‘Lesotho can’t afford to lose AGOA’
THE Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has helped create employment for more than 40 000 people in the country’s textile factories since the early 2000s. While the United States (US) government recently renewed Lesotho’s eligibility for trade preferences under the facility, the economic giant also expressed “serious concerns” about the government’s alleged failure to adhere to AGOA governance criteria, saying it would monitor the implementation of reforms ahead of the next eligibility review process.
Lesotho Times ( LT) reporter Billy Ntaote caught up with former Trade and Industry, Cooperatives and Marketing Minister S’khulumi Ntsoaole this week to discuss the country’s AGOA prospects in light of the warning made by the US government.
LT: You recently criticised Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing for remarks he made at a press conference upon his return from an investment promotion trip in the United Kingdom. What was the basis of the criticism?
Ntsoaole: What I found most annoying was the statement that the closure of factories would not affect him (Mr Metsing) personally or any of the ministers. He said this would only affect factory workers. Those remarks were in bad taste and very unfortunate, especially coming from a deputy prime minster. There will be negative effects on the economy if we fail to qualify for AGOA on account of refusing to implement the Southern African Development Community (SADC) commission of inquiry’s recommendations. This is why the deputy premier’s statement was unfortunate and certainly not well thought out.
LT: The country’s eligibility for AGOA is under review. What are its benefits and why is it so important to us?
Ntsoaole: AGOA is a US law which gives preferential treatment to African states like Lesotho in trade and this guarantees jobs and revenue. It also has significance in promoting democracy and good governance. The eligibility criteria emphasises a strong commitment to good governance, human rights and a country only qualifies when it respects these democratic principles. Should we be declared ineligible, Lesotho would not be the first country to lose out. It happened to Senegal.
Madagascar also lost out after the capture of state power by the soldiers. Closer home, Swaziland remains on the list of ineligible countries. We are all aware of our own governance challenges and if we fail to speedily address them we could lose the lucrative markets we get under AGOA.
LT: To what extent has the country exploited the opportunities presented by AGOA?
Ntsoaole: Although we can access the US markets and potentially supply 4 000 different products, we continue to supply only two products. We mainly supply textiles. We also have handicrafts but there is still a need to meet the market standards and requirements. We have indeed failed to diversity our products for the US market over the last decade. Unfortunately the country appears to excel at internal conflicts.
We need a strong private sector in order to graduate from being a least developed country and for that to happen there must be se- curity and political stability in the country. Even then we cannot succeed without access to such lucrative markets. That is why it is important for us to speedily implement the SADC recommendations or we could suffer the fate of Swaziland on AGOA.
LT: Having been involved in AGOA negotiations during your tenure as a minister, what do you think would be the consequences of government’s failure to speedily implement the SADC recommendations?
Ntsoaole: The prime minister and his people think that by repeatedly claiming that the 30 August 2014 incident was not a coup attempt by the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), they can change perceptions that those behind the incident did not commit treason. It was an attack on our leader, then premier Thomas Thabane, and it was treasonous offence. We know that Sub-inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko died during that coup attempt.
What is more shameful is that even after that, the army went on to kill (former army commander) Lieutenant-general Maaparankoe Mahao in cold blood (although the army insists he was killed while resisting arrest for alleged mutiny).
Those incidents demonstrate the absence of the rule of law in our country because no one has been brought to book. Moreover, the acts were committed by soldiers who are known to the authorities. They still haven’t been charged despite the recommendations of the SADC Commission of inquiry. And we will lose our eligibility for AGOA if we fail to account for such issues.
We have to account for cases of human rights violations or this could result in many people losing their jobs.
Even before one David Ndlovu wrote to the international community ( two weeks ago) about the situation in the country, the Americans had already called on the government to put its house in order or face the consequences. It must be clear that if we fail to meet the US demands, we will be suspended from accessing their markets under AGOA. The US markets has been very important for us for a long time, and we could even export more goods if we diversify our products.
We ought to listen to them and the EU (European Union) because they have always supported us. No one would give us as much support as they do, and so it is better for us to pay attention to them. Even the Chinese will not be a better option for us. All these countries have embassies and ambassadors in our country and they report back on what is happening on the ground. So if foreigners are attacked in our backyard and we say or do nothing, we will fail to attract foreign investors because we cannot guarantee their safety.
It’s very disturbing to note that Basotho today will only watch when a German tourist is mugged at a bus stop and the culprits go scot free. It’s also worrying that when a foreigner is murdered at one of the lodges, no criminal investigations are conducted. Foreign investors won’t come unless we resolve such issues and uphold the rule of law. Those who are a law unto themselves should be called to order and only then can we be deemed a destination worthy of investment.
LT: What options does the government have to ensure our continued eligibility for AGOA beyond 2016?
Ntsoaole: It is not just the opposition mounting pressure on the government to be accountable, but we have the international community also taking the same stance as well. The US and the EU have already written to the government about the human rights violations and our government has the responsibility of implementing the recommendations of the SADC commission of inquiry. Any just and credible government would implement the recommendations and assess the shortcomings.
Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s role is to implement the recommendations and if he has problems he should consult with SADC and seek assistance on issues he cannot implement without help. It is also worth noting that Basotho National Party deputy leader Joang Molapo stated on radio that the party was willing to engage the government on setting up a truth and reconciliation type of commission to help the country move forward. We certainly would not want the country regressing to a point where we would not be able to come out of an economic crisis.
LT: What are your views on the government’s recent investment drive to the United Kingdom under the leadership of Mr Metsing?
Ntsoaole: It is pointless to seek investors in the EU when that regional grouping was one of the first to speak out about the need to implement the SADC recommendations. I don’t think EU investors would feel safe investing in our country if we fail to uphold the rule of law. After our charm offensive, they would still go on to conduct their own investigations on our human rights record and rule of law rankings. Would our courts give them guarantees about their ability to speedily deliver impartial decisions on cases, without some individuals being seen to be above the law? Investors always want guarantees that their investments will be safe and they won’t lose their funds.
Unless they are talking to those who are only seeking to make investments in conflict-ridden countries in order to plunder resources and go, genuine investors would not be attracted to come under the current state of affairs in our country.
LT: Apart from attending a number of international forums on AGOA, what else are you involved in?
Ntsoaole: As a former minister who was involved in a rigorous negotiation process for the renewal of AGOA, I can’t stand and watch the country suspended from the list of Agoa-eligible countries. I worked tirelessly for AGOA to be renewed for all African countries.
Right now I am working on the launch of a regional non-governmental organisation whose mandate would be ensuring that our countries utilise opportunities presented by AGOA more than we have done so far. We need to be sending more goods to the US and we cannot lose this opportunity.
However, it will be difficult for me to work with other countries in the region on establishing this organisation if the country does not implement the SADC recommendations.
Former Trade and marketing minister S’khulumi Ntsoaole