It has been only a few months since US President Donald Trump took office, and US-Africa relations have certainly not been the first priority on his to-do list. One Obama-era official has even gone as far as to say that Trump has “no interest in Africa.”
But how true is this? Interested or not, Trump has already made some decisions that have started to make impact in Africa, or point to likely policy shifts to come.
The Messenger guides you through some key areas to watch:
1. Revisiting AGOA trade law
Trump’s skepticism toward a North American free trade pact and a new trans-Pacific trade deal were major parts of his election platform. He has blamed US officials for striking “dumb deals” that he says hurt American workers and didn’t serve national interests. Some of his advisors have also questioned the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), enacted under former President Bill Clinton, which provides non-reciprocal tariff-free access for African goods from countries deemed to be improving the rule of law and human rights.
Chester Crocker, former US assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Reagan administration, said in a recent newspaper report that “there might be a reflex to revisit Agoa.” He pointed out that the deal gave African countries access US markets without America receiving anything obvious in return. Crocker says that this goes against Trump’s transactional approach to politics and deal-making.
2. LGBT rights
The Trump Administration has already halted some of the public advocacy for gay and lesbian rights carried out by the US government under the Obama Administration. On the day that Trump took office, his team deleted the White House website page about this issue. Under Obama, the US State Department had dispensed approximately $35 million to organizations working on LGBT issues, including millions spent in Africa. Former US diplomat Johnnie Carson says he doesn’t expect the Trump administration to continue the kind of advocacy that Obama’s administration engaged in.
3. Eyes on AFRICOM
Trump’s new National Security Council is heavy on former military officers, including some who have experience with the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). Both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush put civilians in charge of the NSC, but Trump has opted for retired army generals – first Michael Flynn, who later stepped down, then H.R. McMaster – who brought with them a number of former associates from their days in uniform. The new team could bolster military-to-military partnerships with African allies and oversee an expansion of the US military role from bases in the Sahel and Djibouti. Under Obama, the US military footprint in Africa expanded but direct US interventions were rare. A key test case will come in Somalia.
4. Anti-terror operations in Somalia
The Obama Administration disbursed significant support to UN and AU missions in Somalia aiming to stabilize the country after a partial takeover by Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda linked group. Obama also authorized some drone strikes in Somalia and he helped fund the Somali national elections and other state-building projects. But Trump’s team have questioned whether the US has done enough. They sent a memo to the US State Department during the transition asking this pointed question: “We’ve been fighting al-Shabaab for a decade – why haven’t we won?” This suggests that the Trump team may seek to boost the US security response one way or another – whether through direct intervention or in the form of support to the Somali government.
Within days of Trump’s inauguration there were unconfirmed reports that American operatives participated in a raid in Badhaadhe in southern Somalia alongside Kenyan and Somali government troops. AFRICOM, meanwhile, announced sending logistics advisors to help Somali special forces.
Johnnie Carson, Obama’s former top diplomat in the State Department Africa Bureau, says, “The US role in the battle against al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and armed groups in the Sahel region will probably be expanded, and African support for US actions may become a new litmus test for closer relations.”
Another incident worth mentioning is a botched US Special Forces raid in nearby Yemen, which was carried out on Trump’s orders. The raid could suggest that Trump will be more aggressive and less risk-averse than Obama as Commander-in-Chief. US media reported that Obama had exercised a ‘pocket veto’ over the operation by declining to approve it, owing to inadequate intelligence, but Trump approved it soon after taking office.
5. Africa-connected Secretary of State
Trump’s pick for the US top diplomat position – the Secretary of State – has done business in Africa as CEO of oil giant Exxon. Rex Tillerson oversaw Exxon’s investments in the oil-rich countries of Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Nigeria. Some observers suggest Trump and Tillerson could refocus US policy toward commercial interests in Africa. Critics are concerned that this could harm human rights or the environment in Africa. Whatever the consequences, it is clear that Tillerson has a wealth of connections and experiences on the African continent to draw on before he even takes up the job.
6. ‘America First’ Deal-Making
The new US president vowed in his inauguration address to adopt policies that put “America First.” The new US Secretary of State echoed this refrain at his Senate confirmation hearing saying, “American leadership must not only be renewed, it must also be asserted.”
But what does assertiveness on the African continent mean? Does it mean more direct investment and deal-making like the Chinese have done? Trump and Tillerson certainly have the clout and the connections to the US private sector to inspire more US direct investment in Africa. But the administration’s priorities may lie elsewhere – in the security sphere, for instance.
Tillerson has been called an “aggressive dealmaker” by The New York Times, owing to his record of negotiations at Exxon. His brazen style is more reminiscent of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld than that of the outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry. Together with Trump, he could shape US policy in aggressive and perhaps unexpected ways.
