YAOUNDE - Cameroon has shrugged off U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement last week to suspend the country's preferential trade status over alleged human rights abuses by security forces.
Cameroonian economists say U.S. plans to withdraw the central African nation from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) beginning Jan. 1, 2020, would have little economic impact as bilateral trade is very low, making it mostly symbolic.
The 2000 law aims to stimulate U.S. trade and investment in sub-Saharan Africa by giving 39 countries duty-free access to the U.S. market.
But participants must work toward a market-based economy, upholding labor standards, establishing the rule of law, and respecting human rights.
University of Yaounde economist Gladys Mebenga said Cameroon can be an economic success without the U.S. trade support.
Cameroon's export to the U.S. is less than 3 percent of its total exports, she said, adding that petroleum products, which form a majority of Cameroon's trade exports, are in high demand by many of the 127 countries where Cameroon does business.
Cameroon's National Institute of Statistics reports that its leading trade partner in 2018 was China, which accounted for 23 percent of exports. The U.S. was in 12th position, importing 2.8 percent of Cameroon's exported goods.
In a press release issued after Trump's statement, the U.S. embassy in Yaounde said relations between Cameroon and the U.S. remain strong despite the change in AGOA status.
It said that in 2018, Cameroon exported roughly $220 million in goods and services to the U.S.; $63 million of it under AGOA, over 90 percent of which was crude oil.
Frederrick Ekouda, visiting economic analyst at the Catholic University of Central Africa, said there is little dependence on the U.S. market.
America is not the only destination where Cameroon can sell its petroleum products, he said, adding that Cameroon also has economic partners in Brazil, China, South Korea and Russia.
But while the loss of AGOA status may not have an immediate impact on Cameroon's economy, it would be a black mark on the country's record, according to rights groups.
Roger Essoh of the Center for the Protection of People Traumatized by Conflicts (CEPPTC) said that stigma could deter other nations from offering Cameroon such trade deals.
Cameroon willfully committed itself to respect the terms of AGOA, Essoh said, and it is imperative for President Paul Biya to fix the human rights record instead of allowing his country to continue to sink economically.
Trump's message to Congress said despite intensive engagement between the U.S. and Cameroon, Yaounde had failed to address persistent human rights violations by security forces. The allegations included extrajudicial killings, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and torture.
Cameroon's government has denied frequent accusations of rights abuses in its fight against Anglophone separatists and Boko Haram militants.
Government spokesperson Rene Emmanuel Sadi said U.S. claims of gross violations are unfounded.
Cameroon's military forces respect all human rights norms, he said, adding that they are restoring order and protecting Cameroon's territorial integrity and the lives and properties of its people.
But rights groups point out evidence of abuses by both Cameroon's military and the militants they are fighting.
Cameroon's five-year fight against Boko Haram insurgents has left more than 27,000 people dead and two million displaced.
Since 2017, Yaounde's conflict with Anglophone separatists has killed about 3,000 people.