After surviving nine months in prison for peacefully protesting against the results of the 2018 election, Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto travelled to Canada this week, hoping for support from a Liberal government that has always professed its allegiance to democracy and human rights.
But his hopes took a battering when he learned that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would instead be lobbying for votes from leaders at the African Union summit in Ethiopia this weekend.
Mr. Trudeau will be seeking votes from 54 African governments – many of which are authoritarian regimes – to boost Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. And this campaign is likely to encourage Mr. Trudeau to minimize his human-rights concerns, Mr. Kamto believes.
“If you’re campaigning to get votes from a government, it’s obvious that you can’t at the same time challenge such a government,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview Thursday.
“Honestly, we do have such a concern," said Mr. Kamto, who was released from prison in October. "When you go to somebody to campaign, which means you’re asking for something, the reciprocity could make you less vocal on human rights and democratic issues.”
Cameroon’s government, dominated by President Paul Biya for the past 38 years, has been criticized by human-rights groups for its authoritarian rule and the atrocities allegedly committed by its security forces, including the destruction of entire villages.
Amnesty International, in a report this week, said Cameroon’s military torched more than 50 homes and killed dozens of villagers in January alone. In total, an estimated 3,000 people have been killed and about 700,000 left homeless in the three-year conflict with regional separatists.
The latest reported atrocities are “heartbreaking,” Mr. Kamto said. He is leading an opposition boycott of Cameroon’s parliamentary election on Sunday.
Mr. Kamto had been hoping that Canada, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid and cancelled debt to Cameroon since the 1960s, would help tackle the regional conflict by proposing the Canadian federal system as a potential model for Cameroon.
He also wants the Trudeau government to look to the future by meeting Cameroon’s opposition leaders, rather than solely the representatives of a government led by the 86-year-old Mr. Biya.
But on a visit to Ottawa on Friday, Mr. Kamto was able to meet only with an official at Global Affairs, his aides said. This was in contrast to his visit last month to Washington, where he was able to meet a top-ranking official in the U.S. State Department and the head of a Congressional subcommittee on Africa.
On Thursday, as Mr. Trudeau departed on an eight-day visit to Ethiopia, Senegal and Germany, senior government officials insisted that the Prime Minister will not compromise on human-rights issues. But the officials, whose names The Globe is keeping confidential because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, would not disclose whether Mr. Trudeau would meet Cameroonian leaders at the African Union summit. They said most of Mr. Trudeau’s bilateral meetings were still being confirmed.
Mr. Kamto said he is skeptical of the federal assurances on human rights. “If the Cameroonian government gives its support to the Canadian government, I don’t see Canada being vocal on what’s happening in our country,” he said.
“It would be a great pity, because we rely on Canada to help us resolve the crises that we are facing in Cameroon.”
Chris Roberts, a political scientist and Africa specialist at the University of Calgary, said the Trudeau government seems to be “currying favour” with African leaders in the Security Council election campaign by avoiding any mention of “internal affairs” in countries such as Cameroon.
Thomas Kwasi Tieku, an associate professor and Canada-Africa relations expert at King’s University College in London, Ont., said Canada needs to be careful about which countries it appeals to for support in its Security Council bid. He said Canada should be wary about appearing too friendly with countries such as South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Togo and Uganda, because of their poor track records on governance, human rights and gender equality.
“It’s better for Canada to seek an Africa-wide consensus through the African Union than working with individual governments,” Prof. Tieku said.
He said Mr. Trudeau is taking the right approach in attending the African Union Summit, as the continent tends to vote along the same lines at the multilateral level. But he said the Prime Minister’s visit is probably too late if he hopes to secure solid support from African countries. Norway made a concerted effort to engage with African countries before Canada and has probably locked down many of the 54 member-state votes, putting Canada in a race for second with Ireland, he said.
There is also strategy in Mr. Trudeau’s visit to Senegal, Prof. Tieku said, since the francophone country has influence among its West African neighbours and other French-speaking countries on the continent.
Mr. Trudeau’s bid for African votes could be boosted by the celebrity power of Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who joined Mr. Trudeau on the trip to Ethiopia. He grew up in Nigeria and is well known across much of Africa.