What Will Trump's Presidency Mean for Africa?

What Will Trump's Presidency Mean for Africa?

A man drives a motorbike decorated with an American flag at Kamukunji Grounds in Kibera, Nairobi, on July 24, 2015

SourceTill Muellenmeister/AFP/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because Americans aren’t the only ones affected by U.S. elections. 

In Cape Town, in 2009, the very air rang with joy.

“Obama! Obama!” the passersby yelled out their windows when my American friends and I walked down the street. That sense of exultation swept the entire African continent after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency. Beneath the pride — a son of Africa had claimed the world’s most powerful office — lay a deeper sense that U.S. policy would do right by the continent.

President-elect Donald J. Trump will enter office without such fanfare, says Kelsey Lilley, associate director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council — and with some observers very nervous about his “more incendiary comments” about refugees and Muslims on a continent with large, diverse populations of both. Among Africanists and African leaders, there is uncertainty about what Trump’s Africa policy will look like. Compounding the uncertainty is the fact that Trump’s bench of Africa experts isn’t terribly deep. There’s usually a “constellation of advisers and confidants — people they would be tapping,” says Todd Moss, chief operating officer and longtime Africanist at the Center for Global Development. But “that’s just not the case now,” he adds.

Indeed, some respected Republican experts on Africa, like former Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer and Chester Crocker, denounced Trump in the run-up to his election. And the African ties we do know of are somewhat bleak: Newt Gingrich wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Belgian education in the Congo without ever visiting the country, and Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort lobbied for Congolese warlord Mobutu Sésé Seko and Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in the 1980s.

So, many are watching closely to see who fills the ranks. Until then, it’s premature to have “any great confidence” about how a Trump Africa policy will look, says Moss. But there are some clues as to what the next U.S. administration might portend for Africa. Here are four areas where Trump’s team might take a different tack or even stay the course.

Democracy and Dictators

After Trump’s victory, the hashtag #Nov8AfricanEdition started trending on African Twitter, reflecting an eerie sense of foreboding. The U.S. had just elected a man whose rhetoric echoed that of some of the continent’s most powerful autocrats — threats to jail opponents, accusations of election rigging, etc. Joking tweets about African heads of state being sent to the U.S. to resolve our election crisis offered a particular irony. Meanwhile, term-limit-changing presidents like Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Joseph Kabila of Congo rushed to congratulate the new U.S. president-elect.

Are the continent’s longstanding rulers rejoicing at what will be a warmer relationship with the man in the oval office? Not likely, says writer and Congo expert Jason Stearns. More likely? That Trump will have a largely hands-off governing style because of his lack of experience on the continent. While the Obama administration and his predecessors watched closely over politics in Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Congo, many think Trump is “just not going to care as much, and they’ll have more breathing room,” says Stearns. American democracy promotion might have met its match.

Legacy Deals

Support for U.S. Africa policy has historically been unusually bipartisan, with major policies continuing across both Republican and Democratic presidencies since the 1990s. Legacy legislation like Bill Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which increased access to U.S. markets for some African countries, was expanded by Bush and renewed by Congress for another decade just last year, with overwhelming support. George W. Bush’s 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) gave special funding to HIV/AIDS programs across Africa and has been critical to reducing infection rates and improving access to antiretroviral drugs. The more recent Power Africa legislation is seen as a bipartisan effort to boost private investment in power infrastructure. The Obama administration spent “the last eight years largely building on the Bush legacy,” says Moss. Lilley argues there’s “no reason to believe” that there will be dramatic change under Trump.

African Economies

Many at USAID and the Department of State are looking for other jobs amid fears that budgets will be slashed, says Stearns. And cuts in foreign assistance to the continent may be coming just as African countries need it the most. Falling commodity prices could exacerbate the looming famine crisis in Nigeria and human tolls of conflict in South Sudan and Burundi. If Trump really imposes the 45 percent tariff he’s threatened on Chinese goods, that will likely hurt African economies. Many countries are already facing copper, cobalt and zinc slumps, in part “because of the Chinese economic slowdown” and global drop in commodity prices, says Stearns. Conversely, Trump could see trade with Africa as a way to compete with the Chinese; since 2009 China has been Africa’s largest trading partner.

Given President-elect Trump’s promises to focus on roads, bridges, water and the internet, we might see “renewed emphasis on infrastructure investment in Africa,” says Moss. Power Africa could be bolstered or, at the very least, receive continuing support too. After all, the program is designed to attract private investment into Africa’s power sector, and better connectivity is good for African economies and the global economy.

Africom and Terrorism

Trump will be forced to focus on the continuing emerging threats of terrorism in parts of Africa — including ISIS-linked Boko Haram, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, ISIS splinter groups in Libya and al-Shabaab in Somalia. It would be safe to assume we will have the continued militarization of foreign policy when dealing with less-than-democratic countries like Ethiopia and Uganda, both of which have been critical partners in fighting terrorism, as well as the continued use of Djibouti as a base. There’s also potential for a larger role for the U.S. Africa Command on the continent — a divisive issue for some Africans who view more visible bases as a redux of colonialism.

Human Rights and Health

Historically, U.S. policy in Africa has included strong support for free press and civil society in restrictive regimes — often preventing community leaders or journalists from being jailed or exiled. U.S. support for government health ministries will be critical to preventing or mitigating another outbreak of Ebola or infectious disease with global implications. Access to clean water and issues like girls’ education have been cornerstones of the American relationship with many African countries. There’s “a very strong tradition within the Republican party of support for foreign assistance, particularly global health and the use of it to support our national security for policy goals,” says Moss.

On the flip side, the official Republican platform in 2012 said support for access to abortion and LGBTQ rights in Africa were areas they would oppose if they were in power. But we don’t yet know exactly what kind of “Republican” administration Trump has in mind. There’s also the more delicate dance of dealing with the “G” word and the huge fallout around whether and when we call mass killings genocide. It’s a game that Trump might be loathe to play, and one with potentially lethal fallout — watchdogs are already keeping a close eye on South Sudan and Burundi.

There’s a chance that President Trump, with the right advisers, could be the partner many African governments desire. (Or he writes the continent off as corrupt, as this tweet suggests.) For decades, U.S. engagement in Africa has been premised on aid or security. “A lot of people — on both sides of the political spectrum — have been advocating for a change,” says Joshua Meservey, an Africa and Middle East policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation. Since Trump’s a businessman, perhaps he’ll approach deal-making on the continent with more “equal footing.” That’s something both sides of the aisle can root for.

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