On December 22, 2002, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni paid a ceremonial visit to a textile plant in Kampala, his country’s capital city. That day, shoppers in faraway America were streaming down the aisles of malls and department stores in crazed search of last-minute Christmas gifts. But Museveni’s mind was on supply, not demand. As dignitaries, including the US ambassador, looked on, the president loaded a cardboard box containing twelve pairs of seaweed- and stone-colored shorts onto a truck, dispatching them on a journey that was to end on the shelves of an American retail chain.
The clothes were part of the first shipment to roll off the assembly line of a new textile factory, which was set up to take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, an American free-trade initiative. Few Americans have ever heard of the four-year-old law. But in Uganda, AGOA, as the initiative is commonly called, is a magic word, invoked by politicians and businessmen, diplomats and foreign-aid donors–and most of all by President Museveni. To hear Museveni tell it, AGOA is the first step toward breaking Africa’s dependence on foreign aid and the beginning of an economic revival.
To America and other wealthy nations, which have grown tired of pumping billions in aid into Africa with little evident effect, Museveni is a godsend: an African leader who will tell them what they want to hear. Museveni’s view that free trade promises a painless way to raise the continent from penury has won him admirers across the ideological spectrum and entree into rarefied circles. Most recently, he extolled the virtues of trade at the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia. When President Bush signed a bill reauthorizing AGOA through 2015 in July, he praised Uganda’s president. “This African leader,” Bush said, “understands that…when nations respect their people, open their markets, expand freedom and opportunity to all their citizens, entire societies can be lifted out of poverty and despair.”
A closer look at Uganda, however, reveals a reality more complicated than such blithe rhetoric. Two years after that first heady Christmas season, Museveni’s countrymen are suffering from a serious case of buyers’ remorse. The government-subsidized textile factory, built to be an exemplar for the rest of the nation, has instead suffered worker unrest, as politicians allege exploitation and government corruption. Museveni may still believe, as he once said, that AGOA is “the greatest act of fraternity towards Africa by the USA.” But to many Ugandans, their country’s experience has become an object lesson in the bruising realities of life in the global marketplace.
President Clinton first proposed the African Growth and Opportunity Act in his 1998 State of the Union address, arguing later that “trade and investment are the keys to African development.” The bill was modest in what it promised–outside of textiles, many of the goods covered under it were already subject only to very small tariffs, or none at all–but there was still a tough fight to get it passed. Textile-state representatives and unions were bitterly opposed. Some predicted the law would only benefit sweatshop owners. Illinois Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. invoked a comparison to the slave trade in opposing the bill.
African leaders like Museveni, however, saw the law as empowering, not enslaving. Museveni thought AGOA would act as a catalyst to rebuild Uganda’s once-thriving textile industry, which had withered away during decades of dictatorship and civil war.