Africa Shouldn’t Freak Out About Trump
It’s boring bureaucrats, not the erratic president, who will shape the next administration's policy toward Africa.
President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t said much about Africa, but judging by his explosive Twitter feed, he is no great admirer of the continent. He has called South Africa a “total – and very dangerous – mess,” for example, and predicted that “every penny of the $7 billion going to Africa” as part of President Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative, a bipartisan effort to build reliable electric power grids, “will be stolen – corruption is rampant!”
This kind of rhetoric, coupled with his calls to deport illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the United States, has caused alarm in Africa — courteous messages of congratulations from African leaders notwithstanding. Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, for example, has announced that he has “disassociated” himself from the United States.
But it’s too early to say definitively that the incoming administration will be bad news for Africa. That’s because there is little evidence that Trump will make the continent a priority or that he is even familiar with the major issues there. That means career civil servants and diplomats, together with Congress, will play a big role in setting policy — a recipe for continuity rather than change.
To be sure, there are subtle ways in which Trump’s presidency could be detrimental to the interests of some African countries. More than any other continent, Africa faces the consequences of climate change, especially rising sea levels and desertification. The U.N. estimates that 70 million Africans could be affected by coastal flooding by the year 2080, up from 1 million in 1990. At the same time, the Sahara is marching south, bringing droughts that displace traditional herders, who then collide with settled farmers, sometimes violently. In southern Africa, drought has been recurring for years, depriving many small farmers of their livelihood. Trump, meanwhile, has famously dismissed climate change as a “Chinese hoax” and is unlikely to lead in the implementation of the 2016 Paris agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.
Trump’s hostility to trade agreements is also a source of anxiety on the continent. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade deal offering preferential access to U.S. markets to some three dozen African countries, might be a target for Trump’s anti-trade policies. It was renewed in 2016 for 10 years with bipartisan support in Congress — meaning that it may be difficult for Trump’s administration to secure the votes to repeal it — but it is now unlikely that the new administration and Congress would broaden AGOA’s scope.
Counterterrorism is another area where a Trump presidency could herald a change in U.S. policy toward Africa. The president-elect’s full-throated pledges to take out the Islamic State and his choices of retired generals to head the National Security Council and the departments of Defense and Homeland Security could presage an escalation of U.S. military engagement in Africa, where the group has established footholds in Libya and threatens to expand south into the Sahel. The Islamic State is also affiliated to some extent with the indigenous jihadi movement Boko Haram, which is active in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The ongoing insurrection in Mali also has jihadi links, though more with al Qaeda than with the Islamic State. All of these countries could conceivably see deeper U.S. engagement as a result. Then again, the president-elect has said he opposes sending U.S. troops into additional foreign theaters.
Although it’s worth parsing Trump’s campaign rhetoric for clues about the future, it’s important to remember that his administration’s approach to Africa will likely be determined largely by the executive agencies — primarily the departments of State and Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the intelligence community — as well as interested members of Congress from both parties. Since the president-elect has demonstrated little interest in Africa, his cabinet secretaries will probably play an overarching role in setting policy while officials even further down the chain — the assistant secretaries and deputy administrators with specific Africa responsibilities — will do the critical work of matching broad policy to African realities.
Even further from Trump’s inner circle, the U.S. ambassador in each African country will be the administration’s advocate as well as its eyes and ears. In sub-Saharan Africa, ambassadors are usually career members of the U.S. Foreign Service. Political appointees from outside the service are common only in South Africa, Tanzania, and sometimes Mauritius. (Many Africa posts are designated as “hardship” and are hence unattractive to nonprofessionals.)
All ambassadors, whether career or political, are usually required to submit a letter of resignation on Inauguration Day. Previous administrations have declined the resignations of career diplomats while often accepting those of political appointees, especially when the new president comes from a different party. It’s impossible to say for sure if Trump will observe this tradition. If Trump administration insiders perceive the Foreign Service and others with foreign-policy experience as part of the “foreign-policy establishment” he ran against, he may well make more political ambassadorial appointments in Africa. Then again, because Africa is likely to fly under the administration’s radar, there may be more continuity of personnel and policy there than in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Russia, and China.
All of this suggests that U.S. policy toward Africa is unlikely to change dramatically after Jan. 20. And in many ways, the president-elect’s relative lack of interest in the continent is consistent with both his predecessor and his opponent during the general election. Trump never mentioned sub-Saharan Africa during the presidential debates, but neither did Hillary Clinton. Likewise, many Africans expected Obama’s 2008 election to catapult Africa up the list of American priorities. Certainly, there were Obama administration initiatives, notably Power Africa and the Young African Leaders Initiative, which aims to support the next generation of democratic leaders. But they were relatively modest in size — smaller than George W. Bush’s PEPFAR initiative to fight HIV/AIDS, his Millennium Challenge Corporation, or AGOA, which was put in place during the presidencies of Bush and Bill Clinton.
With Trump moving into the White House, we’re unlikely to see any ambitious new Africa-focused initiatives anytime soon. Indeed, for American friends of Africa, the hope must be that the Trump administration will adopt the watchword of “first, do no harm.” Nevertheless, policy is made and implemented by individuals within the bureaucracy. Those individuals are unlikely to change overnight, except at the very top. One man’s Twitter feed is not policy.
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