Trump’s rise: African-American politicians must lead on Africa’s affairs

Congressman Ron Dellums of California protests in front of the South African embassy in 1984. Rick Reinhard

A Donald Trump presidency has grave implications for US relations with Africa. His meteoric political ascension ushers in an era of right-wing domestic extremism and international disregard.

Trump has exhibited an unabashed lack of interest in Africa. This is a continent where numerous countries play a key role in the US war on terrorism. Africa’s geopolitical importance also extends from its numerous natural resources, which are essential to global manufacturing industries. Other areas of import include its growing population, China’s broadening involvement, and rapid democratisation in many countries.

Trump’s lack of substantive interest in African affairs is worrying. But his disregard presents a unique opportunity for progressive leadership to shape US foreign policy.

The political left should leverage Trump’s foreign policy weaknesses to strengthen rather than weaken international partnerships. This is much the same as Democrats did during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The left should also expand rather than retract US support for Africa’s democracies, democratic movements and its economic development.

African American elected officials in particular have an opportunity – if not an obligation – to reassert themselves on African affairs.

Visionary leadership in dark times

I was fortunate to come of age during the 1980s. It was a decade in which the Congressional Black Caucus exercised considerable influence on African affairs. In fact, it had greater influence than any African American organisation in history.

Reagan viewed issues of the global south through a Cold War lens. He was fixated on anticommunism. Such a narrow framework blurred the details of local and regional politics. But it provided opportunities for the Black Caucus to shape political narratives that advocated a radical departure from traditional US-Africa relations.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Black Caucus’s initiatives toward African countries were shaped by progressive, activist politicians. Their roots lay in the civil rights struggle, the Black Power Movement and organised labour.

Its leaders included such charismatic, activist legislators as Ronald Dellums and Maxine Waters of California, Mickey Leland of Texas and Pennsylvania’s William Gray.

This high water mark of African American influence was a unique moment in US history. It holds many lessons for today’s politics. To effectively mobilise African American congressional leadership, it is useful to understand the Black Caucus’s strategic vision, nimbleness and political acumen during the 1980s. This was the decade of strength, despite the obstacles of the Reagan administration’s fixation on communism.

History’s lessons

Congressman Charles Diggs, a radical Democrat from Detroit, Michigan, was the founding chairman of the Black Caucus in 1971. He and his colleagues thrust African issues into congressional foreign policy debates. These included apartheid in South Africa, ongoing Portuguese colonialism, white-minority rule in Rhodesia and democracy and oil in Nigeria.

Diggs was a model activist legislator. He led official delegations to Nigeria, South Africa and Angola. He also created an NGO to raise awareness and funds in response to the growing famine in the Sahel.

Donald Trump has little interest in or knowledge about African affairs. Reuters

Under his leadership, the Black Caucus submitted legislation and resolutions to steer US policy toward a country-specific approach and away from anticommunism as the determinant for where the US engaged in Africa.

During the 1980s activist Black Caucus members demonstrated solidarity with leftist regimes in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America. They led the push for historic anti-apartheid legislation in 1986 and record-level famine relief in 1985. They pushed the US government to give greater market access for African goods and political and humanitarian support for southern Africa’s Front Line States, the organisation of southern African countries opposed to apartheid.

The number of African Americans in Congress increased during this period. They asserted themselves as the most strident critics of Reagan’s Africa policies. The Black Caucus countered his deleterious programmes with the triple threat of legislation, mass organising and protests. They also coordinated with organisations such as the Free South Africa Movement and, beginning in the late 1970s, TransAfrica. Black Caucus members helped launch both organisations.

These are mere snapshots of the array of issues that kept the Black Caucus at the centre of US political discourse through the 1990s.

The decline of the Black Caucus

The Black Caucus continued with some relevance into the new century. But its collective voice has diminished to near silence. Many factors contributed to its current weak and largely symbolic political position.

In 1995, Congress eliminated funding for all legislative service organisations, including the Caucus. This forced its members to raise money for their initiatives.

Another constraint was George W. Bush’s War on Terror. This radical foreign policy crowded out possibilities for a progressive, humane foreign policy toward global south nations in the early 2000s.

During the Obama presidency, African American elected officials generally avoided presenting alternatives to the president’s policies. They feared weakening his capacity to withstand attacks from the right. Without this tacit support, it would have been impossible to push his policies past an obstructionist Republican-controlled House and Senate.

The Trump mandate

The consequences for African economies will be dire if Trump privileges a terrorism lens and pulls away from trade agreements, as he has threatened.

His trade policies will imperil the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in 2000. The result will be increased tariffs on US imports from Africa. The Black Caucus must make the importance of AGOA evident to the public and the new US president. It must work to protect this legislation.

It should also protect Obama’s important Africa initiatives, particularly Power Africa, Feed the Future and the highly innovative Young African Leaders Initiative.

Barack Obama delivers remarks at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner in Washington. Reuters

The Black Caucus must chart the US economic path in Africa. Trump’s protectionist policies will cause the economies of the leading US trading partners in Africa – South Africa, Nigeria and Angola – to tailspin. The Black Caucus should use press conferences, press releases, conferences and legislation to make clear the ways the US benefits from these African economic giants.

Ethiopia is also a country to watch. Although US-Ethiopian relations have recently strained around human rights and governance issues, Ethiopia has enjoyed a special status under Obama. This is largely through its cooperation in fighting terrorist groups in East Africa and its contracts with the Boeing Company. The Black Caucus must raise awareness of the US-Ethiopian partnership. But it must also demonstrate support for the ongoing movement for true democracy and political freedoms in Ethiopia.

In addition, the Black Caucus should outline specific ways the new administration might bolster the vibrant democracies of Ghana, Namibia, and Botswana. They must be promoted as examples for the entire continent.

Recently, its members have spoken out forcefully in support of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls. Their actions are laudable. But symbolic stances must be accompanied by policy and security recommendations for the US as it confronts Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

During the Trump presidency, African American elected officials would do well to look at their own history of acting within Congress on behalf of African governments, movements and issues for strategies toward a progressive agenda on African affairs. It is imperative that the Black Caucus define the popular narrative for the US approach to African countries. They should weaken Trump’s hand before he whittles Africa into a caricature of terrorism, poverty and migration across the Mediterranean. History is the Caucus’s greatest weapon.