The Government of Cameroon may hold the ignominious distinction of having the record for the most lobbying contracts terminated in recent memory. Over the past two years, no less than four different public relations and lobby firms, based in Washington, DC, have dropped the government as their client.
It is no secret that the shady world of whitewashers willing to work for corrupt authoritarians is a lucrative one. Those inclined to prioritize profit over principle are legion, especially in Washington. The de facto one-party dictatorship in Cameroon, ruled by President Paul Biya since 1982, is no different. What is unusual, however, is the growing number of firms that are unwilling or otherwise unable to continue working on its behalf.
The latest example came last month when Clout Public Affairs – a division of Axiom Strategies, a Republican consulting outfit – officially terminated its agreement with Cameroon. For $55,000 a month, the firm was tasked with “promoting the positive and favorable image of Cameroon,” including “placing targeted op-eds in conservative-oriented outlets.” Surely, this was no small feat given the country’s troubling descent into arguably the most neglected humanitarian disaster on the planet – one that has conservatively displaced more than 600,000 people – and a simmering post-election crisis that dates back to October 2018.
One year prior to Clout dropping Cameroon, another well-known lobby shop, Glover Park Group, terminated its own $600,000 deal with the government. And this severing of ties came on the heels of yet another, Mercury Public Affairs, doing the same in August 2018. This latter deal was a 12-month contract that included an eye-popping $100,000 in monthly payments.
One interesting case is that of Squire Patton Boggs, the longest tenured lobbyist on record for the Biya dictatorship – a relationship that spans several decades. Their $400,000 a year agreement was terminated in late 2017. Interestingly, however, the firm re-engaged several months later, in July 2018. According to public filings with the U.S. Department of Justice, this agreement remains on the books to this day (though it is unclear what services are being offered by the firm, which has a long history of varnishing horribly repressive regimes, from the Guatemalan dictatorship in the 1990’s all the way to modern-day China).
In total, Cameroon’s government has spent at least $940,000 on lobbying and PR work in the U.S. since the start of 2017. According to researchers at the Center for Responsive Politics, this puts Cameroon 10th among African countries in terms of expenditures to U.S.-based firms during this timeframe. This is a truly staggering sum of money for a country that consistently ranks among the most destitute in the world and near the bottom of every conceivable global development survey, including the U.N. Human Development Index.
As Maurice Kamto, Cameroon’s most popular opposition leader, recently told me: “These public funds should have been used for the attainment of Cameroon’s basic needs, including in the areas of health-care and education. Instead, millions of dollars have been diverted for the selfish promotion of Mr. Biya, an individual who has overseen the meticulous destruction of Cameroon for four decades.”
Despite these massively expensive and rather shameful PR efforts, Cameroon’s image in Washington has undoubtedly declined. Last year, for example, the Trump administration suspended $17 million of military aid and withdrew an offer for Cameroon to be a candidate for the State Partnership Program, which links 81 nations around the world with the U.S. armed forces. Most recently, in late 2019, the Trump administration revoked Cameroon’s status as an African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) country “due to persistent gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
Despite the failures of dictators like Paul Biya, including their disregard for the welfare of their own citizens – not to mention their evident lack of spending priorities – there will never be a shortage of speculators willing to profit off of misery. Choosing to pocket the money of corrupt autocrats has long been a staple in Washington, and that is unlikely to end anytime soon. Nevertheless, as Maurice Kamto said to me: “No lobbyist in the world can erase the failures of Paul Biya, or those like him.” He is correct. It is therefore up to us, those who care about human rights and accountability, to stand up and to call out these shameless profiteers and their shameful clients — regardless of how powerful they might appear to be on paper.
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