Uganda kicked out of AGOA over anti-LGBT law
The United States has suspended Uganda – along with Niger, Gabon and the Central African Republic – from trading with it under the terms of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA).
In his notice to Congress about the suspension of Uganda, President Biden wrote that the country had engaged in a “gross violation of internationally-recognised human rights” and was thus no longer eligible to participate in the programme, as specified in section 104(3) of AGOA act.
The gross violation in question is the enactment by the Ugandan parliament, earlier this year, of a law that penalises same-sex and transgender relations with up to life in prison.
In 2022, Ugandan exporters sold US$12.3 million worth of goods to the United States through AGOA. This accounted for only 0.0055 percent of the country’s exports, which were valued at US$2.22 billion that year. The suspension is therefore unlikely to diminish Uganda’s overall export prospects. And the United States knows this. But it still went ahead to suspend the country.
Speaking to The New York Times, Susan Muhwezi, a trade advisor to President Museveni of Uganda, characterised the suspension itself as a violation of human rights, since it would impinge on the livelihoods of traders who had come to rely on the scheme, without redirecting Uganda’s sovereign legislative trajectory.
She was right. But she was barking up the wrong tree.
AGOA was enacted by the US Congress in 2000 as a means to enhance access to the American market for businesses based in Sub-Saharan Africa. By doing this, the American government ostensibly hoped to “promote stable and sustainable economic growth and development in sub-Saharan Africa.”
But that wasn’t AGOA’s only goal. It was also explicitly crafted as a tool to advance America’s interests on the continent. Hence the list of conditions, outlined in section 104 of the act, with which countries must comply to remain eligible to participate in the programme. Crucially, in its typical laziness, the lawmakers of the 200th Congress left enforcement to the discretion of the president.
And since it is up to the president to decide, the question of which country is eligible or not has tended to hinge more on the political leanings of the president than on the eligibility criteria themselves. The result has been a cartoonish cavalcade of African countries gaining and losing eligibility with a dizzying frequency. Some, like the DRC, The Gambia and Eswatini, have gone in and out so many times, their status at any given time doesn’t really mean anything.
But perhaps there is no better current example of this arbitrariness than South Africa, which exported US$3 billion worth of goods to the United States through AGOA last year, accounting for 20 percent of its exports to the United States, and a tenth of all African exports under the scheme (which amounted to US$30 billion in 2022).
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South Africa has remained the staunchest African ally of Russia since it invaded Ukraine last year, despite the United States being very unambiguously on the other side of that conflict. More recently, South Africa also recalled its embassy from Israel and conferred chummily with Hamas and Iran following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, despite the United States being, once again, on the other side.
These actions certainly “undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests,” and constitute sufficient grounds for South Africa disqualified from AGOA under section 104(2). In fact, this is a much clearer violation than a law in Uganda that is highly unlikely to ever yield convictions.
The Biden administration, however, not only didn’t suspend South Africa from the programme, but went ahead to hold the 2023 AGOA summit in Johannesburg last week.
It’s not that the South Africans lobbied harder than the Ugandans, but rather that the United States cannot afford to sour its relations with South Africa, the continent’s most developed economy; the Biden administration, in short, considers Uganda dispensable, but not South Africa.
Unfortunately, this approach is short-sighted. It sacrifices long-term relationship-building to a quixotic quest for ideological purity, while at the same time signalling that some countries can get away with violations that others can’t. It betrays a lack of seriousness that should hardly be witnessed among adults.
In the face of a stiff tussle with Russia and China for influence in Africa, the United States has recently taken great pains to portray itself as an equal partner to African countries. This year alone, senior American government officials have gallivanted across the continent, preaching this mantra at every turn.
The reality, however, is that the United States is having a hard time believing its own rhetoric. It might talk a big game about equality and partnership, but it still carries itself like a playground bully, ever eager to use its heft to push African countries around, just as it has always done.
The only complication is that the era when this approach worked is gone. Either America gets with the programme, or it might soon find itself without friends on a continent that is set to have 40 percent of the global population in this century.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
Image: Timothy Nkwasibwe/Pexels
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