U.S. Protectionist Measures Undermine Africa's Industrialization Efforts

NAIROBI (XINHUA) -- An intent by U.S. President Donald Trump to suspend duty-free treatment for Rwandan goods in the apparel sector, following Rwanda's plan to phase out importation of used clothes, has angered Africans who feel the move holds back Africa's industrial dream through intimidation.
Analysts in east African countries, including Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda, see the U.S. move as disregarding the dignity of Africans who have every right to reject hand-me-downs. They also defend Rwanda's position to promote local manufacturing and textile sector.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a Rwanda-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs, said Rwanda and East Africa's decision to raise tariffs on second-hand clothing imports was imperative to protect the local textile and apparel industries and promote local manufacturing.
"African countries will not develop and improve quality of life for their people solely on the basis of exporting raw materials. The decision is, therefore, a noble ambition that is entirely justified," Mutebi said.
Terming the U.S. protectionist measure as a very selfish move, Ken Ogembo, an economic lecturer at Kenya-based Kenyatta University, told Xinhua that the genesis of the U.S. duty-free trade arrangement under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for African products was to help Africa grow its trade with the United States.
"Therefore, using it as a punishment for African countries' domestic trade decision goes against the initial aim of this initiative," Ogembo said.
According to him, the importation of second-hand clothes and shoes was one of the main contributors to the collapse of the textile industry in most African countries since the early 1990s.
"Today, those countries are trying to revive their textile industries because of the huge potential they hold in creating wealth and employment. So, if the U.S. really cares, it should not force African countries to import what will slow their economic growth," Ogembo said.
Uganda-based economist, Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba, also noted that the U.S. withdrawing AGOA benefits for Rwanda is not fair because AGOA was aimed at opening American markets. "Now closing this AGOA would be a policy reversal inconsistent with AGOA principals," Nuwagaba said.
East African nations agreed in 2016 to impose a ban on imports of used clothing and leather products by 2019. However, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have since succumbed to pressure, choosing the economic benefits from the AGOA, and therefore escaping the U.S. exclusion from AGOA benefits.
Amid the pressure, the Rwandan government did not backtrack on the ban. It issued a statement last week, saying "the withdrawal of AGOA benefits is at the discretion of the United States."
"Rwanda has set a good example of staying put in its ban of second-hand clothes as it brings out new assertiveness of the African countries," Ogembo said.
Even though Trump has offered a 60-day period to effectuate the suspension of AGOA benefits for Rwanda, analysts warn if the U.S. goes ahead and suspends Rwanda from participating in AGOA, this will be a loaded message to other African countries.
"While many may not ban the same in solidarity with Rwanda, they are likely to start preparing themselves to avoid such a risk in future...If the U.S. acts on Rwanda, it will be a negative score in terms of its diplomatic relations with Africa," Ogembo said.
Africa may also start taking a hard line stance against the U.S. by opting to deepen trade with other countries which do not portray that kind of domination, he said.
Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba said that Africa's development can never only be propelled from the outside. "There is need to develop local brand. All countries that have transformed have adopted the neo-classical economic concept of development is initiated from within," he said.
Uganda-based economist Fred Muhumuza has urged African countries to address internal weaknesses, rather than blame global reasons for Africa's sluggish development. Take the local textile sector, for instance, it is still burdened by inefficiencies which need to be tackled so as to produce products at affordable prices for ordinary consumers, according to him.
Ogembo suggested that one way for Africa to prepare for U.S. protectionist measures is to fast-track the implementation of the just signed African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
"This is a major opportunity that Africa has created to trade with itself and therefore reduce dependency on foreign trade on initiatives like AGOA. So, it is up to Africa to fast-track the actualization," he said.
The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that the AfCFTA has the potential both to boost intra-African trade by 53.2 percent by eliminating import duties, and to double this trade if non-tariff barriers are also reduced.
(Xinhua reporters Wang Xiaopeng in Kenya, Lyu Tianran in Rwanda and Zhang Gaiping in Uganda contributed to the report.)