As the United States aims to strengthen its relationships with African nations and counter the influence of rivals like Russia and China, it faces a difficult dilemma. How should it respond when countries act in ways that contradict Washington’s commitment to democracy and human rights?
This tension was evident at a major trade conference between the U.S. and African countries in Johannesburg. President Biden had recently suspended four nations from a critical trade program, known as the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), which promotes economic development in Africa. One of the suspended countries, Uganda, had sent a delegation to the conference to argue for its reinstatement to AGOA despite passing a law this year that imposes life imprisonment for engaging in gay sex. In response, President Biden cited Uganda’s gross violations of human rights as the reason for its removal.
Susan Muhwezi, a trade adviser to the Ugandan president, disagreed with the decision, claiming that Uganda is “an island of peace.” She argued that there are better ways to address concerns than through punishment. Muhwezi also highlighted the negative impact the suspension would have on Uganda’s traders and the loss of exports that amounted to $12.3 million last year.
In January, when the suspensions take effect, there will be 31 countries participating in AGOA. The program, established in 2000, allows sub-Saharan African nations to export certain goods to the U.S. without paying duties. In 2020, the U.S. imported around $30 billion worth of goods through AGOA.
Balancing the promotion of democracy and human rights with maintaining influence abroad is an ongoing challenge for the United States. This challenge is particularly evident in Africa, where competition between the U.S., Russia, and China is fierce. Moscow and Beijing offer aid and security without the strings attached to democracy promotion. However, for the U.S., promoting democracy is an important selling point domestically, as it appeals to a growing isolationist sentiment among the American public.
The suspensions of Gabon, Niger, and the Central African Republic were a result of coups or actions that violated the eligibility requirements of AGOA. To remain eligible, countries must support democracy, protect human rights, and not act against U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. Gross violations of human rights or support for terrorism can result in suspension. Enforcing these requirements poses difficult calculations for the United States.
The Biden administration has emphasized the importance of treating African nations as equals. However, taking punitive actions risks being interpreted as lecturing or imposing American values on countries with painful memories of colonial rule. While the suspensions were based on egregious violations, the administration is mindful of these concerns. Judd Devermont, a top adviser on African affairs, stressed the need for open dialogue even when disagreements arise, as is done with other countries in different regions.
Some American lawmakers have urged caution in revoking privileges from African countries that may violate U.S. standards. They argue that such actions could harm ordinary citizens and drive African nations closer to rival countries, thereby posing a greater threat to American interests. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, believes that keeping countries in the trade program is essential for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and the overall bilateral relationship.
At the same time, the Biden administration faces pressure, especially from Republicans, to scrutinize beneficiaries of AGOA more closely. They point to South Africa, the host nation of the conference, which was involved in a tense standoff with the U.S. over allegations of providing weapons to Russia in the Ukraine conflict. The administration’s decision to proceed with the conference in South Africa while these issues remain unresolved, along with South Africa’s response to the war in Gaza, has drawn criticism.
The AGOA program is set to expire in 2025, and Congress will decide whether to reauthorize it. While lawmakers support its renewal, significant changes to the program may be demanded, leading to a challenging reauthorization process.
Despite any wrongdoing, the White House likely concluded that the importance of the relationship with South Africa outweighed the desire to sever ties. South Africa is the largest beneficiary of AGOA, with $3 billion in exports last year. It is seen as an important ally with influence over other African nations, and its mediation efforts have contributed to stability in the region, which benefits U.S. interests.
Teddy Ruge, a business owner from Uganda attending the conference, felt embarrassed by the suspensions. Sitting behind a booth draped in the Ugandan flag, he emphasized the negative perception facing his country and how they were being viewed as the “bad child.”