Biden removes Uganda, Gabon, Niger and CAR from AGOA trade programme

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President Joe Biden has announced in a letter to Congress his intention to remove four African countries  – Uganda, Gabon, Niger and the Central African Republic (CAR) – from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) from 1 January 2024, citing their failure to “address United States concerns about their non-compliance with the AGOA eligibility criteria”.

AGOA is a preferential trade programme enacted by the US that gives eligible sub-Saharan African countries quota and duty-free access for specified goods, including textile and apparel for some. According to US government figures cited by the BBC, Ugandan exports to the US were worth $174m last year, while Gabon, Niger and the CAR recorded US exports of $220m, $73m and $881,000 respectively.

According to a 2022 report by the Office of the United States Trade Representative, AGOA has remained “a core element of the United States’ trade relationship with sub-Saharan Africa” and has “spurred economic growth and created tens of thousands of jobs across the continent.” The 20-year-old Act is due to expire in 2025, but lawmakers in both Houses of Congress have signalled a willingness to renew it.

Uganda expelled for human rights violations

Uganda is to be removed for what Biden describes as “gross violations of international human rights”. This follows the signing by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni on 30 May of the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. Under this law, “aggravated homosexuality”,  defined as engaging in sexual relations with HIV-positive people, children or other vulnerable people of the same gender, is punishable by death, while “promoting” homosexuality can incur a 20-year prison sentence.

President Biden immediately condemned the passing of the law as a “tragic violation of universal rights” and called for its immediate repeal but President Museveni has steadfastly defended his signing of the act, stating at the beginning of June that “the signing is finished, nobody will move us.”

Later in the same month, Museveni declared that “homosexuals” in the US were already “interfering” with Uganda’s exports of textiles, and suggested that a ban on the import of secondhand clothing would more than make up for lost revenues.

“The money you have been squandering with the second-hand clothes, importing other people’s fabrics, is much more than what we are going to earn from the sales to the US,” he told an audience in Kampala.

Niger, Gabon and CAR also removed

Niger and Gabon are also removed for what the president describes as not having established or not making continued progress towards establishing the “protection of political pluralism and the rule of law”.

Both countries have experienced military takeovers this year. In Niger, democratically-elected President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown in July by a junta whose relations with the US and former colonial power France have been strained. In Gabon, the long rule of the Bongo family came to an end in August when military officers calling themselves the Committee for Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) seized power.

The CAR is removed for what the president’s letter describes as “ gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and failure to establish or make progress towards “the protection of internationally recognized worker rights, the rule of law, and political pluralism.”

Other countries that have had their AGOA beneficiary status removed in recent years include Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, while others such as Zimbabwe have never been eligible. In May, fears were raised that South Africa, the continent’s top exporter to the US, might run foul of AGOA, after allegations that Pretoria had supplied arms to Russia but diplomatic tensions later subsided.

The US president said in his letter to Congress that he will continue to assess whether the four countries slated for expulsion meet the eligibility criteria.