The Obama administration has decided to suspend trade benefits granted under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for Guinea, Niger and Madagascar, citing a lack of democratic progress, which is a primary criterion for eligibility in the program. At the same time, it is reinstating Mauritania in recognition of democratic elections that replaced a government which came to power through a 2008 military coup.
“The main point of AGOA is to reward countries that perform well,” Anthony Newton, the director of the economic policy staff in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said December 24.
AGOA allows African countries to export a variety of textile, food and other products to the United States free of tariffs. U.S. officials view economic and political development as being intertwined and emphasize the need for democratic norms to be met in order to enjoy the trade benefits.
All AGOA countries are reviewed for eligibility every year. Newton said the suspended countries could be restored before the end of 2010 if they show pronounced improvement, but suspensions occur only on an annual basis.
“The country that demonstrates good governance and respects democratic norms is certainly more liable to have good economic policies as well,” Newton said. The government is responsible “for society and the economy as a whole,” he said.
The Obama administration has been critical of Guinea’s military rulers, especially after troops raped and killed peaceful protesters in a Conakry stadium on September 28. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the action October 6 as “a vile violation of the rights of the people of that country.”
The United States has also criticized Niger, where President Mamadou Tandja “has basically acted in an undemocratic fashion by extending his term,” Newton said. On December 23 the State Department announced it is also suspending nonhumanitarian assistance to Niger and imposing travel restrictions on some of its leaders.
Newton said the decision to suspend Madagascar was “fairly complicated,” since a democracy-restoration process had been launched in the country following its March 2009 coup, including the installation of a transitional government and elections proposed for 2010.
“The process was full of fits and starts … but in general it was moving forward,” Newton said. However, over the last two weeks interim President Andry Rajoelina has “subverted the process” and barred political opposition leaders from the country.
“In light of all that, we have taken the decision to suspend or to terminate Madagascar’s eligibility. We didn’t do this lightly,” Newton said.
“The point is that governments that don’t demonstrate good governance or adherence to democratic norms, unfortunately, find themselves in the position of being terminated,” he said. “AGOA isn’t just an economic incentive program. It has its political components as well.”
Mauritania’s restoration to AGOA comes after it successfully replaced the government formed by its August 2008 military coup with a transition government and democratic elections held in July.
Mauritania “did what we were hoping Madagascar would do,” Newton said. “The coup government was replaced by a transition government which then had democratic elections.”
When U.S. officials perform their annual review to determine eligibility for AGOA, “we’re not totally inflexible,” Newton said, pointing to the fact that Mauritania’s elected president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, was actually a leader of the 2008 coup.
“If something bad happens, if there is a coup, but a country is able to right itself and put itself back on a certain path moving back toward democracy, we take that under consideration and we give credit where credit is due,” he said.