- African Growth and Opportunity Act
TRALAC - Trade Law Centre
You are here: Home/News/Article/US faces tricky questions with African trade group

US faces tricky questions with African trade group

Published date:
Friday, 03 November 2023
John Eligon and Lynsey Chutel

As the United States seeks to deepen its relationships with African nations and counter the influence of rivals like Russia and China, it confronts a tricky question: How does it respond when countries do things that run afoul of Washington’s stated commitment to democracy and human rights?

That tension hung over a major trade conference between the U.S. and African countries that started in Johannesburg this week, after President Biden announced that he was suspending four nations from a critical trade program that aims to promote economic development in Africa.

One of the suspended countries, Uganda, which passed a law this year calling for life imprisonment for anyone who engages in gay sex, sent a delegation to the conference to argue for its reinstatement to the program, the African Growth and Opportunities Act, or AGOA. Mr. Biden wrote to Congress that Uganda had been removed because it “engaged in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Susan Muhwezi, a trade adviser to the Ugandan president, rejected that statement, describing Uganda as “an island of peace.”

“If we are supposed to be friends, to trade with each other,” she said in an interview at the conference, “I think there are better ways of expressing your concerns than saying, ‘I’m the boss and I have to punch you.’” She added that removing Uganda from the program would damage the livelihoods of traders of cotton, coffee, vanilla and other goods that accounted for the $12.3 million in exports that the East African nation made through the U.S. trade program last year.

“Isn’t it also a violation of human rights in a different way?” she said, referring to the U.S. decision to suspend Uganda from the program.

Once the suspensions take effect on Jan. 1, there will be 31 countries participating in the trade program. It was signed into law in 2000 and is open to nations in sub-Saharan Africa, allowing them to export certain goods to the U.S. without having to pay duties. Last year, the U.S. took in about $30 billion worth of goods through AGOA. [ note: US imports from AGOA beneficiary countries were worth $30b in 2022, the share of AGOA-eligible trade within this amounted to $10.2b. Most of the remaining trade was duty-free under general trade terms]

The tension between promoting democracy and human rights, on one hand, and maintaining influence abroad is hardly a new one for the U.S. It is very much alive in Africa today with the competition between the U.S., Russia and China, where Moscow and Beijing promise aid and security without strings. But for the U.S., the campaign to promote democracy is, among other things, an essential selling point for a domestic audience that has grown increasingly isolationist in recent years.

Gabon and Niger were suspended by Mr. Biden in the aftermath of coups that ran afoul of the trade program’s eligibility requirements. The president of the Central African Republic, which was also suspended, pushed through a measure this year to scrap presidential term limits. Wagner, the Russian mercenary group, runs the country’s security.

To maintain eligibility in the program, countries must adhere to certain conditions, including supporting democracy, protecting human rights and not acting against U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.

They can be suspended for committing “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” or supporting terrorism and efforts to eliminate human rights. Enforcing these requirements comes with difficult calculations for the United States.

The Biden administration has stressed the importance of engaging African nations as equals. But in taking punitive actions, Washington risks being seen as lecturing or trying to impose its values on countries that have a painful and not-too-distant experience of colonial rule.

While these suspensions were the result of violations that the White House found to be egregious, Biden administration officials say they are trying to be sensitive to these concerns. Judd Devermont, a top adviser to the White House on African affairs, said the administration has prioritized “injecting some more complexity in our relationships” in Africa and accepting that it will disagree with countries on some issues.

“When we have differences, we should lean in and talk about them,” he said. “By the way, that’s what we do with other countries in other regions of the world.”

Even some American lawmakers have argued that the U.S. needs to be cautious in revoking privileges from African countries that may violate the standards it has set. Doing so, they argue, could end up punishing ordinary people for the actions of their governments, and it could cause African nations on the continent to drift toward rival countries that would result in an even greater threat to American interests.

Other than “egregious violations of principle or undermining core American interests,” it is important to keep countries in the trade program for “the entrepreneurs and small business people in the country as well as for the overall relationship,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland.

At the same time, the Biden administration is facing pressure from lawmakers, particularly Republicans, to scrutinize the nations that benefit from AGOA even more closely.

They point to the host nation of the conference, South Africa, which just six months ago was in a tense standoff with Washington over allegations made by the U.S. ambassador that South Africa provided weapons to Russia for the Ukraine war.

Republican senators James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Tim Scott of South Carolina released separate statements this week criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to proceed with the conference in South Africa while the issues around South Africa’s support of Russia remain unresolved.

They also criticized South Africa’s response to the war in Gaza, noting that South Africa’s foreign minister spoke with the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, on the phone and visited Iran, where she met with President Ebrahim Raisi. Hamas, which controls Gaza and orchestrated the attack on Israel on Oct. 7, is a proxy of Iran.

“The administration’s decision to host the AGOA forum in South Africa and maintain South Africa’s eligibility for AGOA benefits in 2024 compromises the program’s integrity and our trade preferences,” Mr. Risch wrote.

The trade program is set to expire in 2025, when Congress must decide whether to reauthorize it. While Mr. Risch said he supported its renewal, he suggested that lawmakers might demand significant changes to the program, which could lead to a difficult reauthorization process.

