Alliance calls for ‘massive’ AGOA march

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Lekhetho Ntsukunyane

CIVIC groups falling under the Alliance of Non-State Actors (ANSA) have called for another “massive” protest march meant to pressurise the government to meet the United States’ governance benchmarks for African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) eligibility.

ANSA, which intends to hold the procession “between January and February next year”, has also lambasted Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili for not responding to the petition they filed during their protest march last month.

The US government has stipulated that Lesotho would need to “take concrete steps” in addressing governance benchmarks in the first quarter of 2017 to safeguard its eligibility for trade preferences under AGOA for the full calendar year.

The Americans said Lesotho was deemed eligible for AGOA in 2017 to afford the Mountain Kingdom more time to meet the benchmarks which include implementation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Commission of Inquiry recommendations, security sector reforms and facilitating an amnesty for detained Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) members facing mutiny charges.

AGOA provides for duty-free entry of goods into the US from designated 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.

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.

Lesotho’s textile and garment industry, which is anchored on AGOA, employs more than 40 000 people, in addition to other downstream sectors.

The Mountain Kingdom’s eligibility for AGOA had been thrown into doubt after the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) last week deferred a vote on the reselection of Lesotho for a second compact “until governance concerns have been addressed”.

The MCC is a bilateral American foreign aid agency established by the United States Congress in 2004, with countries expected to meet certain conditions such as good governance and respect for the rule of law to qualify.

In 2008, Lesotho was granted a five-year compact valued at US$362.5 million (over M3 billion) towards expanding water supply for household and industrial use, strengthening the country’s health care system and removing barriers to foreign and local private sector investment.

However, the US government had insisted that Lesotho would only continue to benefit from AGOA and to receive a second MCC compact after taking “concrete actions” that address concerns about “impunity and the rule of law” as well as implementing recommendations made by the SADC Commission of Inquiry. A determination on Lesotho’s eligibility for a second MCC compact will be made in March 2017.

Addressing a press conference in Maseru yesterday, representatives of traders, labour unions, civil society and opposition political parties that constitute ANSA, said they would stage another protest march to “pile pressure” on the Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili-led seven-party coalition government to address the Americans’ AGOA eligibility concerns.

National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers UnionSecretary-General Sam Mokhele said they were “disappointed” by the premier and his government for “undermining our efforts by purposely failing to respond to us up to today”.

During their 27 November 2016 procession, ANSA had given the government a 48-hour ultimatum to respond to their demands.

“This is another reason why we are calling for another massive demonstration. This time it will be bigger than last time,” said Mr Mokhele.

“The prime minister will be left with no choice but to speak to us and address the issues at hand.”

Chiming in, Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL) Secretary-General Seabata Likoti said: “As concerned workers’ representatives, we have been singing the same song over and over; that the government should urgently conduct reforms in order to extend its AGOA eligibility. “At the moment, the government is going to relax under the pretext AGOA has been extended. That’s not true because the Americans are clear that unless Ntate Mosisili and his people have addressed the concerns, AGOA could still be withdrawn.”

On behalf of the tripartite opposition alliance — which includes the All Basotho Convention, Basotho National Party (BNP) and Reformed Congress of Lesotho – BNP spokesperson Machesetsa Mofomobe said whichever government attains power in the coming months should ensure Lesotho’s AGOA eligibility.

“It has become apparent that the government could change soon. But we are saying whoever is in power should address these issues urgently because AGOA brings life to thousands of Basotho families and not only the 40 000 textile factory workers,” he said.

In his announcement of Lesotho’s AGOA eligibility for 2017 last week, Trade and Industry Minister Joshua Setipa admitted the Americans remained concerned about Lesotho’s failure to meet governance benchmarks.

He said while the board that assessed countries’ eligibility for AGOA decided that Lesotho should continue to benefit from the facility, “that does not mean they were still not concerned about the issues they said should be urgently addressed.”

The Americans, Mr Setipa said, had underscored three major concerns: “Firstly, they expressed concern over the plight of detained soldiers facing mutiny charges and called on the government to grant them amnesty as soon as possible or pursue other avenues to facilitate their release.”

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.

The SADC inquiry recommended an amnesty for the soldiers who are facing mutiny charges before the Court Martial.

Mr Setipa said the Americans were also concerned by 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. In its current form, the bill would extend to members of the LDF whom the SADC Commission of Inquiry had recommended should face prosecution.

The US government was also concerned by the lack of discernible progress in the investigation of the killing of former army commander Maaparankoe Mahao.

The former army chief was shot dead as he left his Mokema farm on 25 June 2015 by soldiers who said they had come to arrest him for being part of a group of soldiers plotting to overthrow the army leadership. However, the Mahao family has accused the army of killing him in cold blood basing on the account of his nephews who were with him during the incident.

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