WITH the March 2017 deadline for Lesotho to address African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) eligibility concerns drawing closer, the United States government says no further progress has been made to fulfil the required governance benchmarks.
Among the benchmarks the Americans say Lesotho has not addressed include implementing the rest of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations after making the “positive step” of retiring former army commander Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli.
For the government’s part, Trade and Industry Minister Joshua Setipa, will on 13 February 2017 visit his American counterpart in Washington DC to “demonstrate” Lesotho’s commitment towards fulfilling AGOA eligibility criteria.
The US government last month deemed Lesotho eligible for AGOA in 2017 to give the Mountain Kingdom more time to meet the benchmarks which also include implementation of security sector reforms and facilitating an amnesty for LDF members facing mutiny charges.
AGOA provides for duty-free entry of goods into the US from designated sub-Saharan African countries, including Lesotho, and applies to both textile and non-textile goods. 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 new AGOA legislation provides the administration greater flexibility in reviewing countries on an ongoing basis, including by initiating “out-of-cycle” reviews at any point during the calendar year
AGOA eligibility criteria was related to respect for human rights, rule of law and due process among others.
Lesotho’s textile and garment industry, which is anchored on AGOA, employs more than 40 000 people, in addition to other downstream sectors.
In granting the eligibility, the Americans stressed that the governance concerns should be addressed in the first quarter of 2017 lest Lesotho loses out during an “out-of-cycle” review.
Mr Setipa yesterday told the Lesotho Times said he last month responded to US Trade Representative, Ambassador Michael Froman outlining how the government would work towards addressing the concerns.
Ambassador Froman replied to the minister in a letter dated 13 January 2017 and seen by this paper in which he reiterated the urgent need to fulfil the set benchmarks.
“As you know, AGOA requires an annual review of compliance with eligibility criteria for each currently eligible beneficiary country. On December 15, 2016, President Obama determined that Lesotho will remain eligible for trade benefits under AGOA in 2017,” he said.
“During the previous eligibility review for 2016, the US government identified serious concerns about the government of Lesotho’s adherence to certain AGOA criteria.”
Ambassador Froman cites the eligibility criteria that Lesotho was being monitored for as stipulated in his March 2016 letter to the government.
“These benchmarks included implementation of the recommendations found in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Commission of Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Brigadier Mahao: security sector reform efforts to transform the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) into a professional and cohesive institution; and humane treatment of all LDF personnel in custody and access for international organizations to verify the conditions of their detention in light of the SADC report findings of torture and abuse.”
He said the then-President Obama’s determination that Lesotho would remain eligible for AGOA benefits in 2017 was based on actions Maseru had taken to demonstrate commitment to meeting AGOA’s eligibility criteria.
“In particular, the departure of LDF Commander, General Tlali Kamoli marks a welcome and positive step forward in implementing the SADC recommendations.”
The government retired the army chief last month and replaced him with his former deputy Lt-Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo.
Ambassador Froman adds: “Despite this progress, we remain deeply concerned that Lesotho has not made further progress in meeting the other benchmarks, including addressing and implementing the rest of the SADC recommendations.
“The Trade Preferences Extension Act of 2015 provides greater flexibility to review countries’ AGOA eligibility on an ongoing basis, including by initiating an out-of-cycle review at any point during the calendar year.”
In order for Lesotho to avoid such a review, he says “immediate and concrete steps” need to be made to meet the other benchmarks and “demonstrate continual progress” toward meeting AGOA’s eligibility criteria.
For his part, Mr Setipa said the Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili-led government was committed to implementing the reforms.
“Our government has launched the reforms process. We first launched the security sector reforms and then launched the institutional and constitutional reforms under the auspices of the SADC Oversight Committee Chairperson retired judge from Tanzania (Justice Frederic Mwita Werema),” he said.
“The whole process has started and as recently as this week, Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing chaired a stakeholders meeting where discussions centred around the implementation of the reform process.
“However, I was not in that meeting and I cannot share the specifics of that meeting but all I know is that the breakfast meeting was part of gatherings that will be going on until we have achieved what we set out to achieve.”
He said the reforms process would continue to increase participation of various stakeholders to ensure that all sectors of the society are represented.
On the Americans’ call for the government to facilitate an amnesty for the detained mutiny suspects, Mr Setipa said the case was before the courts.
The 23 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.
“Looking at the things that the US says it is still concerned about in the letter, one is on the detention of the alleged LDF mutineers. That process, as we have said, is before the courts of Lesotho.
“As we speak today, there are already cases of some of the detained soldiers who have been released and placed under open arrest. So it is a process that is ongoing and the courts have determined that there is a case to answer for and therefore that’s why the process is underway.”
On the Amnesty Bill, 2016 which is meant to grant members of the security sector a blanket amnesty for offences committed between January 2007 and December 2015, he said it was already tabled in parliament. In its current form, the bill would extend to members of the LDF whom the SADC Commission of Inquiry had recommended should face prosecution.
“Laws are made in parliament and the government does not make laws. It is the case in the US and in any other country,” said the minister.
“Anybody who wants to change a draft law has a right to do so but it has to be in parliament.
“Right now, the draft bill is in parliament in the committees where all the representatives and MPs are represented. It is not for the government to legislate bills.”
On the exiled opposition leaders, Mr Setipa said they had met their demands even though it was not part of the concerns raised by the Americans.
Former premier and All Basotho Convention leader Thomas Thabane, Basotho National Party leader Thesele ‘Maseribane, and Reformed Congress of Lesotho leader Keketso Rantšo fled to South Africa in May 2015.
The three leaders, and several members of their parties as well as army officers, fled to the neighbouring country claiming the military wanted to kill or arrest them to settle old scores.
“Government has guaranteed their security as political leaders that are out of the country upon their return. We have also made sure that the former prime minister will be comfortable and safe and providing him with housing,” said Mr Setipa.
“We are very excited about their possible return and think they should come back home. Government will continue to make sure it continues to meet its security obligations to ensure their safety.”
He said next month’s trip to Washington DC would provide him with an opportunity to engage the new Donald Trump-led on a range of issues of common interest.
“I will be in Washington on the 13th to the 14th of February and that will be my first encounter with the US Trade Representative of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“And I will engage them on a whole range of issues. I am also hoping that I will have the opportunity to continue having the same open and frank relationship I have had with the predecessors.”