Contextualising the impact of the 2020 US elections on Africa

This article is part of the US Elections and Africa series, published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University.

As global attention turns to the November 2020 US elections, the major question for Africa is whether this event will produce fundamental and substantive change in US foreign policy towards the continent.

This article explores the meaning of US elections for Africa by examining America’s core policy priorities since the 1990s. I make two major arguments. First, while America’s electoral processes perennially attract African audiences and while its elections raise expectations about momentous changes in US-Africa relations, these expectations are often founded on false assumptions. Second, there has been remarkable continuity in US-Africa relations that transcends electoral cycles. It is important to grasp these patterns of continuity in order to set realistic expectations about future US-Africa relations. I conclude that Africa should be wary of fixating on who gets to the White House in November and instead plan collective African positions that it can engage the US administration on after the presidential inauguration in January 2021.

Why the US elections matter

Given the United States’ status as a global power, it goes without saying that its elections are consequential to the rest of the world. First, one must acknowledge that it is the theatrical dimension of it that galvanises the world’s and particularly Africa’s attention every four years. From the conventions, the campaigns and the presidential debates to the nail-biting anxiety around the results, the elections present a global civic moment for African audiences, many of whom are largely denied such experiences under authoritarian regimes.

Televised presidential debates, which are unrivalled in popularity, are the main drawcard for African viewers. These debates showcase democracy at work and public contestation over ideas and policies. In East Africa, US presidential debates have had a socialisation effect, leading opposition parties and the public to demand the same during their elections. In 2013 Kenya introduced televised presidential debates, which have gained popularity among many Ugandans who are desperate for issue-based politics. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has consistently resisted opposition pressure for such debates to avoid embarrassment from his youthful opponents.

The demand for presidential debates is growing across many African countries as competitive elections become the norm and pressure mounts on leaders to display political acumen and maturity.

The second, and more significant, reason for Africa’s interest in US elections stems from tremendous expectations of “our” man in the White House, encapsulated in questions such as: Will Africa obtain more resources from the new occupant? Will we see more presidential visits to Africa? These questions are consistent with many studies that claim that Democratic presidents are more responsive to African aspirations and interests than Republican ones. The broad view of Democratic sympathies for African concerns is also attributable to the support by various Republican administrations for minority regimes in southern Africa during the Cold War. Equally vital, because the majority of African-Americans support the Democratic Party in US elections, Africans have tended to sympathise and support Democratic presidential candidates. The internationalisation of Black Lives Matter (BLM) has certainly deepened Africa’s sympathies toward the Democratic Party.

Claims about Republican marginalisation of Africa and Democratic championing of African causes has, for the most part, turned out to be inaccurate. Since the end of the Ronald Reagan administration, subsequent Republican administrations under George H.W. Bush (1989- 1993) and George W. Bush (2001-2009) matched, and in some cases, outperformed the democratic administrations of William Clinton and Barack Obama. The initial humanitarian intervention into Somalia in 1990 under the elder Bush and the launch of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program in 2003 under the younger Bush were among the landmark Republican decisions. By contrast, the Rwandan genocide occurred under the watch of President Clinton and some have criticised the Obama administration for deepening the militarisation of US-Africa policy. Substantively, therefore, Africa’s popular preferences for Democratic presidents are always oversold. This is why we need to disabuse ourselves of the prevailing assumption that a Democratic Party win in November 2020 will result in shifts in US-Africa relations.

Key parameters of US foreign policy toward Africa

Since the Clinton administration in the early 1990s, US policy towards Africa has pivoted around four major concerns: integration of Africa into the global economy; building the capacity of African countries and institutions to meet growing security threats; promotion of democratic governance; and health engagement, focused largely on HIV/AIDS, malaria and, more recently, COVID-19. Under the Obama administration, two new concerns arose policy-wise: engaging African youth and meeting the challenges occasioned by Chinese economic expansion in Africa.

The US contribution to African economic integration has entailed the promotion of trade and investment through major US institutions such as the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the recently established US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). Most US presidents have accompanied these programs with signature initiatives such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), PEPFAR, Prosper Africa and Power Africa.

With respect to capacity-building for African security, the Clinton administration inaugurated the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) which led to other initiatives by subsequent administrations. Both bilateral and multilateral assistance for African security have also entailed the growth of the US military in most African conflict zones such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Despite widespread African opposition to locating the United States African Command (Africom) on African soil, African countries, including South Africa, have readily embraced security and military assistance. The war on terror that began with the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was a new iteration of an old theme in America’s security engagement with Africa.

