Africa has occupied a more or less constantly insignificant position in both Republican and Democratic administrations in the US since the 1960s.
Studies of US-Africa policies have tended to depict Republican administrations as “globalist” – more likely to look at Africa as part of a bigger picture than as its own unique geopolitical space. Democrats, meanwhile, are perceived “Africanists” who have close sympathies to African interests.
But these distinctions are deceptive. Some Republican administrations, such as that of George W. Bush, paid more attention to African issues such as HIV/AIDS than, for instance, Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration did. There were great expectations that Africa would feature prominently during Barack Obama’s presidency. Instead, his administration built on some of the initiatives of the previous Republican governments rather than breaking new or distinctive ground in Africa.
Donald J. Trump is the new man in charge of the US, and Africa seems to have little cause for celebration. During his presidential campaign Trump gave no indication of how his administration would relate to Africa, a continent with a large diaspora in America. Worries about his stance on Africa were compounded by Trump’s deliberate articulation of divisive policies regarding migration, foreigners, Muslims and race.
In the week before Trump’s inauguration it was reported that the president-elect’s advisers had posed pertinent questions to the State Department about Africa.
I’d like to offer unsolicited responses to four of Trump’s questions. I will direct these to the man himself. In doing so, I hope to address the question that’s top of mind for the continent right now: what does a Trump presidency mean for Africa?
US aid to Africa
With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen? Why should we spend these funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the US?
President Trump, your administration will not be the first to discover that foreign aid is a double-edged sword. It rewards autocratic regimes while also strengthening institutions in more democratic ones. So it’s important to understand the institutional conditions under which aid is disbursed.
Your administration should continue the correct policy of selective discrimination of aid recipients. The United States Agency of International Development (USAID) has garnered significant experience in managing aid over the years. You should let it continue the work of putting American dollars where they make a difference. Of course, it is your sovereign responsibility to guarantee that US taxpayers’ money isn’t stolen by venal regimes.
Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram
We have been fighting Al-Shabaab [in Somalia] for decades. Why haven’t we won?
This is an unwinnable war. The fight against Al-Shabaab is part of the war on terror that your predecessors prioritised in Africa. The US has made some difference in how Al-Shabaab is managed in Africa, but your administration should seriously rethink its approach if it wants to see genuine change.
Rebuilding the state in Somalia is the antidote to violent extremism. This rebuilding won’t happen when American administrations indiscriminately drop bombs in Somalia or support weak regional governments that may never marshal the resources to defeat the Islamic insurgents.
What is required are renewed efforts to negotiate a political settlement between the Somali government and Al-Shabaab through international mediation. Al-Shabaab may be amenable to negotiations once the relentless drone attacks from America stop and once regional players can be weaned away from unsustainable militarised approaches.
Why is the United States bothering to fight the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria? Why have all the [Chibok] school girls kidnapped by the group not been rescued?
The Chibok girls may never be found, thanks to the incompetence of the Nigerian military. In the past the Nigerian military was the leading professional army in West Africa. But corruption and political interference have weakened it significantly. A more capable Nigerian military should be able to defeat Boko Haram without American assistance. Probably the US might channel some aid towards supporting a strengthened Nigerian military so it can take care of its own local problems.
In addition, the best policy toward Boko Haram should be to encourage Nigeria to find negotiated solutions to a problem that stems from political and economic marginalisation.
The Chinese conundrum
Are we losing out to the Chinese?
Yes. The US has gradually lost out to the Chinese, which has large investments and is trading robustly with Africa. But instead of complaining about the Chinese, your administration should try to figure out why and where they are succeeding in Africa.
If, as you claim, one of your major policies will be to promote business interests abroad, then Africa will need more attention. This, by the way, will not be inconsistent with broad African opinion that clamours for enhanced international investment in Africa.
Negotiation will be key
So what does all this tell us about Trump’s stance on and approach to Africa?
First, there is understandable cynicism about Africa from the incoming administration. This is born from the negative images that inhere in a large segment of the American psyche. Gradually, however, this scepticism will be tempered by the realities of dealing with a continent that cannot be written off. Second, all new administrations need to have the space and latitude to question the logic of previous policies, as a starting point for new and innovative policies.
But in foreign policy, clean slates are the exceptions rather than the rule. Thus, there will be both change and continuity in Trump’s African policies. The doomsayers may perhaps be surprised at what comes out of the Trump White House.
Trump will not run the US alone. As has always been the case, American presidents must negotiate policies with Congress. African governments and citizens will hope that these negotiations yield compromises across a wide range of issues that benefit the continent into the future.