On December 20th 2016, President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo officially exceeded the limit set for him to vacate the Presidency by the Congolese constitution. An African president exceeding his term is hardly a revelation, but to do so quite so blatantly and to draw no criticism from either United States President Barack Obama or President-Elect Donald Trump is. While arguably it would not be appropriate for either man to comment (one is a lame-duck and the other is a not-yet President) this episode may provide early insight into the direction Mr Trump’s policy priorities in Sub-Saharan Africa may take over the coming years.
Estimating Mr Trump’s foreign policy is a hot topic. European and Asian allies are worried about the future; Russia and China are preparing for a totally different relationship with the world’s most powerful nation. Africa, however, stands out from the crowd. It is quite possible that Washington’s policies on the continent under Mr. Trump could remain largely unchanged from those of Mr Obama, or for that matter George W. Bush.
There has been a remarkable continuity to Washington’s perception of Africa since the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. In the 1990’s the continent was beset by intra-state conflict, societal breakdown and strife – the sight of 18 dead American servicemen in Somalia was too much for the Clinton administration to bear, or for the American public to accept and peace support missions in Africa’s thankless wars were effectively ended. The continent has since been conceived as a source of constant problems, or rather, fewer opportunities for American interests, and has therefore received less in the way of Washington’s attention.
American interest in Africa peaked during the Cold War. The continent was an active arena in the great contest with the Soviet Union, with American covert and overt aid famously propping up anti-communist regimes and states such as Daniel Arap Moi’s Kenya, Mobutu Sese Soko’s Zaire (today the Democratic Rep. of the Congo) and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITAS movement in Angola. The support was designed to counteract the USSR’s strategy of cutting the West off from a strategic sources of minerals, but with the collapse of the USSR and its African client states (the Derg regime in Ethiopia), the US found little reason to stay active on the continent. The Clinton administration cautiously applauded the dawn of democracy in South Africa, but even then regarded Southern Africa as a British responsibility in accordance with outdated early Cold War assumptions of spheres of interest.
Of the post-Cold War crop of presidents, it was Mr Bush who took the greatest interest in Africa by far. Mr Bush named Rosa Whitaker as the first Assistant US-Africa Trade Representative, who in turn masterminded the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). AGOA was intended to help Africa’s integration into the world economy through duty-free access to US markets for certain goods. Mr Bush also introduced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has provided antiretroviral treatment for over 7.7 million people and supported HIV screening and counselling to more than 56.7 million as of 2014. PEPFAR is largely credited with turning the tide against HIV-AIDS in Africa. Mr Bush’s Freedom Agenda also re-introduced strong elements of democracy promotion on the continent, with the Millennium Challenge Corporation explicitly linking aid to democratisation.
Mr Obama has been notably quieter about Africa than his predecessor. Perhaps stung by spurious birth-certificate claims at home Mr Obama, aside from a very brief visit to Accra in 2009, did not undertake a notable visit to the continent until his 2013 tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania – a year into his second term. Nonetheless Mr Obama will leave the first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit (of 2014) as his legacy. This administration also saw the expansion of the Obama war doctrine to the continent, with drone bases being established in Niger and the Horn region which have provided support to counter-insurgency efforts as part of the War on Terror.
The Current Stance
Mr Trump was elected on a wave of populist desire to see America re-focus its efforts towards home, and such a desire could significantly alter Washington’s foreign policies across the globe. US foreign policy in Africa, however, is built around certain pillars that Mr Trump’s election is unlikely to change.
The American policy community has consistently viewed Africa through the lens of security. Of all the great powers active on the continent, Washington’s posture is undoubtedly the most militarised, and by this measure the USA enjoys a far more developed relationship with African states than any of its competitors. The 1995 National Security Strategy (blueprints for America’s role in the world that appear periodically) envisaged almost no role for the US military in Africa. Yet, analysis by the Center for Research and Globalisation concluded that the most detailed strategy to emerge from the 2015 NSS was for US “hyper-engagement” with Africa. Washington carved an independent “Africa Command” grouping (USAFRICOM) from its European and Middle Eastern commands in 2008, showing the region’s heightened importance to strategists. US strategy leans heavily on enabling local forces to combat local terrorist groups, as in West Africa, and by strengthening the operational capacity of regional groupings like the African Union and Southern African Development Community. Nonetheless, US forces have taken a more active role against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, notably through the provision on reconnaissance flights by MQ-1 Predator drones.
