US Cameroon Relations: The New Biden Administration and the Southern Cameroons Question: What to Expect?

When Joseph R. Biden Jr. was confirmed, winner of the last Presidential Election, several international journals and political analysts labelled his victory as the “return to normalcy” to the United States. Even though the circumstances around his election were unprecedented, marred with many controversies, this did not stop several world leaders, especially the Europeans, to welcome the defeat of former President Donald Trump with a great sigh of relief. 


The enthusiasm gives us some insight into how former President Trump's tenure to some extend disrupted relations between the United States and its allies, including various international organizations. This ‘queer’ behaviour of the former US President made many Western political scientists opine that former President Trump represented a threat to the liberal international order structures shaped by the United States since the end of World War II. This liberal world order was hinged on America's role in promoting democracy, free trade, and human rights, although it is only after the Cold War that they became relevant in Africa.


Millions of Southern Cameroonians on the territory occasionally flood the streets to show support for the self-determination option (C) Discover Africa News


Indeed, former President Trump's slogan “American First” was at odds with the United States’ role in policing and promoting liberal values around the world as a means to maintain its supremacy. His foreign policy insinuated that the United States would gradually retreat as leader of the free world, a role the country had prided itself playing for more than seven decades. Consequently, the United State unilaterally withdrew from various international conventions signed with its allies such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and many others, including the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). 


Also, former President Trump’s unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and even go further to relocate the US Embassy was a surprising act that radicalized the Arabs in the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Even though, somehow, through quid pro quo approach, especially with Morocco and Sudan, several Arab countries openly started diplomatic relations with Israel under the Trump administration. Nevertheless, it could appear that the Trump foreign policy represented a radical disjunction from previous administrations given the predominant role US Presidents always had on foreign affairs. Former President Trump's leadership style and arrogance seemingly did much damage to American’s historic allies, but the US was still somehow involved in other parts of the world, especially in Cameroon.  


The Trump Administration’s move to limit US engagement at the international stage was due to the system of checks and balances that made it almost impossible for foreign policy to be driven exclusively by the executive. In this light, the legislative branch got more involved in the Southern Cameroons Question as the US Congress issued several resolutions to the Biya-led regime regarding human rights abuses and the need to find a political solution to the conflict. Most people tend to forget that as far as sanctions are concerned toward the Biya-led regime, the US has been second to none even under the former president. For example, in February 2019, the US cut military assistance worth $17 million every year to Cameroon due to alleged human right abuses and atrocity crimes. Later that year, for obviously the same reasons, the US suspended Cameroon as a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). These were strong signals that stood out as strong diplomatic warning regarding relations between two friendly states. Nevertheless, the Cameroonian Diaspora and sympathizers of victims of human right abuses still think that the United States could go beyond mere declarations.


Southern Cameroonians across the world continue to aspire to outright independence (C) Pan African Forum


Unfortunately, those eager for more US involvement in Cameroon should be aware of how challenging it was for the Trump Administration to be more engaged in bringing both parties to the dialogue table. It is mainly because of its foreign policy objective to reduce American’s leadership position on issues like democracy, human rights, and conflict mediation around the world. Therefore, the Southern Cameroons Question could not be a priority for Republicans in the executive, who faithfully followed their leader’s position. On the contrary, President Joe Biden's victory considered by many as the return of the United States, as the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, tweeted “Welcome back America” in the world stage could imply more engagement in the Cameroons. These aspirations were echoed by Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, at his confirmation hearing in the US Senate.  


Usually, US foreign policy has always been bipartisan, but sometimes the leadership style changes depending on the president's manner of approach. It could either be hard or soft. Though the Trump Administration was lukewarm about Cameroon’s political situation, bearing in mind the reasons mentioned earlier, many suggestions lead us to think it would not be the case with President Biden. Indeed, most Democrats in the US Congress have manifested great concern about the humanitarian disaster. Let us not forget that the new Vice President, Kamala Harris on December 7, 2018, while Senator wrote a joint letter together with some other colleagues of the Democratic Party to ask then Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo to be more engaged in the humanitarian crisis in Cameroon and “impose sanctions on individuals found to have committed gross violations of human rights”.  


Southern Cameroonian Diasporans remain a strong engine of the pro-independence Movement (C) Amnesty International


Besides, the growing influence of Afro-Americans, comprised of many Cameroonians with American nationality, has made them a solid electoral base of the Democrats. Afro-Americans have always been horrified about war crimes and atrocities carried out in Africa without the US government intervention to end such wars. Therefore, it leads us to think that Vice President Kamala Harris and other Afro-Americans like Congresswoman, Karen Bass, the sponsor of the US Congress Bill on Cameroon in May 2019, have a better chance to influence the decisions of President Biden’s Administration on the Cameroons. Therefore, it is possible to expect more US engagement in resolving the Southern Cameroons Question. It could even become one of the priorities, given the humanitarian disaster the war has provoked in Southern Cameroons and in the Gulf of Guinea. Some international humanitarian organizations have gone to the extent of calling the crisis in the Cameroons a genocide and one of the most neglected humanitarian crises in the world.  


Due to Africa's past experiences with colonialism and neo-colonialism, the word intervention has become derogatory to many and perceived more as interference.  However, intervention could be humanitarian, diplomatic or even good offices. The United States hardly sends its military on African soil. More often than not, it uses its superpower status to sanction recalcitrant regimes unwilling to employ peaceful means or democratic procedures to resolve crises. Observers would agree that US sanctions on Cameroon have not yet succeeded to force the Biya regime to call for an inclusive dialogue or to participate in internationally mediated peace talks. However, the “return of the United States” means more multilateral cooperation with its allies to end the war in the Cameroons, which the previous administration failed to do. Again, diplomacy conducted by the White House to intervene in crisis is more effective than that driven by the US Congress. Perhaps we could see the Southern Cameroons Question become a stand-alone item on the agenda of a United Nations Security Council session, a move that could be a nightmare to the Biya-led regime.



Wanah Immanuel Bumakor is a Researcher and Consultant in International Relations, specialized in Peace Studies and Conflict Management