Why Cameroon pays a civil-rights star

Yaounde from the slope of Mt. Febe

By Stuart White and Agnes Taile

On April 27, 2010, Bibi Ngota died in Kondengui prison in the tiny West African nation of Cameroon.  According to prison documents made public by his family, Ngota perished because of “abandonment, improper care,” by prison authorities, and “failure to render assistance.”

Ngota wasn’t a career criminal. He was a journalist, the editorial director of the publication Cameroon Express. He was imprisoned for investigating alleged corruption involving Laurent Esso, a high-ranking politician who serves as both secretary general of the president’s office and chairman of the state-run oil company.

Ngota’s death was one of many reported instances of human rights abuses in Cameroon over the 27 years it has been ruled by the same man. But the death of the prominent journalist was widely reported, and drew criticism anew for Cameroon’s harsh regime. Less than two months after Ngota’s death, Cameroon moved decisively to burnish its tattered international image. The government hired a public relations specialist. But not just any public relations specialist. Cameroon hired the Atlanta-based lobbying firm GoodWorks International for the job of “developing a roadmap” to improving US relations. GoodWorks International’s executives include former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, once a close aide to Martin Luther King.

Cameroon’s international reputation is at stake, and so are millions of dollars in US foreign aid.

GoodWorks stated in government filings that its main focus is to press the U.S. State Department’s Millennium Challenge Corporation for foreign aid dollars. The corporation awards funds to struggling countries with the aim of promoting development and reducing poverty. The program promises to decide which nations get millions of dollars in international aid based not on connections and favoritism, but objective measures.

Cameroon’s international reputation is at stake, and so are millions of dollars in US foreign aid

It gauges democratic reforms, education, public health initiatives, human rights and corruption. The agency assigns numbers for each factor, then calculates a final grade. The aim is to award aid to deserving nations.

Cameroon reported paying $350,000 so far, but after one year the effort has done little to help, according to newly released country scorecards from the State Department.

Despite modest gains in some categories, Cameroon failed in two of the three categories of indicators and actually scored worse in multiple sectors, representing an overall decline, especially in the key category of “ruling justly.”

The Millennium Challenge Corporation has not changed its stance. Cameroon is still not getting aid under the program.

Cameroon is a nation ruled by the same president since 1982, and last month reelected him despite claims of voting irregularities. Facing State Department criteria for selection, Cameroon is deemed deficient because of .corruption and lack of good governance

Critics, like Dr. Melvin Ayogu, of the advocacy group Africa Growth Initiative, consider the Cameroon government a “sham.”

“The independent electoral commission is not independent,” said Ayogu.  “And the people will sell their votes for money because they are hungry and they’re so poor.”

GoodWorks—along with Andrew Young, who founded the lobbying and PR group—has a history of representing governments and corporations with reputations for corruption and troubling human rights records.

GoodWorks represented the government of Rwanda in 2005, shortly after the Second Congo War—arguably a byproduct of the Rwandan civil war and subsequent genocide—in an effort to “enhance Rwanda’s public image,” in the eyes of both the US government and the American business community.

Young was also hired by Nike in the wake of its child labor scandal in the late 1990s.  Young visited Nike factories in Asia and compiled a report stating that though Nike “can and should do better,” there was no widespread mistreatment of workers, and that Nike was doing “a good job in the application of its code of conduct” despite reports to the contrary from NGOs.

According to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, there is no application process for partnerships.  Rather, it selects recipients based not only on its qualifications, but also the chances the aid will reduce poverty.

Countries that are close, but do not yet qualify for a full support may be selected to enter into what is known as a “threshold program,” a stepping stone to a full, continued financial aid.

According to the corporation, petitions from recipient governments—and their representatives—have no bearing on the selection process.

Nonetheless, in November of last year, GoodWorks arranged a meeting between a visiting delegation from the Cameroonian government and the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s director of threshold programs.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation denied having been contacted by GoodWorks, but said that meetings with governmental delegations are common, saying that it would be nearly impossible to pinpoint any particular meeting.

“This is not paradise, but it is not hell either”

The Cameroon government acknowledges hiring GoodWorks, calling it part of an ongoing process to not only improve its image, but its government.  According to Jean Atangana, head of the communications unit of Cameroon’s Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development, lobbying is warranted when the statistics do not reflect the reality.

“This is not paradise, but it is not hell either,” said Atangana through a translator.  “When they describe Cameroon, you wonder if it is the same country you live in.”

According to Atangana, it’s the State Department’s sometimes “ideological” interpretation of statistics that’s detrimental to Cameroon’s chances.

“Is the glass half full or half empty?” asked Atangana, describing the statistical analyses.  “It depends on what you want to convey as a message.  If I want to show that there are efforts, I say the glass if half full.  If it is to show that there is no effort, I’m going to say the class is half empty.  So the field of interpretation, I think, is just free.”

GoodWorks has also been criticized in the past for its involvement in African business deals, particularly in Nigeria.  GoodWorks associate Carl Masters was accused of brokering a deal between Nigeria and Jamaica in which the former sold 15,000 barrels of crude oil per day to the latter at $12 per barrel, less than three times the market price at the time.

GoodWorks was alleged to have received 15 percent of the revenues from the deal, while then president Olusegun Obasanjo received 20 percent.  Jamaica then traded the oil on the open market, earning a profit in the process.

Femi Falana, president of the West African Bar Association, was a critic of Young’s dealings in Nigeria.  According to him, Young knew of corruption in the Obasanjo administration, and that several of the deals were in violation of Nigerian law.

“The way you are supposed to get a contract from the government, you are supposed to pass through due diligence,” said Falana in a telephone interview from his office in Lagos.  “And that never happened for much of business that he did for the government.”

The money from these deals, Falana claims, never benefitted Nigerians directly, and as a result, Nigerians’ opinion of Young is quite low.

“They seem him as an opportunist, one of those black guys in the United States who comes around taking advantage of their color to cheat our people,” said Falana.  “And even when they know the government engages in corruption, they don’t use their influence to tell the government to behave properly.”

In the documents filed by GoodWorks with the Foreign Agents Registration Unit of the U.S. Department of Justice, the firm agreed to represent the interests of the Cameroon government to American businesses and investors.  In November of 2010, GoodWorks organized a luncheon for the business members of the Corporate Council on Africa and the same visiting Cameroon delegation that met with the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

During the same week, GoodWorks hosted an event at the Cameroon embassy in Washington, which was attended by the Cameroon delegation, along with several think tanks and NGOs, including some of the valuator agencies which supply the Millennium Challenge Corporation with the data it uses to score potential partner nations.

In May of 2011, GoodWorks produced an informational pamphlet based on the findings of a weeklong fact-finding trip to Cameroon.  In addition to citing a “top-down eagerness” for foreign investment, and listing Cameroon’s advancements in areas relevant to the MCC selection criteria, the pamphlet blamed, in part, a cultural aversion to bragging for Cameroon’s poor scores in several fields.

“Cameroon’s ambassador in Washington observed that in Bantu culture, it is considered boastful and arrogant to boast of one’s own achievements,” read the pamphlet, “though he agrees that Cameroon needs to do a better job of disseminating the facts.”

As of press time, GoodWorks International had not responded to requests for comment despite repeated requests.