Lesotho gets AGOA reprieve

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Joshua Setipa
Trade and Industry Minister Josh Setipa

. . . as Americans vow to monitor ‘serious’ security sector concerns

Billy Ntaote

THE United States government has renewed Lesotho’s eligibility for trade preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for 2016.

However, the Americans also expressed “serious concerns” about the government’s alleged failure to adhere to AGOA governance criteria, saying they would monitor the implementation of reforms ahead of the next eligibility review process.

AGOA gives duty-free and quota-free access to the US market to eligible Sub-Saharan African countries including Lesotho. The legislation, which was renewed for 10 years by US lawmakers last June, is meant to incentivise African countries to open their economies and build free markets.

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.

In a letter addressed to Trade Minister Joshua Setipa and signed by US Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman, the American government said Lesotho was deemed eligible for AGOA in 2016.

Part of the letter reads: “I am writing to inform you that President (Barack) Obama has determined that Lesotho will remain eligible for trade benefits under AGOA for the 2016 calendar year.

“During the eligibility review for 2016, however, the US government identified serious concerns about the government of Lesotho’s adherence to certain of the AGOA criteria, which we will continue to monitor as part of the upcoming AGOA eligibility review process”.

Ambassador Froman said to qualify for AGOA, a country had to establish, “or make continual progress” towards the establishment of political pluralism, rule of law and a market-based economy.

He said Lesotho had made great strides under the facility, “including continued economic growth, increased trade between our two nations and the creation of approximately 40 000 jobs”.

However, the US government’s review committee had taken note of governance infractions especially in the army.

“During the eligibility review process, however, the US government review committee noted that there have been a number of cases of extrajudicial killings and violence reportedly linked to Lesotho’s military forces for which there has been no apparent prosecution, raising questions about Lesotho’s adherence to AGOA criteria relating to respect for human rights and rule of law,” said Ambassador Froman.

“There also appear to be credible reports of torture by Lesotho’s military forces for which no one has apparently been held accountable, raising further such questions.”

He said, during its current review cycle, the US government would monitor “concrete progress” in the implementation of the recommendations made by the SADC Commission of Inquiry into Lesotho’s instability.

The Americans intend to also keep tabs on the security sector reforms recommended by the Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi-led commission.

Ambassador Froman said the reforms were meant to transform the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) into a “professional and cohesive institution that is (a) fully subject to civilian control, (b) respects the rule of law, and (c) enjoys the confidence of all Basotho”.

He said they would also monitor the treatment of soldiers detained by the LDF on suspicion of mutiny and check whether international organisations were able to verify the conditions of their detention “in light of the SADC report findings of torture and abuse”.

Ambassador Froman concluded his missive by saying: The United States and Lesotho have an important trade relationship, and AGOA serves as a useful tool to further strengthen the bond.

“To that end, I hope you will work with us to address the concerns cited above, including by engaging the US Embassy in Maseru on these issues. I look forward to our continued engagement over the year ahead.”

Mr Setipa confirmed receiving the correspondence to the Lesotho Times this week, saying he was yet to study its implications since he was on a business trip to the United Kingdom. The minister is part of a delegation of government officials and business executives led by Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing in the European country to solicit for investment into Lesotho.

“We are yet to thoroughly weigh its (the letter) implications, but once we return to Maseru I intent to meet US Ambassador to Lesotho, Matthew Harrington, to discuss the issues raised in the correspondence so the government can respond accordingly,” said Mr Setipa.

“We are in constant consultations with Ambassador Froman and the issues he mentions are not new to me. We are certainly not taking them lightly and will continue to work on addressing them as a government.”

He said the security sector concerns raised by the US government were being addressed by the government.

“It is normal for them to point out their concerns since we are in a relationship, and we appreciate the gesture,” said the minister.

“We will discuss the letter with Ambassador Froman after consulting with the US Embassy in Maseru so that we understand exactly what the letter is saying to us.”

Mr Setipa said the Americans’ concerns had no bearing on the challenges facing the local textile industry which had resulted in massive retrenchments by factories due to dwindling orders from the economic powerhouse.

“It should be noted that in the textile industry, business orders are placed months in advance. There is actually nothing new on the issue of lack of orders that has subsequently led to the temporary laying off of workers since the industry is by nature seasonal,” he said.

“That is why the recruitment by the factories fluctuates with the seasons. We have not yet reached a point where people can lose their jobs permanently since we are still eligible to access the US market.”

Mr Setipa said the government would do all in its power to ensure the jobs of textile workers were preserved.

“We cannot take the jobs of 40 000 people who work in the textile industry lightly,” he said.

“We are, however, aware that some people try to distort the facts for their agendas that are not in the best interests of the country.”

Contacted for comment, US Embassy Spokesperson Julie McKay confirmed the renewal of the facility for 2016.

However, Ms McKay would not be drawn to comment on the letter, saying: “It is our policy not to comment on private communications between the United States government and the government of Lesotho.”

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