THE United States (US) government says a determination on Lesotho’s eligibility for free trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) will be made on 1 January 2017.
The Americans have also dispelled claims by some politicians that US Ambassador to Lesotho Matthew Harrington would leave the country due to the new administration in Washington, saying the envoy “serves at the pleasure of the president”.
US Embassy Public Affairs Officer Julie McKay yesterday told the Lesotho Times dialogue was continuing with Maseru on the governance and rule of law concerns they had expressed.
The Americans have been steadfast that Lesotho would only continue to benefit from the AGOA facility after taking “concrete actions” that address concerns about “impunity and the rule of law” as well as implementation of Southern African Development Community (SADC) Commission of Inquiry recommendations.
AGOA gives duty-free and quota-free access to the US market to eligible Sub-Saharan African countries including Lesotho. The legislation, which was approved by the US Congress in May 2000 is meant to incentivise African countries to open their economies and build free markets.
It was renewed for another 10 years in June 2015 as the AGOA Extension & Enhancement Act and amended to allow the US to withdraw, suspend or limit benefits if designated AGOA countries do not comply with its eligibility criteria.
The law obligates the American president to designate countries eligible to benefit from the trade facility on an annual basis after undergoing a review process. Among the main eligibility criteria for the facility are a market-based economy, rule of law, systems to combat corruption, and not engaging in gross violations of internationally-recognised human rights.
Earlier this month, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told this paper the “writing was on the wall” for Lesotho’s eligibility for AGOA and a second compact grant under the Millennium Challenge Corporation due to government’s failure to address issues of “impunity and the rule of law”.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said the government risked jeopardising the jobs of 40 000 Basotho working in the textile sector by failing to fully implement the recommended reforms by the SADC Commission of Inquiry into Lesotho’s instability.
The 10-member commission, led by Botswana’s Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi, carried out its investigations between 31 August and 23 October 2015 and recommended Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli’s dismissal and the suspension of LDF officers implicated in cases of murder, attempted murder and treason while investigations into the allegations proceeded in line with international best practice.
The inquiry also recommended an amnesty for the 23 soldiers facing mutiny charges before the Court Martial. The soldiers were arrested between May and June 2015 for allegedly plotting to violently remove the LDF command. Eight of the soldiers have since been released from Maseru Maximum Security Prison and placed under open arrest, which is a form of bail in the military. The other 15 remain in detention.
Lt-Gen Kamoli has since been retired, with his tenure at the helm of the LDF set to end on 1 December 2016. The government has also undertaken to implement constitutional and security sector reforms, although there has not been a discernible movement on the other aforementioned recommendations.
Ms McKay said they were engaging the government to address their governance concerns with Lt-Gen Kamoli’s retirement “a positive step”.
“The United States, through the US Embassy in Maseru, continues to dialogue with the government of Lesotho about governance and rule of law concerns and encourage the implementation of the SADC Commission of Inquiry recommendations,” she said.
“As we have said before, we welcome the announcement of Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli’s planned December 1 retirement and see this as a positive step.”
Ms McKay indicated the AGOA eligibility review was ongoing and would continue even if Lesotho’s eligibility is confirmed due to a new provision in the AGOA Extension and Enhancement Act allowing for out-of-cycle reviews. The reviews can be initiated at any time to determine whether a beneficiary sub-Saharan African country still meets the eligibility criteria.
“The current annual AGOA eligibility review is ongoing. The president makes annual eligibility determinations effective January 1st of each year. The new AGOA legislation provides the administration greater flexibility in reviewing countries on an ongoing basis, including by initiating ‘out of cycle’ reviews if necessary,” she said.
On the question of whether AGOA was under any threat given that US President-Elect Donald Trump has promised to quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership among other trade deals, Ms McKay said: “As we prepare for the transition in administrations, it’s important to recognize that the major challenges Africa faces are clear, and likely to be similar for the next administration.
“Many of our core programs in Africa, such as PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and AGOA, enjoy strong bipartisan support and represent a steadfast commitment to improving lives and expanding opportunities for people across the continent.”
She also dispelled claims Mr Harrington had been recalled to Washington, saying he served at the pleasure of the US president. This was after outspoken Lesotho People’s Congress official Bokang Ramatšella claimed that since the Democratic-led US government had “fallen” with the election of Mr Trump who is a Republican, the same was true for the envoy.
Ms McKay stressed that while the incoming president makes his own appointments, there was continuity between administrations to ensure the US government continues to function without interruption no matter who is in the White House.
“Ambassador Matthew Harrington has not left Lesotho. He is a career diplomat who arrived in Maseru in October 2014. As with all US ambassadors, he serves at the pleasure of the president,” she said.