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Gradual and Deliberate Engagement Leads to Trust and Change in Cameroon

Since its independence in the 1960s, Cameroon has shared few common objectives with the United States. Its vaunted political stability has been predicated on a complex system of tribal patronage and—through most of its history—strict controls on freedom of expression and assembly. This stability has been punctuated by periods of political violence and crackdowns, most recently in 2008, which have alienated the international community and strained bilateral relations. Yet, confronted by the threat of violent extremism and virulent pandemics, Cameroon and the United States have begun to “push on open doors” to expand and deepen bilateral relations, and this in turn has opened up further—previously impossible—avenues for discussion on sensi­tive topics, such as humanitarian assistance and democratic and political transition. 

In July 2014, after a year of being a neutral party to the conflict, President Paul Biya officially declared war on the Nigerian-based terrorist organization, Boko Haram. At that time, the US government had a small, military-to-military relationship between Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) and an elite Cameroonian unit called the Rapid Intervention Battalion (French acronym: BIR). In their training, conduct, and leadership, the BIR exhibited all of the values we expect in our own armed forces—professionalism, protection of the civilian population, and respect for human rights. As Boko Haram attacks on Cameroon increased dramatically, we found that we had common ground with the government in pushing back against violent extremism. Not only did our support to the BIR increase, but we were able to expand overall military-to-military engagement to improve combat capability and overall professionalism.

This was a fight the likes of which Cameroon (which has never had an armed conflict on its soil) had not experienced before. It involved suicide bombings, massed attacks of up to 1,000 Boko Haram combatants, and improvised explosive devices (IED)—all of which had a significant psychological impact on the country. In December 2014, the BIR suffered 70 fatalities from two IED ambushes, which forced the BIR into a defensive crouch behind garrison walls. Recognizing a need, US Embassy Yaoundé asked the United States Department of Defense to provide counter-IED training, which fundamentally altered the battlefield calculus. Once the BIR was able to detect and disarm hidden explosive devices, Cameroonian forces shifted from a defensive to an offensive posture, and took the fight to Boko Haram. This “strategy of momentum” evolved into the current combined cross-border operations between Nigeria and Cameroon under the auspices of the Multi-National Joint Task Force. The coordinated efforts have led to the destruction of several Boko Haram IED factories, the liberation of large swaths of territory previously held by the terrorist group in Nigeria, and a dramatic reduction in the frequency of suicide attacks against Cameroon.

The closer operational relationship also allowed for increased opportunities to discuss, share, and impart values related to professionalism and civil-military interaction. US forces in Cameroon spent, and spend, as much time on human rights and law of armed conflict training as they do on operational aspects. This gradual increase in trust built through real-world engagement and battlefield success has created a situation where the Government of the Republic of Cameroon has requested and allowed the creation of a joint program on national defense institution building (to include human rights training)—something that would have been unimaginable in our bilateral relationship a scant three years ago.

Government hospitals and clinics are some of the most important symbols of proximity governance in Cameroon, and their historically poor record of service has become emblematic in many citizens’ minds of broader perceived governmental failings. Beginning with the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Research (PEPFAR), the United States built a community- and national-level working relationship with the Cameroonian government’s health sector. As a result of concrete results and trust built under the PEPFAR program (and in the wake of the Ebola epidemic), President Biya requested US assistance in improving vaccination programs and overall health security. Through Global Health Security Agenda funding, US Embassy Yaoundé supported Cameroon’s eighth polio vaccination campaign. Cameroon is now polio-free. 

Most importantly, the Cameroonian health sector has begun to internalize account­ability concepts and standards of professionalism that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teams have incorporated in its programming in Cameroon. During the polio vaccination campaign, for the first time, the Presidency established metrics to gauge implementation and held officials publicly accountable for the plan’s execution. Now that Cameroon has the tools and a system through which to provide care, the government has committed more of its funding to health, and increased its spending to fight HIV/AIDS. Its medical professionals took part in our Foreign Epidemiology Training Program and responded quickly and effectively to outbreaks of communicable diseases (cholera among them). As a result of the demonstrated success of the health sector partnership over the past several years, Cameroon was named as part of the President’s Malaria Initiative, providing a new and expanded avenue within which the United States can continue to have a positive impact on Cameroonians’ health, and Cameroon’s health care evolution.

Regional instability and the fight against Boko Haram have placed a heavy humani­tarian burden on Cameroon. It generously hosts over 300,000 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria, and is struggling to manage a new surge of over 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDP). Effectively stabilizing and resolving humanitar­ian issues is key to maintaining national and regional stability. In coordination with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and USAID, we work through the United Nations to deliver humanitarian assistance. The United States is the largest contributor for the refugee population in Cameroon, and gives roughly $29 million in annual assistance.

In addition to providing much needed food and sustainment to refugees and agencies, this assistance has had a multiplier effect in other areas. The Cameroonian government, which has no previous experience in managing IDP issues, is becoming more effective in this arena as a result of its interaction with US funded agencies and non-governmental organizations. Our support to the United Nations and advocacy with the Cameroonian government led directly to a process that enabled refugees from CAR to register and vote in their camps in recent elections. 

The UN camps at Minawao and others in eastern Cameroon provide excellent health­care and educational services for residents and members of the surrounding communities, leading to a general improvement in quality of life. Cameroon is participat­ing in the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, and the US funded training that its peacekeepers receive helps professionalize the armed forces overall, and strengthens their ability to respond to domestic humanitarian crises. Here again, engagement is paying a strategic dividend in terms of regional stability.   

Perhaps the most sensitive aspect of the bilateral relationship involves democracy and governance, particularly within the context of the inevitable leadership transition Cameroon will undergo in the coming years. On this most difficult of questions, more than any other, our two countries must find common values and a mechanism for dialogue—with the goal of maintaining stability and peace in Cameroon by improving governance. 

We seek to use the trust built across the broad spectrum of our engagement to enable constructive discussion. As a result of the partnerships in other sectors, the Cameroonian government now has a base of experience to believe us when we say that our goal is not to meddle, but simply to assist, support, and share the benefit of our own mistakes and experiences. Consequently, they are more willing to engage on issues that were previously off-limits. Our approach has been to reiterate that institution-building across the board is essential to maintaining stability and success. For example, a USAID technical team was allowed permission to visit the country and conduct a thorough assessment aimed at formulating a plan to assist the Cameroonian government with its next round of elections. Similarly, through a concerted commercial effort, we have increased US investment from $45 million to $1.4 billion, but the true goal has been to create “micro-climates” of transparency that demonstrate the benefits of clean business practices. 

With long-time president Paul Biya now 83, we know a leadership transition is coming. In discussions, we appeal to the Government of the Republic of Cameroon for good governance to maintain stability through this transition. That is our common interest. Now we have to find common values. We have to engage with the Cameroonian people, engage civil society, and empower women. We use our Gender Equity Working Group to strengthen female voices and roles in the political process. We have sent female Senators and Parliamentarians to the United States, providing space for civil discourse on women’s issues. 

When faced with sensitive issues, we have asked ourselves often, “Do we want to make a statement or make a difference?” There are times when we have to make a statement to achieve the objective we seek. However, our overall experience has been that quiet, deliberate, honest, and respectful engagement has paid dividends—and will continue to do so. It has directly advanced US interests. Hopefully, through our engagement on fighting Boko Haram and piracy, fighting endemic disease, and promoting health and good governance, we gain credibility and transmit values that strengthen both Cameroon’s and the United States’ progress toward achieving mutual goals in the region.

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United States Ambassador to the Republic of Cameroon