COMMENT: By John Campbell
It’s boring bureaucrats, not his Twitter feed, that will shape his administration’s Africa policy
President Donald Trump has not 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. Trump’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.