“What does the election of Donald Trump mean for Africa?” True, that’s not one of the most burning questions being asked these days of significant political transition. But for me, it is an extremely important question.
Coming back to my hometown of Tacoma after 28 years living in Africa, I am quite concerned about whether President Trump will mean good news or bad news for the 950 million people of a poor but potentially very rich continent.
Searching Google for stories about Trump and Africa, I found only a bit more than the remark jokingly (?) attributed to the president-elect: “Africa? What’s that?” The topic of “African issues” didn’t surface in the Clinton-Trump debates — only issues of African-Americans. And there is not much discussion about Africa in the daily news of Trump’s appointees to key government positions.
So what might we expect in the transition from an Obama to a Trump presidency in terms of potential influence of both political and economic developments across Africa?
In general, the Obama foreign policy agenda highlighted good governance issues. In his July 2015 address to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the president addressed strongly the “cancer of corruption,” the rights of activists and journalists, and the democratic processes of free and fair elections.
Reading the record of Trump, it is doubtful he would pursue a strong African policy addressing these crucial issues. Political leaders who have stayed on for a long time, with or without fair democratic elections, sent quick congratulatory notices to the president-elect. I think it is honest to say that they don’t expect to be challenged in their political lives and agenda as long as no disadvantage to the U.S. is perceived.
In varying degrees across the continent, African states struggle with the challenging dichotomy of rich resources and poor populations. The U.S. has been a strong promoter of development aid in health, education, infrastructure and agriculture over several decades — prompted as much by self interest in maintaining political influence as by genuine humanitarian concerns.
Moreover, various trade efforts have been encouraged, the most notable being the African Growth and Opportunities Act that gives preferential access to some African exports into American markets.
Trump is not known as a strong supporter of programs like USAID. And he has already made quite clear his dislike for trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership. He and his advisers probably have the same antipathy to AGOA, feeling that much more favoritism should be shown to American markets.
One area that might attract more Trump attention in Africa is that of security. China’s presence is increasingly felt throughout the continent, in economic aid and development programs. To assure strategic coherence in U.S. interests, the Bush Administration in 2007 established the U.S. African Command, or “Africom,” a military-based plan to address defense and development issues. Trump might look at Africom as more to his liking for meeting international concerns.
A final observation comes from my personal experiences living in Malawi, a nation drastically affected by climate change. Two years of serious drought have resulted in failed crops and widespread hunger. Some of this has been caused by local deforestation, but much more comes from what the recent Paris Agreement on Climate Change has sought to address: high global greenhouse gas emissions.
Trump has denied climate change, calling it a “hoax.” During the campaign he promised to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. But some of his post-election comments have been a little less threatening.
I pray that this and the other political and development issues I’ve mentioned here do not make our country’s policies under Trump “bad news” for Africa.
Peter Henriot of Tacoma is a priest affiliated with the Bellarmine Jesuit Community who has worked in Africa for 28 years, in pastoral, development and education activities. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org