/ 31 October 2023

US Congress members bail on Agoa to avoid government shutdown at home

U.s. Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue Held At The Department Of State
The US delegation will still be led by the country’s trade representative, Katherine Tai, supported by congressional staffers and other bureaucrats. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Members of the United States congress scheduled to attend the 20th African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) forum — which starts in Johannesburg on Thursday — won’t participate in the crucial trade talks.

Diplomatic and South African government sources confirmed on Tuesday that congress members will instead stay at home for critical negotiations and voting regarding spending bills to try to avoid a US government shutdown on 17 November.

The US delegation will still be led by the country’s trade representative, Katherine Tai,  supported by congressional staffers and other bureaucrats.

Agoa, introduced under the Clinton administration, provides sub-Saharan African states with preferential trade opportunities with the US by exempting them from import duties.

South Africa is hosting the 2023 Agoa summit at a time when its continued participation is up for debate, with the US arguing that the country’s economy is developed to a point where the exemption should no longer apply.

Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for South Africa’s department of international relations and cooperation, confirmed that the members of congress would not attend.

“We have been officially informed that the congress delegation will not travel due to the voting programme in congress,” Monyela said. “Congress staffers will attend the Agoa forum in addition to the other members of the senior US government delegation.”

A South African government source said the absence of the members of congress would not affect the talks, which are hosted by Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel.

“This is not a snub. The process will continue as planned. Katherine Tai, who is extremely senior, will still lead the US delegation,” the source said.

A diplomatic source said the withdrawal by the members of congress was not about Agoa, but about the US’s domestic political issues.

“Business in the house was shut down for several weeks while the Republicans selected a speaker. Now they are full steam ahead to pass a number of government funding bills to avoid a shutdown,” the source said.

“This has nothing to do with Agoa or other foreign policy matters — it is just that every single member is needed in Washington for critical negotiations and votes,” the source said.

The Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda, Gabon and Niger are set to lose their Agoa membership.

US president Joe Biden on Tuesday gave notice to congress of his intention to “terminate the designation” of the four states as “they do not meet the eligibility criteria of section 104 of Agoa”.

Biden said he was taking the step as the CAR government had participated in “gross violations” of international human rights protocols, and had shown no intention of movement towards political pluralism, worker rights or the rule of law.

Niger and Gabon had not established, and were not in the process of establishing, protection for political pluralism and the rule of law, while Uganda “has engaged in gross violations of internationally recognised human rights”, the US president said.

The countries had failed to “address United States concerns” about their conduct and that the termination would take effect from 1 January next year.

The US would assess whether they met the Agoa criteria in the future and decide on their participation on the basis of this.

US embassy spokesperson David Feldmann had not responded to queries from the Mail & Guardian by the time of writing.