The election of Donald Trump raises some intriguing geopolitical questions for the US-Africa relationship. Trump rarely mentioned Africa on the campaign trail, in fact, his engagement with the continent has so far been limited to a series of rather inflammatory and offensive tweets. However, an examination of Trump’s priorities, rhetoric, and likely advisors presents a bleak picture for the future of US-African relations. Isolationism, protectionism, and racially divisive rhetoric were the calling cards of candidate Trump, and if President Trump continues this pattern it may lead to a continent-wide reexamination of economic and political allegiances. African scholars have already begun denouncing Trump; Bola Akinterinwa, former director of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, has called for a review of Nigeria’s agreements with the US and a redirection of the country’s attention towards the Chinese development model. Similarly, Wits University’s David Hornsby predicts a further marginalization of African states in what he calls a ‘new era of crass power politics.’ While Africa will likely be low on the list of Trump’s priorities upon entering office, important decisions regarding trade, diplomacy and security will have to be made.
Any discussion regarding Trumpian politics must begin with trade. In the African context, the major US agreement is the ‘African Growth and Opportunity Act’ (AGOA), a 16-year-old preferential trade agreement which is meant to provide ‘beneficiary countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with the most liberal access to the U.S. market available.’ AGOA has helped develop ‘trade and investment hubs’ which facilitate African entry into US markets. Two-way trade is valued at approximately $36 billion with the vast majority of African exports to the US being either natural resources or low-value goods. AGOA also supports approximately 120,000 export-related jobs for American workers; as such, the act is unlikely to be the target of lobbyists or anti-trade politicians, though with Trump, it is impossible to know for sure.
In terms of large investment projects, the Obama administration instituted the ‘Power Africa Initiative’ which seeks to leverage private investment with public sector technical assistance. This sort of deal resonates with Trump’s prior rhetoric and may well be the centerpiece of his Africa strategy. However, much more will be needed if the US is to combat China’s looming influence on the continent as the US lags far behind China in terms of high visibility investment and development projects. Robert Sichinga, Zambia’s minister of commerce, singled out the US, stating “Americans are falling behind other countries in the race to tap in to investment opportunities in Africa, which has been unfairly characterized as a ‘lost continent’… We are here to say to you—you, our American colleagues, are lagging behind.’
Security will likely be the Trump administration’s most prominent area of concern on the continent. Halting and eliminating radical Islam has been one of Trump’s key policy goals from the beginning and will likely be one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy. With Boko Haram, AQIM, al-Shabaab and other groups operating in force throughout the upper part of the continent, there are plenty of opportunities for close cooperation between the US and partner governments. However, recent surveys conducted by the BBC throughout Africa have pinpointed US ‘hard power’ as being one of the most divisive and unpopular elements of American foreign policy. Aid and other ‘soft power’ ventures have been successful in the past and the US still leads China by a comfortable margin in terms of direct aid. African aid and development assistance was one of the few areas where bipartisanship existed during the Obama administration, and it will be interesting to see if this trend continues. However, appointments like Newt Gingrich, who strangely criticized Obama for being ‘anti-colonial,’ might make that a difficult proposition.
Finally, climate change is one area where Africa, and the world, will be impatiently waiting to hear from president Trump. Southern Africa is warming at twice the global mean and pronounced heat waves have been a recurring theme over the last decade. During his campaign, Trump provided limited, and often conflicting information with respect to his plans to curb climate change. Will the US withdraw from the Paris agreement? Will the administration open up the US’ oil and gas reserves? Trump’s pick to head the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell, is a long time ‘climate sceptic’ and has argued against any need to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions on the planet in terms of climate change and inaction could have severe consequences.
The big winner in all this may be China, who has been positioning itself as a continent-wide leader for several decades. China represents a separate development model, one that doesn’t adhere to rigid structural adjustment or transparency. In fact, the traditional western narrative about the US and China’s role in Africa has been a choice between US-led development via human rights versus Chinese-style authoritarianism. Trumps opponent, Hillary Clinton, warned against China’s ‘new colonialism’ in a 2011 speech, while President Obama has thrown similar jabs towards the Chinese presence on the continent. However, Donald Trump’s praise of authoritarian rules and his outspoken antipathy towards human rights could herald the end of this binary logic.
Chinese engagement and development aid has led to a highly positive view of the so-called ‘China model.’ South Africa in particular has moved towards strong economic and political integration with China and the relationship between the two countries has been described by one journalist as an ‘inexplicable love affair.’ However, other countries throughout the continent are also strengthening ties with China and the US would do well to keep Africa in its plans. If the US decides to disengage from Africa, China will gladly fill the void.