By Samantha Maloof*
When Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States, he did so on vague promises and undefined policies. While Asia and Europe featured prominently on the campaign trail, he has been silent on any issue pertaining to Africa. Now that Trump will be taking office in January 2017, there is much uncertainty over the shape his future Africa policy will take, and how the relationship between the United States and the African continent will be affected by his presidency.
What is for sure, however, is that The Donald will be bad news for Africa. Given his staunch “America First” mantra that will be guiding his administration, Africa is going to slip all the way down the list as the US decreases its engagement with the world in order to channel resources inwards. The first budgetary elements on the chopping bloc will most likely be aid provisions to those in need. Despite the fact that Trump had very little to say about the issue, the overall tenor and content of his campaign, in which he pledged to dismantle and reduce the federal state apparatus suggests that USAID could be part of the devolution as well. Although US spending on aid only amounted to 1 percent of the total US federal budget in 2015, this spending will probably careen towards historic lows under President Trump. His transactional worldview relies on receiving tangible returns on his investments – and while Africa is the fastest growing continent, Trump is unlikely to notice.
The Trump presidency could also be the death knell for most of the trade with Africa. The “African Growth and Opportunity Act” (AGOA), which was signed into law in May 2000 to provide “beneficiary countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with the most liberal access to the U.S. market available,” could be one of the first US-Africa agreements to go. While its successes have been debated, AGOA has nevertheless succeeded in pushing trade and investment to become the top priority for US policy in Africa, and in developing “Trade and Investments Hubs” to facilitate African companies’ entry to the American market. With two-way trade valued at $36 billion in 2015, African member countries would lose billions if AGOA were to be abolished. Coupled with the possible abandonment of the “President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief” (PEPFAR) and other development initiatives such as Obama’s “Electrify Africa Act”, Africa might be left standing in the dark.
Furthermore, the president-elect’s controversial history of racist outbursts along with the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as his chief strategist and senior counselor will not help to reassure African nations to place their trust in his administration. In fact, it may accelerate destructive processes already under way in the region, especially when China is increasing its efforts to win the hearts and minds of African leaders. In fact, the obsessive utterance of “America First” might end up making America last.
The U.S.’ national security interests on the continent are defended through a constellation of military bases and tenuous defense agreements. Camp Lemonnier, the biggest American installation, is to be found in Djibouti and plays a vital role in the drone-based counterterrorism warfare staged against terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram and Somali pirates. From Djibouti, the US military is able to cover many of Africa’s security hotspots, as well as the Southwest of the Arabian Peninsula (read, Yemen). In other words, the United States cannot afford to lose it.
But Djibouti’s autocratic president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has been slowly gravitating to China, drawn to Beijing by the billions it plans to invest in the country. In 2015, Djibouti agreed to host China’s first military base, in close proximity to Camp Lemonnier, much to the concern of security experts who are worried about Chinese eavesdropping. Guelleh, a four term president notorious for having embarked on a massive opposition crackdown involving curbing freedom of the press and the torturing of activists, is now more likely to give more leeway to Beijing in the future as Trump looks inwards.
The net outcome of all of the above is that African countries will seek ever-closer relations with America’s main contender on the continent – China. Traditionally, the US provided the blueprint for national development, but as China’s engagement on the continent has been growing, many African leaders increasingly look at Beijing as an alternative to the US-led model based on democracy and liberalism. According to an Afrobarometer survey, the People’s Republic ranks second as a development model, aided by the massive influx of Chinese investments and expanding trade relations. Adopting the Chinese model at a time when the International Criminal Court (ICC) is rapidly unraveling means that African dictators can continue to do as they please.
With Donald Trump at the helm, the US will disengage from Africa and China is ready to gladly fill the void. Outgoing President Obama fought hard to win the hearts and minds of Africans, but Trump’s electoral campaign leaves little hope that the advances made in trade, investment and living standards will hold out much longer. Having lost the normative power it once had, the American insistence on democracy and freedom will soon wane as the Chinese approach to development will become the preferred choice, leaving autocratic rulers the continent over in the strongest position in years.
*Samantha Maloof is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa. This article was published at Modern Diplomacy