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The US presidential election and what it means for Africa

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa CorrespondentMonday 2 November 2020

It’s virtually impossible to have a discussion with Africa analysts about US President Donald Trump and his foreign policy towards the continent without mention of his unfortunate reference to African countries as ‘sh*tholes’. What follows, more seriously, is reference to the President’s evident lack of interest in the continent.

Joe Biden, by contrast, has showed a deep and abiding interest in Africa, particularly South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle. ‘He has a real passion about racism and against apartheid in South Africa,’ says political analyst and writer John Matisonn.

To illustrate his point, Matisonn says that if South African President Cyril Ramaphosa wanted to put a call through to the US President, it would be unlikely to happen if he wanted to speak to Trump. If Biden were President, it would.

Donald Trump has no interest in Africa

John Stremlau
Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand

The continent would benefit too from the restoration of traditional ties between the United States and its allies in Europe. This would be strengthened by the probable return to the World Health Organization (WHO) and would make South Africa’s seat at the G20 more meaningful in terms of its relationship with the US. A Trump second term would rule these developments out – as well as any related spinoffs.

John Stremlau, Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, points to Biden’s track record and his respectful attitudes towards Africa and Africans as opposed to Donald Trump’s crude but memorable epithet referring to African countries. ‘Donald Trump has no interest in Africa’, he says.

However, he does point to existing programmes between the US and Africa and says these have continued with Trump in the White House. One example is the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which was signed into law in 2000 and which provided for favourable terms of trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and the US. This will continue for some years, irrespective of who occupies the White House.

The Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act of 2018, which Stremlau notes Trump would see as an anti-Chinese measure, was designed to assist developing countries. It seeks to combine public and private investment and to take account of US security interests.

Stremlau also points to the likelihood of a Biden White House rejoining the Paris Agreement and deciding to honour the Green Climate Fund, which was started under former President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House.

Looking into the future of a Biden White House, Stremlau said the appointment of a Secretary of State should be somebody who was involved in Africa. He suggested it might be a good idea to appoint a continental free trade person too.

Stremlau also highlights the issue of corporate transparency and beneficial ownership in Africa. He explains that the question of who benefits from commercial activity in a country is very important. He points to the mining industry as one among many using the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean as a tax haven – effectively depriving poorer countries of taxes they rightfully should be getting.

Jennifer Cooke, Director of the Institute for African Studies at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington, DC, also refers to President Trump’s ‘insulting disrespect’ for Africa and mentions the particular word used by him in reference to African countries. She also looks at the fact that some African countries are having elections at the moment, including Guinea and Tanzania. She notes that in some countries, groups had been looking to the US to champion democracy in their countries but that this was not possible in the present political atmosphere.

Many countries will have noted the ‘fragility’ of US democracy at present and would note the Western power lecturing on civil liberties and human rights. ‘This would help embolden autocrats such as those in Zimbabwe and Tanzania,’ Cooke says.

US policy in Africa has been absent, she says, while the administration has focused more on China and Russia. ‘This is deeply insulting (to African countries),’ she says.

People are also missing US leadership in troubled areas such as the recent killings in Nigeria. President Trump has said he would not readily accept a Biden win and has put in place the potential for a political and judicial contest if Biden does win the vote. Some in the US have even considered the potential for violence resulting from such a contest, with retail giant Walmart taking guns and ammunition off its shelves in case this should happen.

This may form the greatest influence for Africans looking to the US for a direction for their own situations – whether fledgling democracies, or reinstalling autocratic leaders. The absence of clear policy on Africa has eclipsed the measures put in place to secure investment in African countries. What happens after the vote will provide guidance to would-be leaders around the world, including those across the continent of Africa.

Pic: Vice-President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump illustrations - Tally18 / Shutterstock.com