Amid all the confusion over Donald Trump’s presidency, there are few clues about how his administration will approach the US’s relationship with Africa. The continent was rarely mentioned in the run-up to election day, and so far, Trump’s only foray into African politics has been a pair of phone calls – one to President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, and one to President Jacob Zuma of South Africa.
But an examination of Trump’s rhetoric, likely priorities, and the economic realities facing Africa, paints a bleak picture for the continent over the next four years. A large scale re-examination of economic and political allegiances may be on the cards.
Security will likely be the dominant issue during the Trump administration. “Eliminating” Islamic terrorism is apparently one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy. So with Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and other groups operating throughout parts of the Africa, there are plenty of opportunities for close cooperation.
Indeed, security was the main topic touched upon in the phone calls to both African leaders. According to one of President Buhari’s aides, Trump told the Nigerian president that the US was willing to help Nigeria obtain “new military weapons to combat terrorism”.
The US’s presence on the continent is already highly militarised. The superpower has bases and security facilities spread across countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Kenya, Niger and Uganda. But an increasingly militarised view of the continent may hasten the decline of US soft power, especially if combined with expected changes to American trade and aid policies.
African economies remain highly dependent on the extraction and export of natural resources such as gold, diamonds and other metals. But economic progress simply has not happened on a large enough scale throughout the continent. The apparent surge which led to talk in the media of “Africa Rising” was a combination of high commodity prices, debt relief programs and a glut of primary sector foreign investment. In fact, Africa’s position within the international labour market remains largely unchanged from the late colonial period.
The US’s main trade agreement on the continent, the “African Growth and Opportunity Act” (AGOA), was designed to stimulate manufacturing growth by providing certain African entrepreneurs tariff free access to the US market. This two way trade is valued at approximately US$36 billion.
The AGOA supports approximately 120,000 export related jobs within the US and does not expire until 2025. However, recent evidence suggests that foreign entrepreneurs, mostly of Chinese origin, have often been the main beneficiaries. Detractors contend that the AGOA has been used as a backdoor to get Chinese goods into the US. Despite these reports, it is important to note these manufacturing clusters provide employment opportunities for thousands of Africans and encourage technology and skills transfers which can boost local growth.
The US contributes approximately US$8 billion worth of aid to the continent every year. This comes largely in the form of money spent on social services, poverty alleviation, health and education. While these are certainly worthy endeavours, this sort of assistance tends to only deal with development indirectly.
In addition, Africa is currently facing an enormous decline in spending on infrastructure. Unfortunately, this is not an area ripe for US intervention. American multinational corporations do not typically consider large-scale African infrastructure projects to be profitable investments.
Chinese companies on the other hand, which take into consideration the benefits of political returns as well as profits, have undertaken a massive infrastructure building program throughout the continent. With current projects including railways in Nigeria and Kenya, and a dam in Ghana, China has been positioning itself as a major influence across Africa for decades. The Chinese Communist Party views the continent as a crucial region for China’s domestic development, providing vital resources as well as market access.
South Africa in particular has moved towards strong economic and political integration with China. The relationship between the two countries has been described by one commentator as an “inexplicable love affair”.
If other nations start to see the opportunities that China sees, Africa may enjoy an escalation of competition for resources and market access. To compete with an increasingly visible and well-liked China, the US must supplement current policies designed to support the continent. Whether President Trump has an appetite for this remains to be seen. In the age of “America first”, we do not yet know where Africa will be ranked by the current resident of the White House.