ONSANDO: An in-depth analysis of what Trump-Biden race means for Africa

By Joash Onsando On Fri, 18 Sep, 2020 15:07 | 5 mins read
Trump and Biden
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (left) and his Republican counterpart, President Donald Trump. [PHOTO | FILE]

Barrack Obama’s candidature in the 2008 US presidential election was perhaps the most important event in eliciting African interest in the US electoral process.

Through Obama, Africans of all walks of life felt like they had some skin in the game and were therefore invested in the outcome of that election.

The interest generated in the 2008 race evolved into an increased awareness of political developments on American soil.

More importantly, the somewhat unrealistic expectations that many Africans placed on the Obama administration and the disillusionment that inevitably followed had the net effect of elevating the conversation about US politics in Africa.

This elevated conversation is more pragmatic and centered on policy and strategic partnership dynamics of America’s relationship with Africa.

As the November 3, election draws closer, we have an unprecedented number of Africans with access to how the race is playing out.

This may largely be attributable to the exponential growth of the use of technology and social media on the continent over the past few years. 

American elections are consequential across the globe for any number of reasons. With regards to the interest in Africa, four major reasons come to mind.

Made for TV

First, the US election is a several month-long event that is chock full of drama and theatrics. From the campaign speeches, party conventions, opinion polls, trading of barbs between media surrogates, presidential debates and the live coverage of results streaming in- one can’t overemphasize how “made for TV” the entire process is.

However, beyond the theatrical value, the process lays bare moments of civic expressions that many African observers will find novel especially those living in authoritarian regimes.

This holds true even in democratic regimes where mistrust of electoral processes exists. In other words, the novelty draws in audiences and the drama keeps them glued. 

Lessons for replication

Second, there are those who aren’t interested in the drama as much as they are interested in observing the US election from an aspiration perspective.

They not only see a mature democracy at work but also identify elements of it that could be replicated back home and anticipate pitfalls of democratic growth in their own countries through learning from mistakes made along the American growth curve.

Trump factor

The third interest level is the Trump factor. The Trump brand enjoys top of mind awareness in Africa is only comparable to Obama.

Africans haven’t been immune to his controversial and attention-grabbing leadership style. Just like at home, Trump attracts passionate admiration and condemnation in Africa.

For example, the support that he enjoys from the conservative Christian right in America is replicated by the same community here in Africa and particularly in Kenya. So the fact that he is running for reelection is a major reason why many African observers will be tuned in.

The final and perhaps most important reason why Africans are interested in the US election is whether the outcome of the election will have an impact on US-Africa elections, at a policy level.

Trump’s Africa Policy

In order to answer this question, we must begin by interrogating Trump’s policy in Africa since he got into office.

To a large extent, his administration has continued US policies in Africa targeted at enhancing economic cooperation, political stability and healthcare.

Contrary to popular belief he hasn’t clawed back on the constructive policies of his predecessors in Africa. 

His administration’s signature initiative, Prosper Africa is designed to facilitate US companies seeking to do business in Africa.

The initiative is true to his self proclaimed form and function as a CEO President. The initiative is complemented by the bipartisan Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act.

The Act established the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to replace the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The DFC had doubled the investment limit in Africa to $60 billion with Sub Saharan Africa expected to enjoy the lion’s share of the investment.

Perhaps Trump’s Africa Policy is under-reported and misunderstood because of how his approach differs from other American Presidents.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump has created some distance between his person and his signature initiative on the continent.

His approach is a stark contrast from Bill Clinton’s personal ownership of the Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) or George W Bush’s championing of his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

President Trump’s hands-off approach has placed his Africa agenda squarely at the feet of diplomats and technocrats.

Fortunately, this job has been tasked to diplomats with vast experience and extensive knowledge of Africa. Of particular note are Tibor Nagy, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, and Mark Green, USAID administrator. 

Both Nagy and Green have demonstrated commitment to continuing the work previous administrations began while building positive relationships with the continent’s political leadership.

That being said, Africans cannot ignore the fact that Trump’s Office of Management and Budget attempted to make massive cuts to foreign assistance, which would have been fatally detrimental to US policies in health, democracy promotion, and security assistance in Africa.

Luckily, Congress served as a bulwark to this proposal and pushed back against the administration’s plan to reduce the US military’s footprint on the continent.

This congressional bipartisanship around African issues is notable because it is responsible for the consistency, sustainability, and longevity of various US-Africa programs including Trump’s own Prosper Africa.

This, therefore, leads to the question of how different Biden’s Africa Policy might be if he were to win in November.

Probable Biden Policy Adjustments

Firstly, Trump’s administration doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy to address Africa’s looming geopolitical and national security challenges.

Looking at Biden’s foreign policy advisory team, which is largely drawn from Obama’s administration, it seems highly probable that developing such a strategy would be a priority in a Biden administration.

If this will be the case we can only hope that he is more cautious in applying militarized responses than Obama, whose approach to solving the Libyan problem proved disastrous.

The second change we are likely to see under Biden is the resumption of US support and funding to the Green Climate Fund.

President Trump withdrew US$2 billion out of the US$3 billion America had committed to the fund, which helps developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Furthermore, he declined to make any further contributions to the fund. Whilst European countries had moved to plug the deficit left by Trump’s withdrawal, a resumption of US contributions can only enhance the African continent’s capacity to react to challenges posed by climate change.

Finally, under a Biden administration, we are likely to see a renewed appreciation of the demographic bulge in Africa.

The growing youth population on the continent requires upwards of half a billion jobs. Solving this problem was an integral part of Obama’s Africa agenda and we can expect that Biden will honor this with a policy direction that strikes at the heart of job creation in Africa.

In conclusion, whilst the US Presidential race is important and impactful in Africa, it shouldn’t distract from the unchanging nature of US policy in Africa.

Decision and policymakers in Africa are better off focusing on effecting positive change in this policy by working closely with the diplomats driving the agenda and lobbying Congress in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize their bipartisan approach to African issues.

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