Election 2020

Biden and Harris’s Reset for Africa

Democrats on the continent are eager to have a U.S. ally again, but the new administration will have to deliver at home as well.

By , the senior director for policy and government relations at Humanity United.
A supporter shows a calendar with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on the cover outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7.
A supporter shows a calendar with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on the cover outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The United States is at its best when it serves as a symbol of democracy for the rest of the world. That symbolism isn’t always earned, and in fact at several points in U.S. history, it has appeared hypocritical. For the last four years, under Donald Trump’s presidency, that sense of hypocrisy bordered on farcical. The United States seemed to jettison many of the values it most wanted to promote overseas—rule of law, democratic norms, and respect for citizens’ voices. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Reacts series captured, the decline of democratic norms in the United States was palpable, and it gave cover to leaders who willfully harmed their citizens.

Now, with Joe Biden as president-elect and Kamala Harris as vice president-elect, this moment could mark a reset. Within minutes of major U.S. networks calling the race for Biden and Harris, the world began celebrating. In Tanzania, Zitto Kabwe, a leading opposition figure who lost a parliamentary seat in the country’s recent flawed election, tweeted that the Biden-Harris victory represented hope for democracy at a time when its values are under siege. Many citizens across the African continent echoed Kabwe’s sentiment. For the moment, it seems, America, the symbol, might reemerge.

However, for the symbol to truly regain power and legitimacy, and for the Biden-Harris administration to regain credibility in sub-Saharan Africa, it must first deliver at home. Implementing expansive police reform and an agenda to improve the lives of Black Americans will be essential.

The United States is at its best when it serves as a symbol of democracy for the rest of the world. That symbolism isn’t always earned, and in fact at several points in U.S. history, it has appeared hypocritical. For the last four years, under Donald Trump’s presidency, that sense of hypocrisy bordered on farcical. The United States seemed to jettison many of the values it most wanted to promote overseas—rule of law, democratic norms, and respect for citizens’ voices. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Reacts series captured, the decline of democratic norms in the United States was palpable, and it gave cover to leaders who willfully harmed their citizens.

Now, with Joe Biden as president-elect and Kamala Harris as vice president-elect, this moment could mark a reset. Within minutes of major U.S. networks calling the race for Biden and Harris, the world began celebrating. In Tanzania, Zitto Kabwe, a leading opposition figure who lost a parliamentary seat in the country’s recent flawed election, tweeted that the Biden-Harris victory represented hope for democracy at a time when its values are under siege. Many citizens across the African continent echoed Kabwe’s sentiment. For the moment, it seems, America, the symbol, might reemerge.

However, for the symbol to truly regain power and legitimacy, and for the Biden-Harris administration to regain credibility in sub-Saharan Africa, it must first deliver at home. Implementing expansive police reform and an agenda to improve the lives of Black Americans will be essential.

The new administration will have its work cut out domestically and globally. Nonetheless, democrats on the African continent are eager to have an ally again. In Biden and Harris, they hope to have an administration that will amplify the voices of civic leaders who are championing human rights and advocating for much needed reforms. They also hope to have an administration that reevaluates how (and to whom) the U.S. government provides security sector assistance, reprioritizes international accords, speaks with moral clarity, and no longer gives cover to authoritarian wannabes.

It’s unlikely that the new administration will meet all of these hopes and aspirations; however, if Biden’s statements and posture during the campaign are any indication, democrats on the African continent will get some much needed victories.

Kehinde A. Togun is the senior director for policy and government relations at Humanity United. He previously led democracy and governance programs in Eurasia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. He is a Truman National Security Fellow and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development. Twitter: @KehindeTogun

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