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The United States says it will halt its trade preferences to four African countries in January after a recent wave of military coups and human-rights violations in the continent.

Uganda, where the government recently approved one of the world’s harshest anti-homosexuality laws, is among the four countries to lose their U.S. trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA.

Central African Republic, where the government hired Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group who were implicated in the torture and killing of civilians, is another of the countries losing benefits. The other two are Gabon and Niger, where governments were overthrown by military coups this year.

U.S. President Joe Biden and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in statements this week, said Uganda and Central African Republic are being removed from AGOA eligibility because of “gross violations of international recognized human rights” by their governments.

Although their statements did not explicitly mention the anti-homosexuality law or the Russian mercenaries, it is widely believed that those are the reasons for the removal of the two countries. Washington has expressed deep concern about both, and it cited the anti-gay law when it imposed visa restrictions on Ugandan officials in June. The World Bank has suspended funding to Uganda for the same reason.

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Ms. Tai confirmed that Gabon and Niger are losing their AGOA benefits because of their “unconstitutional changes of government.” All four countries will be removed from the program on Jan. 1 unless they make “urgent changes,” she said.

Mr. Biden said the four countries failed to address the U.S. concerns “despite intensive engagement” between his administration and their governments.

The AGOA program, created in 2000, allows duty-free access to the U.S. market for more than 1,800 goods from countries that are eligible for the benefits. To maintain their eligibility, their governments are required to meet minimum standards of human rights and progress toward democracy.

Most African countries are eligible for AGOA benefits, but Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso were expelled from the program after their military coups in recent years, and Ethiopia was ejected last year after widespread reports of atrocities by its military during the brutal war in its Tigray region.

Ethiopia has been lobbying vigorously for reinstatement to the trade program. It says its ejection resulted in 12,000 job losses in its textile industry.

South Africa, a major beneficiary of the AGOA program, was worried that it would lose its eligibility after U.S. criticism of its pro-Moscow tilt following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. South Africa played host to Russian warships during military exercises this year, and one of its naval bases allowed a visit by a U.S.-sanctioned Russian cargo ship.

But after recent efforts to patch up relations, it appears that South Africa will remain in the program. South Africa exported about $15-billion in goods to the U.S. last year, of which about 21 per cent entered the U.S. under AGOA’s terms. Its textile and auto industries have been key beneficiaries of the program.

Of the four countries being removed from AGOA this time, the biggest traders are Gabon, which exported US$220-million in goods to the U.S. last year, and Uganda, which exported US$174-million to the U.S. in the same year.

Uganda’s anti-gay legislation has sparked global outrage and triggered a wave of persecutions of LGBTQ people by police and others. A recent report documented more than 300 abuses this year, including incidents of torture, beatings, arrests, loss of employment and evictions from homes. The law includes a provision for the death penalty for vaguely defined acts of “aggravated homosexuality.”

Ugandan Trade Minister Harriet Ntabazi told the country’s NTV television channel that her government will negotiate with the U.S. soon to explain its laws and to seek readmission to the trade program.

Unless there is action by the U.S. Congress, the AGOA program is due to expire in September, 2025. African governments and business leaders are pushing for an early 10-year extension to reassure investors. South Africa is holding an official AGOA forum this week, and efforts to improve AGOA will be on the agenda.

In a sign of support for South Africa’s membership in the program, Ms. Tai will travel to Johannesburg to attend the forum this week.

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