The US takes a rather unique stance in the allocation of its diplomatic officials, in that it makes use of political appointments as well as career members of the Foreign Service in its selection for ambassadorial posts. Political appointees can be used as a reward for fundraisers to countries where relations are good and diplomacy is usually conducted bilaterally, as in Western Europe, or to countries to whom Washington wishes to send a certain message – the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Westphal, was formerly the undersecretary of the Army for example. Resultantly, career Foreign Service officers are unlikely to find themselves in Allied capitals like London, or in big-ticket rivals like Beijing or New Delhi. Foreign Service officers do find themselves in Sub-Saharan Africa, and they are largely left to their own devices to formulate US foreign policy whilst there.
Both foreign and defence policy on the continent then are more or less up to Washington’s mandarins in the State Department and Pentagon. Ultimatley, Sub-Saharan African policy flies under the American public’s radar. Mr Trump may struggle to tear up current policy there and introduce sweeping changes, because policy in the region neglects flagship aspects of wider US strategy. Policy responsibility falls to the technocratic wonks, and Mr Trump is hardly a details man.
Africa, then, is almost certainly going to remain far from Washington’s gaze. Nonetheless the vast US foreign policy apparatus is comparable to a cumbersome aircraft carrier, and the very act of changing its course – as Mr Trump intends to do – is bound to send ripples through the water. Africa is not so far removed as to be insulated from these ripples.
Viewed from Washington, the number one economic interest in Africa is oil, which is hardly as attractive as it once was. Mr Trump has indicated he will work to support the shale gas revolution, turning the America into the world’s largest petrostate. Putting environmental concerns to one side, such a revolution would provide the USA with unassailable energy security for the foreseeable future. This in turn removes a lot of the impetus for engagement overseas. This situation might create an even more one-sided trade relationship with Africa as, to put it crudely (pardon the pun), the continent has little of interest to sell to the USA.
America’s appetite for free trade deals is also on the wane, though AGOA stands out as particularly vulnerable. The induction of AGOA was as much a victory for aid & democracy promotion lobbies as it was for the free traders, and it is often talked about in Washington as if it were a favour granted Africa rather than a comprehensive trade agreement. In actual fact AGOA is structurally biased towards American exporters as it places stringent conditions on African exports to the US market but places none of these in the opposite direction. AGOA was often held up by my colleagues at Stellenbosch University as the very incarnation of all that is wrong with capitalism, citing the example of cheap American chicken that was below health standards flooding the South African market while South African poultry farmers struggled. Regardless AGOA played a significant role in the “Africa Rising” years of breakneck GDP growth, and was instrumental in releasing many African countries from Francafrique style back-room deals whereby a country’s resources would be sold off to one country alone at highly reduced prices – such as Niger’s export of uranium to France. AGOA works to both the USA and Africa’s advantage, yet it is likely to find itself on the chopping block under the Trump administration because of a vocal populist desire to end free-trade agreements, particularly ones that are perceived as charity.
Similarly aid to Africa is likely to come off worse. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) currently enjoys the world’s largest aid budget at $31.8 bn, far ahead of the next-best United Kingdom Department for International Development at $18.70 bn. However the populist rhetoric that swept Mr. Trump to power has traditionally viewed aid budgets as the worst sort of cosmopolitan liberalism and therefore an edifice to be torn down. The “America first” narrative cannot be reconciled with US taxpayers giving money to the world’s poor while Americans struggle at home. Again, this is directly against Washington’s interest because aid is an important cornerstone of the USA’s tremendous soft power around the globe (sadly the post-truth epoch renders this fact somewhat inconsequential).
