Afronline – The Voice Of Africa 2017-03-06 10:38:51

Given the new sheriff in town in Washington, and his strong ideas about trade, J. Brooks Spector believes it is the right time for African nations to come together to define their agenda on trade issues with America – before the Trump administration does it for them.

Dear Ministers,

Over the past several months, many people around the world have been fixated on the surpassingly strange events now taking place in Washington, DC. Not surprisingly, these political shenanigans have occupied first place for many, monopolising the attention of the media and leaders around the world, many of whom must surely be asking, “But what does it all mean?”

After all, it is highly unusual to watch a national leader in a democracy as he picks public fights with virtually the entire mass media of his country – accusing them all of issuing “fake news”, as he squabbles publicly over how many actually people showed up at his rallies and speeches, having his utterances interpreted by his subordinates in their meetings with other world leaders, and spending his time sending insulting and belittling social media messages (complete with their apparently deliberate misspelled words, all caps, and unusual grammatical constructions) to anyone who irritates him.

Moreover, it has been highly unusual for a newly installed head of government to be forced to remove a key adviser just days after being appointed to office – and there is the possibility lurking out there that there will be yet more such embarrassing events in the days just ahead. Truly, events like these have been absorbing attention worldwide, using up all the oxygen in the room and driving from the limelight practically every other world event, regardless of its magnitude. This may not be fair to everyone else, but then the American president – especially one who is just settling into office – is no ordinary world leader. And Mr Trump has been giving us a great deal of evidence that he is no ordinary president.

However, beyond all the unprecedented fun and frolics in Washington, the Trump administration has actually made some decisions that will now have real consequences beyond America’s borders, as opposed to the soap opera playing nightly on television news broadcasts. Unfortunately, most foreign governments, and Americans alike, have probably overlooked those decisions – even though the consequences may be enormous.

Like most of your ministerial colleagues, you have taken reassurance in the fact that the American Congress passed a 10-year version of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) last year. This American law – as you undoubtedly understand but as many of your citizens and your nations’ media may not – is not a treaty negotiated between America and the various African nations. That means its passage did not require years of difficult, tense negotiations in a large, unwieldy international forum or in a long and tedious series of drawn-out technical meetings. However, because it is solely US law, it could conceivably be changed by a simple act of the American Congress. And, of course, it will come to an end naturally in 2026. No one in Washington expects it to be passed yet again – Americans are in an increasingly protectionist mood and the most protectionist American of all is their new president.

Its passage gave entrepreneurs and exporters from your continent an unparalleled opportunity to send thousands of products to the US with no tariffs or duties imposed upon them. While many African nations have been unable to make maximum usage of these opportunities, South Africa and several other nations – especially oil producers – have made good use of this part of the American legal framework.

Depending on how one counts such things, I understand that almost $2-billion a year’s worth of exports flow from South Africa to America, duty free, and there are many tens of thousands of well-paying, highly skilled jobs as a result, especially in the processing of high-end agricultural processed goods and the manufacture of motorcars and car parts. Naturally, much more could be exported this way to America, but here, the onus is largely on African producers to make the kinds of products American consumers wish to buy.

Naturally, too, there have been disagreements that have come along that have become associated with AGOA in the minds of many people. In South Africa, for example, there have been some “unpleasantnesses” over American exports of chicken meat, with Americans insisting South Africans had failed to treat American birds equally with those being shipped from Brazil and several EU nations, while South Africans charged that American exporters were trying to “dump” their unmarketable chicken meat in South Africa after strong-arming things.

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By J. Brooks Spector