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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Gambia’s readmission into AGOA: a worthy Christmas gift to an emerging democracy?

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By Muhammed Lenn

Few days after Christmas, the Gambia’s readmission into the list of beneficiaries of the African Growth and Opportunity Act was announced by the Ministry of Information. This followed a release by the US Trade Representative’s Office that the US embassy in Banjul had requested readmission of the Gambia into the list of eligible countries. Soon the release occupied news headlines and was widely shared and celebrated. To many, this signals the international community’s commitment to the “new Gambia”.

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For the ‘democrats’ of the Gambia, that class of Gambians whose every point of departure and arrival in analysis is democracy, this readmission is a confirmation of the Gambia’s promising democratic gains. Since the Gambia was expelled due to its poor human rights records, its readmission can only be due to its good human rights record. And a clear warning to Barrow, if your democracy credential deteriorates, the AGOA will vanish; if it further improves, more gains shall follow. A convincing causative argument! For the democrats this is a worthy Christmas Gift to an important ALLY.

But proponents of the “counterdemocratic” view want the democrats to hold on. They argue, rightly put the Gambia was one of the countries with the worst human rights violations in the subregion but not the worst. One can’t be proud of our records in the past but it would be hypocritical to make it the master monster in subSahara Africa. A look at the list of eleigible beneficiaries when the Gambia was suspended would reveal that the Gambian democrats’ argument is imcomplete. For instance, DRC and Eritrea whose records were worst than the Gambia, were still in the list of beneficiaries. So why the Gambia and not DR Congo or Eritrea? Moreover the Gambia was not suspended until 2015 when it had done more atrocities in previous years, for instance the infamous witch hunting.

They will reason that the Gambia was the US’ 172nd largest goods export market out of the 193 internationally recognised state, hence it wasn’t a very important trading partner. We export nothing other than seafood, vegetable, and groundnut mainly in their primary forms. The Gambia too was not largely benefitting from the trade as acknowledged by both Abdou Kolley and Abdou Jobe as Trade Ministers in 2014 and 2011 respectively. So neither Gambia nor the US was highly impressed by being in the deal.

While the proponents of the “counterdemocratic view” build a strong case for dismantling the democrats’ argument, they have not replaced it with anything meaningful to help except that Jammeh’s rhetoric on the US was really annoying. For DRC and Eritrea, they preferred to be the “quite dictators”! It makes a much difference. If Jammeh had managed his tone, he may have gone away with it. Well for now, Barrow has an advantage. With his minimum appearances on TVs and interviews, with an intense occupation of delegating, he’s spared from war of words even if he were to be a despot. God be praised, he isn’t one yet!
The “international liberals” of the Gambia, those who see international trade and cooperation as the only viable path for small states like the Gambia, have a weighty argument. Their argument being that the US has been the guarantor of free trade and it only make sense if it extends an olive leaf to all especially emerging economies and states like the Gambia. But they gave no consideration about the causes(s) which led to Gambia’s expulsion but see the effect as devastating.

A former mini state, now a small state with 2 million people, do not have the market by itself, and considering that over 40% of the population live below poverty line, we do not have enough buyers and sellers within our just above 11000 square kilometers. Therefore AGOA provides the market for the Gambia to sell her products and buy those she needs. By extension, this readmission into the “club of free nations for free trade”, will help to diffuse democratic values in Gambian society, something that democrats would celebrate. And of course, a lot of the needed foreign currency to curb our trade deficit. For them too, this is a worthy Christmas Gift not for the Gambia alone but for all lovers of international trade and cooperation.

While the international liberals of our country may be banging on this as a new era for international trade and cooperation for the Gambia because of the supposed benefits it would bring, they should be more cautious than they are. There is a need to look at the category of products in the AGOA that qualify for preferential treatment. They will be shocked to realise that the Gambia has few products that qualify, mainly primary products such as fish, sea products and vegetables which do not bring much foreign currency. Most of the primary products that one would expect developing countries like the Gambia to possess is in scarcity here. Meat, poultry products, dairy, are all in limited supply here, hence the benefits are limited.

This has long been recognised as in 2014 when Abdou Jobe, the Trade Minister noted that although there are vast opportunities that the agreement contained, yet the Gambia benefits less. Well with the calculated lies and propaganda of the former regime, you may doubt this. But the remarks of the US Embassy’s Charge d’Affaires, David Greathouse at the same gathering gave credence to the assertion when he noted that there was need for innovation by Gambians (entrepreneurs?) to tap the opportunities. GIEPA which hosted the info center for AGOA noted that there were few entrepreneurs coming to the agency to seek information about AGOA.

Well, just like Barrow wanted to say while in China, “its neither capitalism nor socialism, its about our people” famously coined by Gorbachev, AGOA does not deserve celebration as it had not benefitted Gambians. When the Gambia was expelled from AGOA, its export to the US amounted to $298 thousands while the US’ export was $42 millions. Thus one could ask: Was it a zerosum game? And with the rising Trumpism, can one expect a worthy Christmas gift from US?

Notwithstanding, as the readmission was a reactive policy of the US, there isn’t much that can be done about it. What the Gambia can do though is to work on its Agric Sector to increase exportation of agric products for more gains. But with the low budget allocation to agric, that is not likely to happen in the next 12 months. However, within the next 12 months, the Gambia should try and seal a bilateral agreement that would relax some of the regulations on labelling and packaging so that our small and medium enterprises can have their products (currently disqualified) exported to the US while we seek training opportunities to enhance their capabilities. That would definitely be a worthy Chrismas Gift to an emerging democracy.

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