Ethiopia, affected by conflict, to exit US trade pact despite late push

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Washington (AFP) – Ethiopia is set to lose key US trade privileges on January 1 over rights issues, despite a last-minute push backed by members of the diaspora who warn Washington could lose an ally.

On November 2, President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of Ethiopia, a longtime partner of the United States and the second most populous country on the continent, from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, highlighting the “flagrant violations” of the one-year war against the Tigrayan rebels. .

The Ethiopian government has lobbied against the move and estimates that one million jobs have been directly or indirectly supported by the 2000 law, which grants duty-free access to most products.

The chairmen of the Senate and House subcommittees on Africa both urged Biden in a letter to reconsider the “brutal” decision, saying a recent rebel retreat offered an opening for diplomacy.

“We are concerned that the suspension of AGOA benefits will be counterproductive and disproportionately harm the most vulnerable Ethiopians without contributing to the cessation of hostilities,” wrote Senator Chris Van Hollen and Representative Karen Bass, all of whom two members of Biden’s Democratic Party.

“In addition, this decision invites China to strengthen its economic anchoring in the Horn of Africa.

Van Hollen and Bass both represent constituencies with centers of Ethiopian-Americans, a community estimated at between 250,000 and one million people who increasingly weakened their political strength during the war.

Mesfin Tegenu, chairman of the Ethiopian-US public affairs committee, admitted Biden was unlikely to reverse the decision until Jan. 1, but said the president could readmit Ethiopia “with the stroke of a pen.” .

He described Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government as “the most pro-Western the country has ever had” and said the end of trade privileges only invited China – which has expanded its influence in Africa and has wanted to criticize Biden’s decision.

Internally displaced boy moves mattresses received from aid organization as rain falls in July 2021 at a camp in Azezo town, Ethiopia, for people uprooted by fighting in Tigray EDUARDO SOTERAS AFP / File

“It will be a catastrophic mistake for our country to truly be replaced voluntarily by a competitive power,” Mesfin said.

“Whatever political gain the administration thinks it gets by doing this, they won’t get it, because the geopolitical situation in the world has changed.”

Broad American concerns

Biden also withdrew Mali and Guinea hit by the AGOA coup. Announcing the decision, the administration said the three countries could re-enter if they address the concerns.

Jeffrey Feltman, the United States’ special envoy to the Horn of Africa, noted that Congress imposed conditions when AGOA was established.

“The law says that countries that engage in gross human rights violations will not benefit from these trade privileges. So this is a legal requirement that the administration has taken,” he told national public radio.

The office of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, which administers AGOA, did not respond to requests for comment.

Abiy launched an offensive in November 2021 as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, once a dominant force in Ethiopia, attacked army sites.

Workers sew clothes in October 2019 at a garment factory in Ethiopia's Hawassa Industrial Park, which fears a disastrous impact with the loss of US trade privileges
Workers sew clothes in October 2019 at a garment factory in Ethiopia’s Hawassa Industrial Park, which fears a disastrous impact with the loss of US trade privileges Eyerusalem JIREGNA AFP / File

The rebels have come so far this year that they threatened to march on the capital Addis Ababa, but by December 20 they had retreated to their stronghold in Tigray, the government promising not to advance any further.

Rally versus position

But US concerns go beyond securing a ceasefire following numerous reports of mass killings, sexual violence and hunger in the conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. .

The United States, along with the United Nations and rights groups, say the Ethiopian government has deliberately hampered the delivery of aid to northern areas where millions of people face conditions of famine.

“Frankly, this is unacceptable, and not what we would expect from Ethiopia,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said last month.

The administration strenuously denies taking sides and has also criticized the TPLF and neighboring Eritrea.

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

Protesters wave Ethiopian flags as they demonstrate outside the United States Embassy in London on November 21, 2021
Protesters wave Ethiopian flags as they demonstrate outside the United States Embassy in London on November 21, 2021 Tolga Akmen AFP / File

Tebabu Assefa, an Ethiopian immigrant who was honored by former President Barack Obama for his work importing coffee directly from small farmers, said Biden “was taking a tool from the garage to the operating room.”

He said his Blessed Coffee business in Maryland was in conversation with unions representing 500,000 farmers, each of whom has about five family members.

“The livelihoods of millions and millions of small farmers will be destroyed by this simple but very devastating act,” he said.

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