On democracy promotion, the US has taken advantage of the gradual liberalisation and pluralism in Africa by providing electoral assistance and capacity-building for a broad range of institutions particularly civil society organisations that have been at the forefront of promoting democratic governance. While there have been some variations and inconsistencies in support for democratic institutions and actors by various administrations, overall, major US leaders have emphasised the significance of open and transparent institutions to Africa’s stability.

President George W. Bush launched the PEPFAR initiative in 2003 at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This catalysed US engagement with Africa on health issues and many observers have lauded it for helping to manage the crisis in Africa. US First Lady Melania Trump focused on maternal and child healthcare during her visit to Africa in 2018. As the COVID-19 crisis hit Africa early this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged $270 million to a select group of African countries, which included a donation of 1000 ventilators to South Africa. Most of the COVID-19 mitigation funding, estimated to be $3 billion, has come through US private sector donations.

The US focus on youth engagement stems from the realities of Africa’s demographic shifts and the potential it offers. Recognising that Africa’s youth population will double in 2050, the Obama administration championed youth leadership in its engagement with the continent. The Young Africa Leadership Initiative (YALI) is a product of Obama’s efforts and may remain as a key platform in US-Africa policy. The Trump administration followed upon this through the establishment of the University Partnership Initiative (UPI) to help strengthen existing ties between US and African universities.

Like the Obama administration, President Donald Trump has amplified the China threat in Africa in large part because the US has lost the opportunity to respond to some of Africa’s needs, particularly in the infrastructure sector. On her visit to Africa as US Secretary of State in August 2012, Hilary Clinton raised the spectre of the Chinese threat, citing Beijing’s support for undemocratic regimes and wanton exploitation of Africa’s resources. Subsequently, the US has tried to use its public diplomacy and other resources to challenge the narrative of China’s dominance in Africa. This rivalry is unlikely to subside anytime soon, and as the case of the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) this year reveals, China may assume more leadership roles on key African issues while the US appears to disengage from them.

US foreign policy continuity towards Africa

There are three main explanations for the above-mentioned policy continuity. First, some analysts have always claimed that Africa is not of strategic significance to the US. Although this argument gained popularity during the cold war, it has, over the years, lost most of its analytical edge and value. In the larger geopolitical context, Africa does not occupy a prominent position in US foreign policy, but it does matter in a variety of domains. The importance of Africa has ebbed and flowed over the years because of changes that are more global than peculiarly African. For instance, in the ostensible energy shortages of previous years, US foreign policymakers were concerned about protecting access to oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Guinea and other parts of Africa. Similarly, in the current war on terror and with the Chinese threat, Africa is not going to slip off the US foreign policy radar.

The second and more accurate reason for continuity is congressional bipartisanship around African issues. Programs such as PEPFAR and AGOA had the imprimatur of presidents, but their longevity and sustainability has been attributed to bipartisanship within the legislative branches in Washington DC. Under the Trump administration for instance, Congress has fought the attempts to slash foreign assistance and the proposed drawback on military engagements in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, issues that many legislative leaders consider critical in engaging with Africa.

Third, in addition to congressional bipartisanship, there is continuity because bureaucratic institutions such as US embassies in Africa play vital roles in policy execution and often have agency, creativity and leeway to innovate around diverse US policies toward Africa.

Where to from here?

Trump’s Africa policy has been in the able hands of long-term Africanists such as the US Assistant Secretary of State, Tibor Nagy, and USAID Administrator, Mark Green. Widespread perceptions that Trump has ignored Africa are only partially true. Interestingly, a recent Pew Research Centre poll has revealed that he enjoys high levels of popularity in Nigeria and Kenya, two of Africa’s most populous states. Although Trump’s divisive policies on Muslims and immigration have adversely impacted some African countries, a more accurate appraisal of his overall Africa policies is that they have not changed significantly from those of previous administrations.

As attention to the US elections intensifies, African leaders, policymakers, academics and scholars must actively guard against the dangerous fixation with Big Man politics. A preoccupation with who is going to win in November invariably obscures other significant players who routinely shape US-Africa policies and who deserve more attention than the occupant of the White House. More pertinently, it prevents the articulation of collective African voices and positions around long-term relations with the US. Rather than working to forge African positions on trade, terrorism, immigration and other issues that have more longevity and would better prepare Africa for effective engagement with the US, the focus is, instead, on elections that Africa does not have any leverage over.

(Main image: US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Xtreme Manufacturing on 13 September 2020 in Henderson, Nevada.Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

14 September 2020