Ethiopia to be dropped from US trade pact on 1 January over alleged rights violations

By David Coffey with RFI
Ethiopia Daniel SLIM AFPFile
DEC 31, 2021 LISTEN
Daniel SLIM AFPFile

Ethiopia is set to lose key trading privileges in the United States on 1 January over rights concerns, despite a last-minute push backed by members the Ethiopian diaspora who warn that Washington could lose a key ally.

On 2nd November, US President Joe Biden announced the removal of Ethiopia - a longtime US partner and the continent's second most populous country - from the African Growth and Opportunity Act as he pointed to "gross violations" in the year-old war with Tigrayan rebels.

The government in Addis Ababa has lobbied hard against the move that takes effect from New Year's Day and estimates that one million jobs have been supported directly or indirectly by the law, which grants duty-free access for most goods since the year 2000.

The chairs of the Senate and House subcommittees on Africa both urged Biden in a letter to reconsider the "abrupt" move, saying that a recent rebel retreat provided an opening for diplomacy.

Senator Chris Van Hollen and Representative Karen Bass, both members of Biden's Democratic Party wrote: "We are concerned that suspension of AGOA benefits will be counterproductive and disproportionately harm the most vulnerable Ethiopians without contributing to the cessation of hostilities."

"Furthermore, this decision invites China to strengthen its economic foothold in the Horn of Africa."

Van Hollen and Bass both represent constituencies with hubs of Ethiopian-Americans, a community estimated at anywhere from 250,000 to one million strong that has increasingly flexed political muscle over the war.

Mesfin Tegenu, chairman of the American-Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee, acknowledged Biden was unlikely to reverse the decision before 1 January but said the president could readmit Ethiopia "with a stroke of a pen."

He described Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government as "the most pro-Western the country has ever had" and said ending trade privileges was only inviting China to expand its influence in Africa and has made a point of criticizing Biden's decision.

Wider US concerns for Africa

Meanwhile, Biden also removed coup-hit Mali and Guinea from the AGOA pact.

In announcing the decision, the administration said the three countries could re-enter if they address those concerns.

Ethiopian's Prime Minisetr Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive in November 2021 as the Tigray People's Liberation Front, once a dominant force in Ethiopia, attacked army position. 

The TPLF rebels made significant advances this year, threatening to march on the capital Addis Ababa but by 20th of December they had withdrawn back to their Tigray stronghold, with the government promising no further advance.

But US concerns go beyond reaching a ceasefire in the wake of wide reports of mass killings, sexual violence and hunger in the conflict that has left thousands dead.

The United States, as well as the United Nations and rights groups, say the Ethiopian government has deliberately hindered aid delivery to northern regions where millions face famine-like conditions.

But many in the Ethiopian diaspora remain convinced of bias against Abiy, who was elected in 2018 on promises of unity and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

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