When many Africans think about US-Africa relations, they still see it through the lenses of imperialism and the Cold War. However, since Clinton era, America’s relations with Africa has changes significantly. And every US president has tried to maintain those policies over the last two decades.
However, the Trump era is bringing about a significant shift to US policy towards Africa.
This change in US policy is dictated by two things. First, there are enough facts to prove that current US policies in Africa are inefficient. And second, and most importantly, is Donald Trump’s own dislike for how the African continent is. Trump’s dislike for Africa’s slow development more than anything else is driving the change to alter how the US relates with countries from the continent.
What Does Donald Trump Think of Africa?
Trump is a very erratic and unclear individual. He says one thing now, and does something different afterwards. However, he also been able to maintain certain sticking points for as long as he can, and this helps to show and explain his thoughts on anything from Iran to DPRK, Russia, immigration, the Media, China and, yes, Africa.
During the leadup to the US presidential election in 2016, Donald Trump was rumoured to have said he intends to deport Nigerians and Africans if elected. However, the news turned out to be fake news.
But it gained currency online because Trump proposed a slightly similar policy for Mexico and many countries in the Middle East. And his “America-First” policy did much to promote the view that Trump would significantly alter Africa-US relations.
Yet, following his success at the polls, Trump was largely quiet about Africa for a while. Preoccupied with the Russian investigation, North Korea, immigration policy and the EU, Trump barely talked about Africa.
However, in 2018 a Washington Post report revealed the president’s deep thoughts about the African continent.
Trump declared certain African countries as “shitholes”, and showed his disdain for how the US allows immigration from this part of the world. constantly funds development initiatives on the continent. As part of his wider view against US contributions abroad, Trump proposed significant cuts to American aid to the continent.
His comments provoked widespread condemnation, but there was nothing any African country could do really. They were as powerless as they well failing to tackle the continent’s problems.
The episode passed quickly and Trump restrained himself from making such remarks ever again. All his speeches and meeting with African leaders were extremely politically correct.
However, his thought about Africa had already been exposed. Yet, he one year into his presidency, Trump was yet to make a move or declare his Africa policy. But all that would change following the appointment of realist John Bolton as his National Security Adviser.
The hawkish John Bolton following his appointment was also largely preoccupied with issues such as North Korea, US steel tariffs and the trade war with China.
But in December 2018, John Bolton finally revealed the new US grand strategy for the African continent. And boy was it a significant change!
US Policy Towards Africa Before Trump
The Presidency of George W. Bush and Barack Obama largely promoted cooperative relations with African countries. During their reign, The US passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to support African manufacturing and give them access to the US market.
The two president also supported aid programs that help to address certain challenges in Africa.
Yet both presidents were less willing to callout the continent and smack it to do the right thing. Even in the war on terror, US policy was to avoid direct confrontation or combat operations. The US was willing to support African governments’ initiatives and provide them funding and training to carry them out.
So basically US policy towards Africa was less confrontational and more friendly.
Some feel the US resorted to this policy to reduce its guilt for allowing and supporting destructive and despotic regimes during the Cold War. They point out that the fact that the US closed its eyes to their atrocities helped to create the current backward state of many African countries.
Regardless though, John Bolton was about to wreck this narrative and usher in the start of the most fundamental change to US policy since the Cold War.
New US Policy Towards Africa
In December 2018, hawkish John Bolton issued a statement describing the new US stance on Africa. And it’s quite scary.
According to Bolton, “the US will no longer provide indiscriminate assistance across the continent, without focus or prioritization”.
“Unfortunately, billion upon billion of US taxpayer dollars have not achieved the desired effects… They have not stopped the scourge of terrorism, radicalism and violence.”
“Under our new approach, every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further US priorities in the region”.
Bolton emphasized Trump’s angst at the fact present US policy were failing. In other words, the US is no longer comfortable with giving out handouts to African governments and shouldering responsibility for social programs in African countries.
And this fact is captured by the failing effort to contain Boko Haram in the Chad Basin. The US government has doled out over $400 million over the last six years to countries battling the terror group: Nigeria, Chad and Niger. However, it laments that Nigeria, despite receiving US funding is unwilling to adopt US options to address the crisis.
Likewise, the Trump administration is vexed by the fact that many African governments have become increasingly corrupt, and are unwilling to play their part to address social problems. These countries now increasingly rely on US aid and aid from other countries to address these issues.
For instance, the United States Agency for International Development doled out $8.7 billion across Africa in 2017. In perspective, Nigeria’s budget for fiscal year 2018 was around $28 billion.
So, why should the US still support these corrupt governments?
But what has triggered the drastic change in US policy towards Africa is Russia’s re-entry into the continent. In addition to China, Russia now wrestles power with the US in many countries on the continent.
To be clear, the US had always seen China as an existential problem on the continent. But it never had to worry much because China’s intentions were largely economic.
However with Russia, the US has huge reasons to be concerned.
The strategy with which Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and the fact that Russia has frustrated the Syrian civil war in favour of Assad, are enough reasons for the US to suspect Russia’s intentions.
In his statement, Bolton called out China for using “bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.”
He accused Russia of using arms sale draw support from Africa countries. And he also accused them of extracting “natural resources from the region for its own benefit”.
African Nations Must Be Careful Now
We’ve seen these sorts of accusations before. It was during the Cold War, when both the US (and its allies) and the Soviet (and its allies) were suspicious of each other’s interests in other nations.
The results were disastrous and odds are that they could be once again once this new US policy gets implemented.
But what’s more scary is that many African nations are not aware of the repercussion of this new development.
Nigeria for instance is oblivious of this development in the run up to its February elections. French speaking countries of Africa, arguably the most despotic part of the continent, are also oblivious to this development. Backed by France, these countries have remained a kleptocracy for the last 50 years.
Yet, the consequence of the new US policy will see African countries pick sides once again.
Non-alignment may not apply this time, as Russia is willing to resort to novel tactics to destabilize countries.
African nations must be look inward now and get their acts together. Else, the future will look scary for the continent.