Presidents of East African Community partner states recently announced they were banning imports of used clothes, locally known as caguwa. They gave sound economic reasons for the ban: promoting the local textile industry and other economic activities linked to it, creating jobs, raising taxes, and so on. There was even an appeal to a sense of pride. Wearing clothes someone else has discarded (in Rwanda that is called gukuburirwa) is not exactly dignified. No one goes around proudly showing off such clothes (ibikuburano).
Despite these good reasons, the decision was bound to be contentious. And it was, by East Africans. Importers and wholesalers, big retailers in the towns and smaller ones in the village markets for whom it is good business wouldn’t let go without at least making some noise. Ordinary people also find second-hand clothes very affordable.
That was to be expected and is understandable. Which is why East African leaders announced a phase-out period for the ban to be fully implemented.
But now stiffer opposition to the ban on used clothes has come from an unlikely quarter – or maybe it is not so unlikely – the United States.
Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper reported Wednesday, August 17 that the US Ambassador to Uganda warned the country against implementing the ban. Amb. Deborah Malac is reported to have issued the warning when she made a courtesy call on the Speaker of Uganda’s parliament, Rebecca Kadaga.
Don’t be fooled by nice diplomatic words like “courtesy call”. They do not always mean friendly visits where you have tea and exchange niceties, and it is all smiles and back-slapping. They can actually be very testy affairs where decisions of governments are questioned and threats issued.
That appears to have been the case when Ambassador Malac called on Speaker Kadaga. The exchange was more of an interrogation. What bills are before parliament and do you intend to pass them? Then the “friendly” advice: it would not be good for you to pass some of them. She was more specific on the bill on used clothes, warning: if passed it would impact negatively Uganda’s benefits from AGOA (the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act).
Threats don’t come any more explicit than that whether made around a coffee table during a courtesy call or from the podium at a news conference or other public events. It is not the first time either that this sort of thing happens. In all cases the tactics are the same: if you follow through with your decision we will do a, b, c and you won’t like it. Remember the choices have consequences warning of a few years ago? Times may change but attitudes don’t change very much.
Apparently this is not the first time the United States government has opposed the decision on the ban of used clothes and sought to have it changed. There is reliable information that it has made similar threats to Kenya. Whether Tanzania and Rwanda have also got a talking to is not clear at the moment. If it hasn’t happened yet, we can tell our leaders, murabe mwumva (beware).
The question may be asked: what is in it for the United States to come out so strongly on such a small matter as a ban on importation of used clothes?
Let us first dispel a few wrong notions.
First, the concern of the US government that it has shown in Uganda and Kenya is not out of sympathy for the poor who would go unclothed and get dangerously exposed to the elements if the ban was effected.
Second, the matter is not small. It is in fact huge business worth billions of dollars annually. Most used clothes originate from the United States. There are thousands of companies in the US that export used clothes to Africa. There are also hundreds of charities and NGOs dealing in the same merchandise. Banning their imports would therefore drive many people out of business, kill jobs and bankrupt many companies.
The Ambassador in Uganda is therefore doing the sensible thing (for her country). She is protecting American exporters, shipping companies and charities, and saving American jobs. But in doing so, she is interfering with the choices of other countries to develop their economies for the benefit of their people and also twisting their arms. Some might call that bullying.
East Africa’s leaders must also do the sensible thing. They cannot listen to scolding like school children and murmur in mortal fear of threatened consequences: that won’t happen; I won’t repeat it. They must reject whatever suffocates industrialisation in the region and robs citizens of their dignity. They must stand up for local industry, jobs, skills development and capacity building, and taxes that would be raised.
There is no doubt that in the short term the ban will hurt, especially the small business people and ordinary citizens. In the long term, however, it will turn out to be the correct choice.
In Rwanda, that would not be the first time we have made choices that initially appeared to be unrealistic and even unachievable, and been opposed by some powerful nations. But we have stuck to our choices and in the end they have turned out to be right and nobody has been hurt. This may be another of those.