Discussions between the United States and Kenya regarding a possible bilateral free trade agreement could complicate efforts to negotiate from a position of strength between the US and the rest of Africa. Kenya, along with 38 other sub-Saharan African countries, already operate under a trade deal known as the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), which grants duty-free access to the US for about 6,500 products. The Trump administration has indicated it is unwilling to renew AGOA.
The US announced on February 7 that it would begin negotiations with Kenya on a new trade deal, garnering excitement within President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, which wants to transform Kenya into a regional business hub. Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and Erastus Mwencha, former head of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, both expressed dismay at this development, fearing it could weaken Africa’s position during collective negotiations.
Kituyi and Mwencha both warned that a free trade deal would allow global multinationals to more easily enter into the Kenyan economy, weakening its ability to improve its own manufacturing and agriculture base. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is still in the process of implementation, with Kenya one of the first nations to ratify it. “To negotiate a unilateral free trade agreement flies in the face of this perception,” Kituyi and Mwencha said in a released statement.
African heads of state agreed in July 2018 that no country should negotiate a unilateral free trade agreement once the AfCFTA comes into force. Kenya is hoping to negotiate the new trade deal in an effort to access the Millennium Challenge Account, a grant that the US extends to developing countries that liberalize their markets and promote democratic governance. The US already has a free trade agreement in Africa with Morocco, and is hoping its deal with Kenya could act as a model for other trade agreements in sub-Saharan Africa.