JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The extension of the U.S. program allowing sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to U.S. markets is expected to be high on the agenda of the U.S. Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade forum that will begin in South Africa on Thursday.
Officials including U.S. trade representative Ambassador Katherine Tai and deputy assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Joy Basu will meet African leaders and officials in Johannesburg over the next three days to discuss, among other issues, the possible extension of AGOA and ways to improve its benefits for African nations.
The forum kicks off days after U.S. President Joe Biden announced his intention to boot Niger, Uganda, Central African Republic and Gabon off the list of beneficiaries as they have failed to comply with the eligibility criteria.
AGOA is U.S. legislation that allows sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to the U.S. market provided they meet certain conditions, including adherence to the rule of law and the protection of human rights.
It was last extended in 2015 for a 10-year period and will expire in September 2025, with a decision of its possible extension reliant on U.S. Congress.
“We absolutely expect African countries benefitting from AGOA to push for its extension, because they have seen real benefits, even though some have benefitted more than others,” said professor John Stremlau, an international relations expert.
He said that AGOA was particularly important as it was supported by both Republicans and Democrats to encourage economic development in Africa.
South Africa’s trade minister, Ebrahim Patel, told lawmakers in his country last week that they would lobby for the extension of AGOA, citing massive benefits to the country’s businesses exporting to the U.S.
South Africa is one of the biggest beneficiaries of AGOA, with exports to the U.S. through the act estimated at $3 billion in 2022.
Biden said in a letter addressed to members of U.S. Congress that despite intensive engagements with Niger, Uganda, Central African Republic and Gabon, they hadn’t addressed U.S. concerns “about their noncompliance with the AGOA eligibility criteria.”
He said that Niger and Gabon had failed to establish or make continual progress toward the protection of political pluralism and the rule of law, while citing the Central African Republic and Uganda as having committed gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.
The U.S. government recently suspended most financial assistance to Gabon after a military coup earlier this year.
In May, Biden threatened to remove Uganda from AGOA and impose sanctions following the passing of a controversial anti-gay law. That law, which allows the death penalty for some homosexual offenses, has widespread support at home, but has been condemned by rights campaigners and others.
In a tweet, Uganda’s government spokesman Ofwono Opondo appeared to dismiss the expected impact of Uganda’s AGOA delisting, saying that sanctions-hit Cuba and Iran “have offered more to the world than many African AGOA beneficiaries.”
But over the years, Ugandan officials, including longtime President Yoweri Museveni, have seen AGOA as a beneficial program, even if the country failed to fulfil its potential as a beneficiary.
South Africa’s own continued participation in AGOA came under scrutiny this year when U.S. lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties questioned its eligibility to participate in AGOA, citing allegations that it supplied Russia with arms amid its war with Ukraine.
They also called on the forum to be held in a different country to send a message to South Africa about the impact of its close ties to Moscow.
An inquiry appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa has since cleared South Africa of supplying Russia with arms. Ramaphosa is expected to address the forum on Friday.
Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.