The White House likely concluded that whatever sins South Africa may have committed, imploding the relationship over them wasn’t worth it, several analysts said in recent interviews.

South Africa is the largest beneficiary of the trade pact, with $3 billion in exports last year. It is one of the continent’s most advanced economies, and the U.S. sees it as an important ally with influence over other African nations.

South Africa has mediated peace efforts in several conflicts across Africa, helping to create a stability that the U.S. sees as vital to its own interests, in part because it can prevent the spread of extremist groups.

Teddy Ruge, a business owner from Uganda, was on a plane on his way to Johannesburg when Mr. Biden announced the suspensions. Mr. Ruge is the founder of Raintree Farms, which exports to the U.S. moringa, a plant-based powder that is used in many health products.

Sitting at the conference behind a booth draped in the Ugandan flag, he said he felt embarrassed that everyone was staring at them as if they were “the bad child.”

Read related news articles

US apparel and footwear industry supports 16 year AGOA renewal

The American Apparel & Footwear Association applauds Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator James Risch (R-ID) for introducing the AGOA Renewal and Improvement Act of 2024.Currently set to expire in September 2025, AGOA is a pivotal trade preference program that provides duty-free access to the U.S. market, fostering economic growth and opportunity between the U.S. and eligible African countries. This program is the cornerstone of...

11 April 2024

US senators will introduce bill to renew Africa trade pact through 2041

A bipartisan group of senators will introduce a bill to renew the United States' trade pact with sub-Saharan Africa ahead of its expiration next year, an aide to one of the senators said on Thursday. The bill was introduced by Senators Chris Coons, a Democrat, and James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A cross-party group of senators - Dick Durbin, Michael Bennet, Chris van Hollen, Todd Young and Mike...

11 April 2024

US manufacturing subsidies for Africa could help revive AGOA

Experts at the Center for Global Development argue that the unconventional approach could bring billions in new trade opportunities and would fit with US “friend-shoring” efforts. The US should pay ‘negative tariffs’ in Africa – essentially targeted manufacturing subsidies – to help revive its faltering African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), according to a new report from the Washington-based Center for Global...

05 April 2024

US and African civil society stakeholders seek AGOA extension

A Civil Society Organisation, Network and other stakeholders from across the United States and African Growth and Opportunity Act-eligible countries have petitioned the President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, to consider an extension of the initiative. The CSO made the plea in a letter dated February 16, 2024, titled ‘Petition for Timely Re-Authorisation and Enhancement of the African Growth and Opportunity Act Beyond...

16 February 2024

House Ways and Means Committee leadership statement on meeting with ambassadors from select AGOA countries

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith (MO-08) and Ranking Member Richard E. Neal (MA-01) released the following statement after hosting a bipartisan roundtable with Committee members and ambassadors from several African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) countries. AGOA is a U.S. trade program focused on strengthening economic ties between the United States and nations in Sub-Saharan Africa. “We appreciate the ambassadors from...

18 January 2024

WEF - How has AGOA benefited African countries?

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a trade agreement between the United States and sub-Saharan African countries. Agoa has helped to increase trade and investment between Africa and the US. It has also helped to create jobs and boost economic growth in Africa. African countries are calling for it to be extended. To what extent has the AGOA goal been achieved? The duty- and quota-free access to the US market granted by Agoa...

16 November 2023

South Africa’s AGOA forum: Crafting future pathways for US-Africa trade partnership

Ultimately the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) could be extended by 16 years, that means until 2041, indicating its importance for strengthening Africa’s trade and economic cooperation with United States. That was, in fact, the main focus during Johannesburg’s early November forum that brought together more than 30 trade ministers, astute investors plus representatives from the regional economic blocs and the African Union. At...

14 November 2023

Africa-US trade: AGOA expires in 2025 - what has it achieved in 23 years?

African governments are seeking an extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) beyond 2025. The law was enacted in 2000 to “encourage increased trade and investment between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa”. We asked David Luke, who specialises in African trade policy and trade negotiations, what benefits Agoa has brought for qualifying African countries and how it can...

12 November 2023

Exploring synergies between AGOA and AfCFTA: The case for African exports

Africa is often characterised as a continent poised for economic growth and development. Often, prosperity and development in Africa can be linked back to exports and the benefits that they generate. This brings to the forefront the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and its role in opening American markets to 35 African countries, as well as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which aims to increase socio-economic...

09 November 2023

African and US trade unions call for decent work in trade and economic cooperation

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2-4 November, to strategize ways to strengthen an inclusive trading partnership between the US and 35 eligible African countries.  AGOA is a US law which was signed in 2000 aimed at creating duty free access for eligible African countries to the US markets. Eligibility criteria includes adopting market-based economies, the rule of law, political...

09 November 2023

US Senator Chris Coons proposes AGOA extension by 16 years, immediate review of SA’s AGOA eligibility

Powerful US Democratic Party Senator Chris Coons is circulating a discussion draft of a Bill to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) for 16 years that would also require an immediate “out-of-cycle” review of South Africa’s eligibility for Agoa. That could lead to South Africa being removed next year from the programme, which has provided considerable benefits to SA exporters to the US of cars, fruits and wine, in...

07 November 2023

You are here: Home/News/Article/US faces tricky questions with African trade group