What will make the difference this time? US-Africa relations in a post-Trump America


hen Ronald Reagan began his US presidency in 1981, Nigeria’s GDP per capita was $2,180, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s $463, Côte d’Ivoire’s $1,189, and Senegal’s $751. Have African countries’ relationships with the US helped to improve living standards on the continent? This is perhaps a naive question. A maxim in international relations is that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, just permanent interests. The US will always look out for its best interests in any relationship with Africa. In this political and economic chess game, what are US-Africa policies that can serve the best interests of the ordinary African walking the streets of Abidjan or Douala?

From Reagan to Clinton

Over the past 40 years, every new American president has identified signature programs or issues that signal how the administration wants to engage with the African continent. The Reagan administration prioritised forging security alliances with Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Chad’s Hissène Habré against US enemy Muammar Gaddafi, and lending military support to anti-communist Angolan warlord Jonas Savimbi. While Reagan called apartheid in South Africa a “scourge”, he vetoed a bill imposing sanctions on the apartheid regime, which notably drew passionate criticism from a certain senator named Joe Biden. Reagan also pushed the World Bank’s notorious economic reform package of structural adjustment programs, even as African economies were burdened under heavy foreign debt from the price drop in commodities on which most African exports depended, including oil. Between 1981 and 1988, Nigeria’s GDP per capita dropped nearly fourfold (from $2,180 to $549). At the same time, Reagan increased American relief aid at the height of the drought and famine which devastated countries in the Sahel region. Amid competing priorities, both the US administration and African governments – with notable exceptions – struggled to recognise and confront a common challenge: the ravages of a worsening global HIV/Aids pandemic.

During his presidency (1989–1993), George H. W. Bush received credit for efforts to encourage a peaceful settlement of the civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique. In 1991, with disapproval from critics of the apartheid regime, including Nelson Mandela, he lifted sanctions against South Africa in exchange for the regime’s commitment to end apartheid. Then, in December 1992, during the lame-duck period after losing the election to Bill Clinton, the Bush administration began Operation Restore Hope. This operation sent 25 000 American troops to Somalia to assist with the humanitarian food crises caused by a civil war.

The end of the Cold War and apartheid during Clinton’s presidential terms (1993–2001) marked a shift in US-Africa policy. Clinton dropped US support for Mobutu Sese Seko and prematurely embraced a new generation of African rebels-turned-statesmen as champions of democracy and free markets: Yoweri Museveni, Paul Kagame, Isaias Afewerki and Meles Zenawi.

Clinton pulled American troops out of Somalia after the Black Hawk Down tragedy, ignored the genocide in Rwanda and ordered attacks on al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in retaliation for Osama bin Laden’s bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The administration championed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), passed by Congress in 2000, which allowed African countries to export thousands of African products to the US duty-free, if they showed that they were committed to good governance and building a market economy.

Suddenly, Africa was a place to do business with, and trade expanded from just commodities to other products and goods such as tea, clothing and fruits. Despite significant drops in African imports into the US (from $113 billion in 2008 to $19 billion in 2020), and serious shortcomings of Africa’s shipping and manufacturing systems, advocates believe that AGOA has created thousands of direct jobs and millions more of indirect jobs. AGOA has had shortcomings of its own: for example, Uganda has met the criteria to participate in AGOA, despite being a dictatorship for the last 34 years. It is among 38 of 55 countries participating in the program, which has been extended until 2025. In a show of bipartisanship, AGOA has been championed by all presidents from Clinton to Trump.

The George W. Bush era

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration prioritised security and stability and ramped up the militarisation of US aid to Africa, notably with the creation of AFRICOM in 2007. Some of the worst consequences of this policy endure today and include the formation of the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab and ongoing rights abuses committed by African governments in the name of the war on terrorism.

The Bush administration took a bold step in US-Africa policy by recognising the devastation of HIV/Aids in Africa. President Bush introduced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which invested over $85 billion in AIDS prevention, medicine, counseling and research. Although Anglophone African countries have benefitted from this program as most infections have occurred notably in southern Africa, Francophone countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and the DRC have also received significant funding and support to fight this pandemic.

Another creation under the Bush administration that has benefited African countries is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), created in 2004 with the motto of poverty reduction through economic growth. Its 20-point scorecard includes economic, political and social indicators that countries must meet to be eligible for a funding agreement that the MCC calls a compact. With these indicators, there was a recognition that increased direct foreign investment requires sound policy and regulatory environments.

Countries such as Côte d’Ivoire have an agreement worth $524,7 million to develop road infrastructure and improve secondary education and vocational technical training. Senegal, Niger, Morocco and Togo have all developed a compact with the MCC. Though the MCC has been marketed as an upgrade from ordinary foreign aid programs, some critics continue to ask if it is not just another aid program propping up undemocratic and unproductive governments. According to economist Dambisa Moyo, over $1 trillion in aid over the past 40 years has not resulted in sustainable development and poverty in Africa rose during the “peak” of development assistance between 1970 to 1998. More disturbingly, she further contends that foreign aid distorts the relationship between a country’s leaders and its citizens.

