country in 2017, according to US Aid data.
However, Cameroon’s ongoing conflict in the two Anglophone regions, between government backed forces and separatists forces advocating for separation from the French speaking regions has brought US-Cameroon ties under international scrutiny as dozens of reports expose massive human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial killings and arsons acts perpetrated by government forces are exposed. The recent killings of a US missionary from Indiana has exacerbated calls on the US to halt the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Cameroon.
So far, the Trump administration has been ambivalent. US still has forces in Cameroon training elements of Cameroon’s Battalion Intervention Rapid (BIR), the military organ that has been involved in most of the killings. In addition, the Trump administration has not announced any punitive plans against the regime in Cameroon, as Trump is accused of developing a warm relationship with dictators. The most vocal step taken so far by the US has been calls by the US ambassador in Cameroon for all sides to respect human rights and engage in dialogue.
Millions of Americans will be heading to the polls on Tuesday November 6 to cast their votes for members of the US congress and senator, and dozens of governors. According to the CNN “All 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be voted on during the midterms, because members run every two years. Thirty-five seats in the 100-member Senate (members serve six-year terms) are on the ballot this year as well. So are the governorships in 36 states”. Trump and several Republicans have described the election as a referendum on Trump. While this election maybe more about Trump’s domestic policies, they could also be a catalyst for change in US’ response to the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon.
Most opinion polls on RealClearPolitics forecast that Democrats are likely to take up the house of representative, while Republicans would likely retain their majority in the house of senate. A Democratic party majority in the US House of Representative could see a surge in US attention over human rights abuses in foreign countries, especially in developing countries like Cameroon. We could also see democrats taking over committees engaged with issues relating to human rights.
A takeover of the house and foreign relations and human rights committees will likely see increase attention to human rights issues, increase power for democrats to sanction regimes that abuse human rights, as well as call for more support to groups fighting authoritarian regimes.
A US democratic led house of representative will likely increase pressure on the Cameroon government and the Trump administration to address the crisis. Members of US congress can use their powers to impose sanctions on foreign states or call on the Trump administration to request the US treasury to select entities and persons in Cameroon that could be sanctioned for human rights abuses. Democrats can also cut all aid to Cameroon, and add top Cameroonian government officials under sanction list.
After the death of the the US missionary in Cameroon, US Democratic Senator Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey said “Reports of increasing violence in the Anglophone region of Cameroon are alarming, as are allegations of human rights abuses by armed actors. I urge all actors on the ground to engage in dialogue to resolve political disputes, and to refrain from violence against civilians. I also call on the Trump Administration to provide appropriate services to the victim’s family, and urge State Department leadership in Washington to engage the Cameroonian government at the highest levels to find a peaceful solution to the Anglophone crisis.”
Beyond how a democratic led house of representative can reshape US bilateral relations with Cameroon, it will also have significant ramifications over US participation in multi-lateral agencies like the UN. The unexpected resignation of Nikki Hailey early in October has left the office of the US representative to US mission in UN vacant. Trump is likely to pick a new representative who will share his “grand-power” and “transaction” foreign policy. However, an unlikely win by the Democrats in the Senate may force Trump to pick a less controversial figure who will not only focus on Trump “grand-power” and “transaction” foreign policy, but also on human rights values, which seem to be pivotal feature in democratic foreign policy.
The implications for Cameroon are manifold. First, the US State Department and US Representative to the UN may be boxed-in to pay more attention to human rights abuses than they have been doing since November 2016. The implication is that Cameroon may be one of those countries where Uncle Sam may have to intervene to “fix things”.
It is unlikely that the US will directly intervene in Cameroon, but it can use it power in the UN, and across NATO and other multi-lateral agencies to push for policy or at worst regime changes in Cameroon by ruining the country’s economy. In addition, even without the democrats winning the Senate, the Trump administration may be forced to provide more funding to human rights and humanitarian agencies like the UN Human Rights Council in exchange for democrats funding his wall projects. Increase funding to human rights agencies may boost the morale of agency staff, as well as counteract perception that America will not support any attack of human rights that pinged on its interest–like Bolton’s threat against Hague judges. This may expose Cameroon’s government to attacks from multiple international agencies.
Americans may be heading to the polls to selected members of congress and as a referendum on the Trump administration, but the effects of that election will be felt far beyond the boundaries of US. As Americans head to vote, top Cameroonian government officials will be swearing in their president and sweating in their pants begging to see the Republicans win the elections. A democratic party victory is not want they want at this time.