YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - In Cameroon, a new trade deal with the European Union is stirring up controversy. Other Central African states have refused to ratify the agreement, saying it was neither fair nor balanced.
Civil society activist Emmanuel Mbami addressed a small crowd gathered near Cameroon's Ministry of Finance Thursday, protesting the new trade deal.
Mbami said Cameroonian President Paul Biya was motivated by his desire to stay in office. He said Biya was afraid if he didn't sign the deal, he would lose the support of European leaders. Biya, he added, has shown Cameroon to be shameless state that would betray the other countries in the region.
In late July, leaders in the Central African bloc CEMAC met in Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea, and decided not to sign the proposed trade agreement. But then, on August 4, Cameroon ratified the agreement on its own.
‘Trade balance will not be there’
Lawmaker Njong Evaristus says Cameroon was wrong because the agreement favors Europe.
"We are tilting towards the Asian countries, China and the rest, and if you have to clear the custom duties for European goods, it is going to affect us so much because, first, our budget depends on the custom duties," Evaristus said. "We are a third-world country. We don't have developed industries that are up to a level that they can compete with the industries from Europe. In that case, you cannot balance the economy since we are a country that is dealing with agricultural products and the rest, and they are dealing with goods which are already finalized goods. The trade balance will not be there."
The European Union is Cameroon’s top trade partner, accounting for 35 percent of imports. The Economic Partnership Agreement, or EPA, removes customs duties on imports from the EU.
The EU argues that the agreement is favorable to developing nations as it also allows countries to export goods to the EU without tariffs or maximum quotas under World Trade Organization rules.
EU claims ‘development agreement’
Francoise Collet, head of the EU delegation to Cameroon, says the country will benefit from the deal.
"It will be a safer environment for trade, and for expanding trade between our regions but also for expanding trade within the regions. That’s one of our hopes," Collet said. "It is not only a trade agreement, it is also a development agreement. That is the aim of the EPA everywhere in the world and including Cameroon."
African countries had until October 2014 to ratify the EPA, without which preferential treatment being given to their exports to European markets were to be suspended. Central African nations were able to get the deadline extended to August 1, 2016.
Cameroon’s former minister of economy and current minister of public works, Emmanuel Nganou Ndjoumessi, is part of the negotiating team. He told VOA they saw no reason to disrespect their commitment.
"We are ratifying [the deal] in order to continue selling our goods in this market without paying customs duties. Cameroon has to respect its international engagements," he said. "We have been selling to the European Union without paying custom fees, consequently, we could easily sell our banana, our chocolates, our beans and so on."
The five other CEMAC countries which refused to sign on to the deal are Gabon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea.
At its last meeting, CEMAC asked Gabonese President Ali Bongo to meet with President Biya to discuss the matter.