Mr Trump’s distaste for Bush era nation-building policies and passion for wholesale disengagement is well known. Democracy promotion under the Trump White House will be quieter. This could conceivably lead to short term benefits for Washington. For example, an America less keen on lecturing Africa on democracy could lead to a renaissance in the relationship between the USA and Kenya, traditionally the West’s most eager African partner. Kenyan relations with Washington and the West as a whole soured over perceived western support for an International Criminal Court investigation into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s role in the 2008 Kenyan Election violence, in which between 800 and 1,500 people were killed and up to 600,000 were displaced. However, if Washington is seen as too eager on disengagement, particularly withdrawal of military support for those African countries that have acted as partners in the War on Terror, it could potentially serve to make regimes with less than clear electoral mandates (which is most of them) nervous and push them further into the steadily encroaching pull of China’s orbit.
Indeed the expansion of Chinese influence at the expense of the United States’ could well be Mr Trump’s most significant implication for Africa. China’s trade with Africa reached $90bn in 2009, surpassing the USA as Africa’s largest trading partner. The value of Chinese trade with Africa grew to $310 bn by 2015, while the USA’s has shown a downward trend since 2011. Africa is awash with Chinese funded-infrastructure projects and cheap loans, and China’s “no strings attached” diplomacy is attractive to the Continent’s autocrats like Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and the aforementioned Joseph Kabila. Additionally it is significant that Djibouti was chosen as the location of China’s first overseas military base in 2016. Mr Trump seems likely to promote a more conflictual style of engagement with China, in which the main battleground will be the Asia-Pacific region and Africa a peripheral concern for both countries. However it is clear that Chinese influence on the continent is in the ascendant, while American lack-of-interest has seen its influence stagnate. It is not inconceivable that China could look to harden the influence it enjoys over African nations as a part of the global game of risk Mr Trump seems to liken international relations to.
Similarly the Europeans could well be back in Africa. European trade with Africa, standing at $106 bn, also surpassed that of the USA in 2015, relegating Washington to third place. European leaders share many of the USA’s security concerns on the continent, with the added incentive that it is much closer to them and therefore are more prevalent threat. The ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has shaken the European Union (EU) to its core and European leaders will take steps to ensure similar crises, such as a potential civil war in Algeria following the death of the ailing 79 year old President of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika, cannot threaten it so again. Since 2002 the EU has undertaken 30 overseas military operations, 22 of which have been in Africa. It is worth remembering that the EU’s most militarily powerful member, France, served as the archetypal African policeman in the 20th century and retains significant economic and military assets on the continent. The British are also looking to re-establish their global influence and sign quick trade deals. The UK is significantly invested in key African economies, including Nigeria, South Africa & Kenya, and their spirited opposition to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was warmly received in many African capitals. Both the UK and France are strong candidates to step into the security assistance role should the USA vacate it.
Finally a happy consequence of further US disengagement from Africa could be that larger African states and regional organisations begin to play a more involved role in regional stability. As I’m writing this the BBC has reported that Senegalese troops, with the backing of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have crossed into The Gambia to compel President Yahya Jammeh to step down after losing the December 1st Election to Adama Barrow and his Coalition 2016 Party. (ECOWAS has intervened in West Africa before, with disastrous results for Sierra Leonne and Liberia in the early 1990’s, but this is undoubtedly a positive step). The Southern African Development Community (SADC), largely under South African guidance, has also proven effective in curtailing Southern Africa’s more flagrant abuses of power.
None of these things are likely to happen overnight, and do not represent significant changes to US Africa policy in any case. Nonetheless it is likely that the Trump administration could accelerate the process by which Africa has slowly exited the orbit of the American-led world order and enters into a multipolar one earlier than other regions. Ultimatley, US foreign policy in Africa was conceived in the afterglow of Washington’s victory in the Cold War; it is no longer fit for purpose. In order to adapt to the realities of 2017, Washington’s policies toward the continent must show the elasticity they have shown in other regions. A multipolar world is not yet inevitable, but it can only be avoided through re-engagement in regions the United States has long been absent.
Editors Note: Harry Cranston is an MPhil African Studies student studying at the University of Cambridge. He is currently embarking on a journey that will see him travel south from Cairo, Egypt across the continent to Cape Town, South Africa.