The United States government on Wednesday told the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali that ongoing human rights violations in Tigray could “affect Ethiopia’s future African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) eligibility if unaddressed.”
The message was conveyed when the United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai met virtually with Ethiopia’s Senior Policy Advisor and Chief Trade Negotiator Mamo Mihretu.
The U.S. government said both leaders discussed the historic economic relationship between the United States and Ethiopia, and potential for further growth with Ambassador Tai recognizing the steps Ethiopia has made toward political and economic reform.
However, the U.S. government added that “she raised the ongoing violations of internationally recognized human rights amid the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia, which could affect Ethiopia’s future African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) eligibility if unaddressed.”
Both Ambassador Tai and Chief Trade Negotiator Mihretu agreed on the importance of working together to sustain the economic partnership between the United States and Ethiopia, the U.S. government said.
The African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA is a piece of legislation that was approved by the U.S. Congress in May 2000 to assist the economies of sub-Saharan Africa and to improve economic relations between the United States and the region.
After completing its initial 15-year period of validity, the AGOA legislation was extended on June 29, 2015, by a further 10 years, to 2025. It may be extended again in four years.
However, while African and American officials recognize that the legislation has benefited both the United States and Africa, and boosted trade exports, it has also been criticized.
Michael Mann, a British-born emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has pointed out that AGOA contains a clause requiring participating African countries not to oppose US foreign policy and “exacts indirect imperial tribute” from African states.
In 2018, Tatah Mentan, a Theodore Lentz scholar of Peace and Security Studies and Professor of Political Science, argued that although it “sounds like a benevolent multilateral trade agreement”, AGOA is in reality a colonial scheme intended to economically exploit Africa, stating that the profits made from the scheme are “not for Africans”.
That argument has also been echoed by others who have argued that apart from being in contradiction with WTO rules, AGOA is seen as a one-sided agreement as there was little African involvement in its preparation.
In addition, AGOA has been criticized for being “dominated by oil and raw materials,” with Andualem Sisay arguing that “after the enactment of AGOA, “exports have increased by more than 500 per cent from around $8.2 billion then to $54 billion in 2011, although about 90 per cent of these are natural resources, mainly oil.”
Despite those criticisms that have led to discussions and improvements, Africans and Americans as well as economists, have also argued that an imperfect legislation is better than no legislation, pointing out that trade has improved, and without AGOA, things will be much worse.
If Ethiopia is sanctioned over human rights abuses in Tigray, the country may lose its biggest trade partner and billions of dollars in trade opportunities, in addition to the political fallout that comes with having the United States as an adversary.