7. Sudan sanctions relief
One of Barack Obama’s last acts as US president was to decree the end of a decades-old US trade ban on Sudan. The decision reportedly came after approval by the incoming Trump Administration as well. However, the decree does not take effect until July, contingent upon a review of Sudan’s human rights record and security cooperation. This puts the final decision in the hands of Trump, his advisors and top intelligence officials. Even though the deal is yet to be closed, it looks increasingly like Obama and Trump have jointly opened a new chapter in US-Sudan relations.
8. Skepticism on development spending
Barack Obama’s $7bn Power Africa fund, launched in 2013 with the aim of improving access to electricity in Africa, could be on the chopping block. When it was announced, Trump slammed it on Twitter saying, “Every penny of the $7bn going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen – corruption is rampant!” During the presidential transition, Trump’s team also questioned the PEPFAR program, a George W. Bush initiative to halt HIV/AIDS, asking whether it is “worth the massive investment when there are so many security concerns in Africa” and questioning whether it is “becoming a massive, international entitlement program.”
Officials in the new administration are evidently skeptical about US foreign aid, including Trump himself. But many US foreign aid programs are ancillary to US political and security commitments on the continent and for this reason could remain on the table. For example, development assistance to Ethiopia complements the US-Ethiopia security partnership in Somalia in the effort to combat Al-Shabaab. And some aid programs have won praise merely for being successful – for example, the new US top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, defended the PEPFAR program at his Senate confirmation hearing, calling it “one of the most extraordinarily successful programs in Africa.”
Trump’s White House and the State Department won’t be the only ones to make decisions on aid spending in Africa, however. The US Congress actually calls the shots on spending. The Republican Party, which controls Congress, is itself divided into internationalist and isolationist wings when it comes to foreign policy. The former will want to continue spending on building international alliances and security partnerships, whereas the latter will want to slash programs as much as possible.
9. South Sudan advocates out in the cold
Barack Obama’s White House had strong ties to the South Sudanese government both directly and indirectly through a group of pro-SPLM/A foreign policy advisors who called themselves ‘the Council‘ and were part of a decades-long push to make the country independent. This group, which played a dominant role in shaping US policy toward South Sudan in recent years, is now out in the cold and has been replaced by more skeptical officials.
Juba’s ties reached directly into the White House, including with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who blocked a British effort to impose an arms embargo, and indirectly to Obama’s top aide John Podesta, whose brother Tony took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the South Sudanese government under a lobbying contract. Another official whose policies benefitted the Juba regime was Ambassador Donald Booth, Obama’s special envoy, who helped broker a deal to keep Salva Kiir in power beyond the expiry of his elected term. Booth left office one day before Trump’s inauguration.
Who might step into this power vacuum? Many positions in the new administration still remain to be filled. With so few clues as to who will actually be calling the shots, it is hard to guess at how the Trump team will reshape US-South Sudanese relations. What is fairly certain is that the new administration is less closely tied to the SPLM/A government in Juba than the previous administration.
10. Travel ban: Somalia, Sudan and Libya
Trump has issued orders to US security and immigration agencies banning travelers from three African countries – Somalia, Sudan and Libya – along with several other Middle Eastern nations. Although the orders are still under judicial review, they signal a determination on the part of the president to curtail travel between these nations and the USA, which he considers puts the nation at risk of terrorism. Trump says the travel ban aims to keep out “Islamic radical terrorists.” Many of those who seek to travel to the US from these countries are seeking study or training opportunities. Others are seeking asylum or a new life after years as exiles or refugees
11. Tillerson: Grievances with Chad?
The new US Secretary of State carries into his role fresh memories of a dispute with the Chadian government dating to his time as chief of oil giant Exxon. Last year a court in Chad ordered the US company to pay a record $74 billion fine – an amount equivalent to more than five times the country’s GDP. The ruling came in response to a complaint from the Chadian Finance Ministry that a consortium led by Exxon had not met its tax obligations. Exxon insisted that it had kept its end of a bargain with the Chadian government and it tried to open up negotiations over the fine and to appeal the ruling.
Not only is this significant to Chadian-US relations but it also has broader implications if there are any outstanding tensions between Tillerson and Chad. This is because the country’s foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat was recently elected to head the African Union.
12. Anti-abortion order: One of Trump’s first presidential decrees was to reinstate a Reagan-era policy that bans overseas funding to any organization that performs abortions or promotes them. International aid groups that perform abortions are no longer eligible for US funding. Also groups that do not directly support or fund abortion but provide information about it as part of family planning services are blocked by the order from receiving US funding. Aid groups Marie Stopes International and the United Nations Population Fund are among those affected. UNFPA stands to lose up to $76m globally. Both of these groups operate large programs in Ethiopia and other African countries.
The Messenger is dedicated to investigative and expository reporting throughout East Africa. To support us and our journalistic mission sign up for our newsletter (free) or boost us financially through Patreon.