The race to find a Democratic challenger to President Donald Trump is under way. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are contenders in a ring with a little more than 20 contenders.
The US Presidential elections are more than a year away and Africa will be looking keenly at who is inaugurated in 2021.
The emergence of Donald Trump raised fundamental questions about likely changes in America’s role in the world, including Africa. Fears over Republican Trump were heightened by his silence throughout the campaign on matters relating to the continent, focusing heavily on China and Russia.
Policy perspective and relations between the US and Africa strengthened significantly under previous US Presidents. Barack Obama introduced the US – Africa Leaders Summit and US – Africa Business Summit in 2014. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) launched by George W Bush in 2003 was an initiative to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic with impact primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.
Two and a bit years on, President Trump’s policies could be said to be detrimental to Africa. Making America great is based on influence elsewhere, other than in this continent of 1.2 billion men, women and children. Trump prefers to concentrate on global competitors China and Russia.
In the 2018 budget, Trump was categorical in prioritising defence spending and fighting terrorism over diplomacy and foreign aid. Non-defence programmes became vulnerable to Trump’s knife, pushing Africa to the bottom as Trump flexed financial and military muscles fighting Al Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabab and Boko Haram.
On December 13 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton unveiled a new strategy for Africa. The 70 year Bolton, a fervent believer in American military power, has been a fixture in US foreign policy over the past four decades, whether in or out of government, mostly arguing for the most warmongering position.
In a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation, Bolton identified ‘three core US interests’ in the Prosper Africa roadmap. The first was promoting US economic interests for the benefit of the US and Africa. This would see partners in the continent prospering in reciprocal and not subservient relations. Second, was countering the threat of Radical Islamic and extremist terrorism and violent conflict. The new strategy sought to deliver a comprehensive way to minimise recruitment and plotting against American citizens.
As a means to ensure taxpayer dollars devoted to aid and United Nations operations in Africa are not laid to waste, the US vowed to cut indiscriminate assistance. Under the new Africa strategy, U.S. funding would be targeted towards key countries and help African nations move toward self-reliance.
The priorities of the new Africa strategy all stand to sense. This partnership would be skewed towards countries with reputable governance record and rule of law, insisting the US would not spend taxpayers’ money on corrupt autocrats.
One problem emerged with John Bolton’s speech – an implied core priority that pales all three – fierce competition for influence with China and Russia.
During the Cold War, America pushed nonaligned countries to take sides. The CIA incited coups against governments that flirted with communism and the Soviet Union, or that just drifted too far to the left for its comfort. The US threatened to cut aid flows to countries that voted too often against US priorities at the UN.
Prosper Africa could see sub-Saharan Africa caught in the middle of some modern day ‘cold war’.
Bolton casts the goal of increased economic engagement as something necessary for ‘safeguarding the economic independence of African states and protecting US national security interests’, not as something helpful for African economic development. Suggesting China and Russia are investing in Africa mainly to gain competitive advantage over the US is inconsistent with the receptiveness of African states. While there are concerns about China’s
China promotes large infrastructure projects across the continent, with critics pointing to corruption or human rights abuses, often leaving client countries with massive debt. Bolton describes these as captive predatory activities as leading anti-development and opposed to self-sufficiency whilst promoting servility as a result of crushing debt. A glaring example to suit Bolton’s narrative is Zambia – a country at risk of losing sovereignty and wealth because of its pandemic indebtedness to China. It is debatable if China can be so nefarious to want to entrap nations.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), Russia has bolstered its influence with increased military cooperation including donations of arms, with which it has gained access to markets and mineral extraction rights. The CAR President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, also promised armed forces would be deployed nationwide to return peace to the country by forces likely trained, equipped, and accompanied by Russian military contractors. Africans may laugh at the notion of American aid being in African interests. That Prosper Africa may have good intentions is not so obvious to Africa and Bolton’s charge that China and Russia are the bad guys will be dismissed with contempt – because of Donald Trump.
Scepticism on the goals to help Africa is bolstered by the low level of US engagement to date. President Trump has not visited the continent. The Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was supposed to represent the US last month at the US - Africa Business Summit in Maputo, Mozambique, where details of the Prosper Africa initiative were to be announced. Unlike henchman Peter Magosi who forced a mid-air return over a lie, Ross cancelled at the last minute sending Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn Kelley instead.
President Trump’s Prosper Africa strategy remains true to putting American interest first. It is no surprise that when Bolton discussed trade, he emphasised American jobs and exports to Africa. Negotiators for poor African countries might wonder what ‘comprehensive trade agreements’ would entail when history has shown that negotiating a trade deal with the US means accepting whatever the Americans pitch. Beyond problematic trade plans, Deputy Secretary Kelly points to programmes aimed to engage the private sector and double US trade and investment in Africa by streamlining and coordinating US government activities and provide information, financing and risk insurance to the private sector. Overall, Prosper Africa seems to be a mix of existing programs packaged differently but with little money. The $50 million proposed budget for Prosper Africa is a drop in a standpipe compared to the 17% cut on overall aid to Africa. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) committed $10 billion to sub-Saharan Africa in 2014 alone. USAID is the only platform through which the US supplies assistance to Africa.
Trump prefers bilateral trade agreements rather than multi-party agreements, such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), signed into law in 2000 during the era of Bill Clinton. AGOA offered incentive for African countries to export their products to the US. Negotiating bilateral trade agreements individually will undermine regional integration much needed for the continent’s development. Trade and aid to support development in Africa should be to the mutual interest of all involved.
Placing Prosper Africa in the context of geopolitical rivalry with China, alongside Trump’s pugnacious Making America Great Again rhetoric, undermines any positive intent.
For Africa’s sake Democrats need settle on a candidate and up the ante!