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Establishing the Link: How Human Rights Preservation Impacts AGOA Eligibility

Milkee Bekele Headshot

Africa’s collaboration with the United States has been important to underpinning Africa’s growing importance in the ever-expanding global trade network. Since 2000, the cornerstone of US-Africa trade and investment has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Leading up to the 20th AGOA Forum in November 2023, President Biden announced US decisions to terminate AGOA preferences for Uganda, Gabon, Niger, and the Central African Republic (CAR). With myriad human rights violations in these four countries mounting further, their expulsions marked the removal of accountability measures that might have sustained economic security, harming the people AGOA is intended to help, and pushing these countries to seek economic help from harmful actors like Russia’s Wagner Group. 

President Biden stated that he took these decisions due to the “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and “failed establishment of the rule of law” in these countries.  His decisions follow coups in Niger and Gabon, a worsening humanitarian crisis in CAR, and an anti-LGBT law passed in Uganda earlier in 2023.

Through AGOA eligibility, 35 African countries enjoy duty free access to the US market for 6,800 tariff lines and unwarranted access to 1,800 duty-free products. These preferences support thousands of jobs in Africa and the United States. But to maintain their AGOA eligibility, African countries must support the protection of human rights and democracy as well as meet other criteria. These privileges thus create a marriage of sorts between economic security, democracy, and human rights.  The terminations of AGOA preferences for Uganda, Niger, Gabon, and CAR were intended to uphold this relationship.

Understanding the role that Uganda, Niger, Gabon, and CAR have in Africa’s economic growth is crucial to appreciating the significance of the US decision to terminate their AGOA preferences. Among those expelled from AGOA, US government data indicates that CAR will be the least impacted due to its meager exports to the US, just $881,000 in 2022. Data also shows that during that same 2022 period, US exports amounted to $220m, $73m, and $174m in Gabon, Niger, and Uganda respectively.

Since Uganda first enjoyed AGOA privileges in 2000, it has earned approximately $10m annually through apparel exports, and most recently in 2022, Uganda’s earnings from textile exports grew from $7.7m to $9.1m. Although its export market is not heavily dependent on the US and Uganda’s AGOA expulsion will have a marginal impact on its economy, it does directly impact the livelihoods of thousands of cotton, coffee, and vanilla traders that have been at the heart of the trade program.


Ongoing Violations Leading to AGOA Expulsion 

The countless human rights violations that have been perpetrated under Uganda’s anti-LGBT law, as well as the arrests and abuses conducted by armed forces and rebel groups in CAR, underscore the important link between the preservation of human rights and economic security in Africa.

Uganda’s anti-LGBT law was roundly condemned by President Biden following increasing reports of violence and discrimination against those perceived to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Biden asserted that the new law “jeopardizes the prospects of critical economic growth for the entire country”. Various officials have intimated that Uganda has no immediate plans for regaining duty-free access to the US market, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni even stating publicly that, "as far as Uganda is concerned, we have the capacity to achieve our growth and transformation targets, even if some of the actors do not support us."

Unlike Uganda, CAR lost its AGOA preferences in 2003 and had them reinstated in 2016. The country’s prior long absence from the AGOA club perhaps foreshadows a similar lengthy period before CAR receives such US preferential treatment again. 

Factional infighting in CAR has impacted 60% of its population. Additionally, Yoa Agbeste, a UN independent expert on CAR for the human rights division of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA), has documented 483 human rights and humanitarian law violations that affected 1,300 civilians in CAR. “Government forces were responsible for arbitrary arrests and detentions, violations of the right to life, physical and mental integrity, and abuses at roadblocks,” said Agbetse.


Direction of Termination

The ongoing humanitarian and human rights crises occurring in Gabon, Niger, and CAR has opened their civilian populations to a multitude of political and economic threats that may now be worsened by their AGOA expulsions.

As of 2022, prior to the coup in August, Gabon’s previous President Ali Bongo Ondimba had been adamant about his desire to implement political and economic reforms in one of the sub-region's highest per capita income countries. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rates increased, with 12,500 Gabonese losing their jobs. Despite the country’s high per capita income, income inequality in Gabon remains a significant problem, one that is especially harming to the livelihoods of those employed in the oil and gold industries.

In a peacebuilding context, US presence in Niger and Gabon remains deeply contentious as junta leaders’ rhetoric continues to exploit anti-France, anti-UN, and anti-US sentiments.  Within this context of rising bilateral tensions, Russian elements, such as the Wagner Group, have positioned themselves well visa-a-vis the armed forces in the Sahel region. In CAR, Russian’s paramilitary forces are actively engaged with the Central African Armed Forces, perpetrating numerous human rights violations and inhumane treatment of the civilian population and state officials. 

A cornerstone of the AGOA act is to ensure that African nations grow their economies, but it is also a tool to reduce poverty. Now more than ever, AGOA can be a valuable tool for economic security and for civilians to fight against other forces of insecurity and violence cultivated internally and externally. With deep socio-economic vulnerability, CAR has used its natural resources to pay for Russian support. Niger, a country with a similar socio-economic position and growing Russian presence, may also strike a similar bargain. 

Now more than ever, AGOA can be a valuable tool for economic security and for civilians to fight against other forces of insecurity and violence cultivated internally and externally. "

AGOA Relevance in Ailing Turbulence 

There is no doubt that AGOA expulsion results in significant increases in unemployment rates, as seen in 2022 after 100,000 people lost their jobs when Ethiopia was expelled from AGOA. The US must reexamine its AGOA review process to include civil society organizations and input from the laborers that AGOA relies on. This would ensure a localized effort to sustain human rights conditionalities of AGOA. Additionally, AGOA should implement a series of response mechanisms to violations that remove expulsion as a first and final step. Instead AGOA should provide a multi-level approach that seeks to tackle the economic and peacebuilding infrastructures that initially led to the violation of the AGOA human rights conditionalities. 

It is crucial to contextualize the impacts of AGOA on a national level, so that AGOA decision makers avoid harming those most impacted by political turbulence. AGOA is a tool through which local populations and those enduring human rights abuses can gain economic leverage to push back against military aggression and the undermining of human rights. 

As noted by Witney Schneidman, a former deputy assistant US Secretary of State of African Affairs, “when a country is denied AGOA benefits, it hurts the very people the US wants to help and does little to penalize those responsible for the decisions that lead to coups, conflicts or human rights abuses.” 

Milkee Bekele was a Staff Intern with the Stafford Capacity Building Internship at the Wilson Center Africa Program for the Fall 2023 term. She is currently a senior at Macalester College studying International Studies and Anthropology. 

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Milkee Bekele Headshot

Milkee Bekele

Former Staff Assistant Intern
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more