Is Trump a boon for Africa?

US President-elect Donald Trump in the lobby at Trump Tower in New York. Picture: Reuters

US President-elect Donald Trump in the lobby at Trump Tower in New York. Picture: Reuters

Published Jan 14, 2017


Donald Trump's presidency may well be good for US relationship with our continent, writes Greg Mills.

Might Africa stand to profit from a Donald Trump presidency?

His election victory was informed by a visceral instinct about the unhappiness of middle-America, the desire to choose an outsider over the ultimate insider, establishment figure. The result said something about who was hurting in America, and their appetite for change.

Will this mean the same promised sea-change in America’s international relations? European concerns are clear, since for the past 70 years Europe has increasingly farmed out its security to Washington. An inward-looking administration, which Trump has promised given his quest to “make America great again” and apparent aversion to alliances, could see greater responsibility for Europe and its own funding for defence.

For the US contribution to Nato to be weakened at a time when Russia is once again flexing its military strength heightens the risk of a strategic miscalculation. Similar challenges could apply to East Asia.

Still, a Trump presidency will not completely vaporise an increasingly clear and persistent rivalry with Russia and China, or make the North Korean dilemma go away.

But the change of direction hinted at by Trump’s campaign might not make the world a less safe place. To the contrary, for example, an improved relationship with Russia, which Trump has promised, might actually change things for the better and defuse the growing tension. After all, all the conferences on Syria and hand-wringing over Aleppo have saved few, if any, lives.

And, frankly, the Obama presidency has been disappointing, at least in foreign policy terms.

“Under Obama,” says one observer, “you have had a State Department with big hands and a small map and a Pentagon with small hands and a big map.”

In other words, the Obama administration lacked the finer details and will to make things happen. Indeed it can be argued that his administration has been surprisingly inward-looking; withdrawing from overseas conflicts and being reluctant to engage elsewhere.

If a Hillary Clinton administration promised continuity, Africa would likely have featured a long way down the list of priorities, just as it has disappointingly done since the start of Obama’s presidency, despite the president’s Kenyan roots.

Over the past eight years US-Africa policy has largely been a continuation of (Bill) Clinton (in the form of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and Bush II (the Pepfar Aids spending, and the Millennium Challenge money for major projects in ‘reformist’ countries). There has been more fluff (the African Leaders' summit) and the Young African Leaders Initiative (which has brought 2000 young Africans to the US on short visits) and some new money (through Power Africa), but at the same time growing American indifference to African challenges of democratisation and governance.

Under Obama, despite early rhetoric, USAID funding for democracy and governance programmes in Africa (regardless of what one thinks about the effectiveness of such spending) decreased by some 45 percent from the Bush II levels.

Despite a continuation of operational US military engagement through Africom, overall, Obama’s US-Africa policy has been minimalist, and to a fault. Tough diplomacy has been notable by its absence.

Signals against increasing authoritarianism including constitution tampering, media shut-downs and election fiddling have been muted. The excuse provided for such minimalism is that the US does not want to go back to the days of aid conditionality; the effect has been that democracy is sacrificed to short-term security imperatives and the avoidance of any African electoral violence.

It is cautionary to worry about what forces might be sanctioned and empowered by any new establishment. It is also correct to see the opportunity in change. The African priorities for the new Trump administration will have short and longer-term challenges.

In the immediate term, there is the need to work with African partners in finding a solution to the overturning of the democratic election result in The Gambia by the incumbent, Yahya Jammeh. Similarly, there is a need to ensure President Joseph Kabila does not undo the considerable investment made by the UN, among others, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by hanging onto power in disregard of the constitution. The carrot of soft landings for both might help, where Washington could constructively assist, but probably not before the stick of personal sanctions and isolation has been wielded.

Over the longer term, America’s policy concerns should centre on Africa’s demographic explosion, especially in its cities, and jobs.

Given that investors require the rule of law to make investment, and this security is questionable in many African jurisdictions, bolstering the judiciary would be a good place to start with donor help.

A Trump-led shake-up of US foreign policy towards Africa could be a good thing. But Africa will have to work hard to gain positive attention beyond just a source of problems to be solved, including the threat of terrorism to the prospect of failing regions (and not just states) hyper-stressed as they are likely to be by demographic and climate change.

*Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg- based Brenthurst Foundation and is the co-author of the forthcoming Making Africa Work (Tafelberg).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Saturday Star

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