- 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

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

AGOA extension crucial for Ghana’s industrialisation

The Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Nana Ama Dokua Asiamah-Adjei is supporting the push for the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to enhance trade between Ghana and the US. A United States Trade Act enacted on 18 May 2000 as Public Law 106 of the 200th Congress, the AGOA legislation has been renewed on different occasions, most recently in 2015, when its period of validity was extended to September 2025. The...

06 November 2023

US-Africa program (AGOA) should be extended through 2041, Senate Democrat says, proposes legislation [Download]

A trade program that grants exports from qualifying African countries duty-free access to the U.S. market should be extended by 16 years, said Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a leading voice on U.S.-Africa policy. Talks are underway for the renewal of the two-decade-old African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which is due to expire in 2025. African countries want a 10-year renewal of the pact ahead of the 2024 U.S. election. President Joe...

06 November 2023

AGOA benefits extend beyond trade [incl. VIDEO of Friday's opening session]

Economies in Sub-Saharan countries stand to benefit far more from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) than notable trade statistics, says President Cyril Ramaphosa. “AGOA enhances the diversification of African economies, enabling them to export value-added products. By enabling African countries to have preferential access to the US market, this opportunity incentivises African countries to develop and export value-added goods...

06 November 2023

Protection likely for African countries that outgrow AGOA

The improved agreement of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), due to expire in 2025, is likely to have fewer requirements for graduation from the programme to avoid beneficiaries losing out on the lucrative commercial ties with the US, says a top Washington diplomat. The legislation, which was enacted in 2000 and allows Sub-Saharan African countries preferential access to US markets, requires that beneficiaries be graduated out of...

06 November 2023

Uganda criticises US plan to exclude it from duty-free trade programme

Uganda on Wednesday criticised a US move to eject it and other African countries from accessing a tariff-free trade programme, saying the action was to punish African countries that are resisting the imposition of the West's cultural values. US President Joe Biden said on Monday that he intended to end the participation of Uganda, Gabon, Niger and the Central African Republic in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade...

05 November 2023

Beyond 2025: The AGOA summit’s bid for extended economic ties on the continent

The recent AGOA summit in Johannesburg beckoned calls for its extension beyond September 2025. With a backdrop of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict and US-Africa relations at a delicate juncture, the summit explored the potential reshaping of trade norms, eyeing a more balanced economic relationship. The annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) summit was held in Johannesburg, South Africa last week, amidst landmark changes, with...

05 November 2023

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