Former president George H.W. Bush., then-president elect Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office on 7 January 2009 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

The Obama era

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 ushered in a deep sense of euphoria and hope that Africa would more than ever benefit from US foreign policy based on Obama’s Kenyan roots. The assumption was that he could understand and connect with Africa in a way no other previous US president ever could. Like Clinton, Obama started his presidency by signaling a policy of preaching democracy – notably his 2009 speech before Ghana’s parliament in which he said “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions” – and favouring engagement with countries with good governance. However, due to a number of factors, including China’s growing influence and the preeminence of US counterterrorism interests in Africa, by 2014, Obama welcomed all African leaders to the White House during the first ever US-Africa Leaders Summit, inspired by the China-Africa and France-Africa summits.

Obama’s signature initiatives included Power Africa, a private investment accelerator bringing together American and African companies for renewable and other smart energy solutions, and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which remains a State Department-funded program. There seemed to be a belief within the Obama administration that older African leaders have little redeeming leadership attributes. However, if we can energise and teach young professionals good leadership skills, and improve electric supply, Africa’s future will be brighter. In response to the 2014 Ebola pandemic in West Africa, the Obama administration committed $6.2 billion to combat the disease and sent 3 000 US military personnel to build medical facilities and coordinate international aid efforts.

On the security front, Obama maintained the Bush administration’s approach to counterterrorism. The administration ramped up drone strikes which often caused unintended civilian casualties and fueled anti-US sentiment in the region. It maintained military assistance although it withheld $600 million worth of military aid to Nigeria on the grounds of human rights violations by the Nigerian army. The US-led NATO military attack on Libya in 2011 ousted Gaddafi but had far-reaching consequences with the ongoing destabilisation of Libya and Mali and worsening terrorism and insecurity in the Sahel.

The Trump era

From the beginning of his presidency, it was clear that President Donald Trump was going to approach Africa differently. He ushered in his presidency without the usual decorum of most leaders. He took actions that many thought were unbecoming of a US president by insulting African states, and introducing travel bans and immigration policies that disproportionately affect African people, especially students.

Trump has kept Africa at an arm’s length and committed to little engagement with African leaders. The administration launched Prosper Africa and finalised the creation of the Development Finance Corporation (DFC). Both initiatives embody Trump’s view of doing business with individual firms and countries instead of a more multilateral orientation. Another tool at the DFC’s disposal is a higher credit line of $60 billion, which means it can lend more money to viable projects. Currently, the DFC has invested $8 billion for 300 projects across Africa.

The Trump administration also used the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to impose sanctions on a number of foreign governments or individuals implicated in gross human rights violations or corruption. However, while sanctions befell Congolese officials responsible for undermining the DRC’s 2018 election and former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh and his wife, none were issued for many other officials from a myriad of countries implicated in similar abuses.

In the final months of his presidency Trump introduced restrictive rules on student visas, including a fixed four-year timeframe to complete one’s studies, with the ability to apply for extensions. There are 21 African countries on the list of countries whose citizens overstay their student visas, which could be affected by this new restriction. According to the Institute for International Education,during the academic year 2019 to 2020, 41 617 African students attended American universities.

This undermines arguably the most mutually beneficial aspect of US-Africa relations: the education that tens of thousands of Africans have gained in American universities. The Africa-America Institute (AAI), founded in 1953, has been a pioneer in this area. With funding from the US government, it has supported 23 000 African professionals who later became presidents, prime ministers, business leaders and more. According to a report entitled ‘Generations of Quiet Progress: The Development Impact of U.S. Long-Term University Training in Africa from 1963-2003’, the “USAID’s multi-million dollar investment in long-term training programs managed by AAI for over 40 years produced significant and sustained changes that furthered African development in measurable ways.” In the US, studies reveal that Africans, particularly Nigerians, are some of the most educated immigrants in America. According to a 2019 Quartz article, Nigerians spend about half a billion dollars a year in the US on education and related services.

When Africans leave the continent and study in the USA, there is a fear of brain drain. However, increasingly, there is brain circulation. The mobility of the African professional allows him or her to study in the US, return to his/her country to work or to start a business, or stay put in the US, or move back and forth between these two worlds, bringing innovation and impact to both places.

The Biden era: Change begets change

As 2020 comes to an end and with the Biden administration about to launch its mandate, GDP per capita is expected to climb in Nigeria (to $2250), in the DRC (to $456), in Ethiopia (to $580), in Côte d’Ivoire (to $1919) and in Senegal (to $1596). The price of oil per barrel is $38,95. Even though there are many bright spots like the emergence of mobile technology and fin-tech as well as an increased number of African returnees starting businesses and bringing innovation and more foreign direct investments, the GDP statistics tell us that poverty still plagues Africa. The lessons of the post-COVID-19 pandemic economies in Africa is that African governments and their partners should not continue to ignore critical, massive investments in the fundamentals which include healthcare, education, infrastructure, energy and water and will lead to the reduction of unemployment and produce inclusive wealth.

The Biden campaign’s stated objectives for Africa policy remain vague and lofty: promoting and expanding democracy, diplomatic relations, diversity and inclusion and youth leadership development. Former Obama administration officials who worked on Africa will likely return to take charge so it is therefore reasonable to expect a continuation of more of the same Obama administration policies.

“It has never mattered who is in charge in Washington D.C. What has always mattered is the commitment of African decision-makers on the other side of the table to improve the lives of their citizens.”

There remain long-standing issues with how America engages with Africa that must change. First, a lack of in-depth analysis can lead to policy blunders with disastrous consequences. Oftentimes, US policy reduces situations and people as being either good or bad, right or wrong without considering the local complexities required when dealing with systems, institutions and humans. This approach has led to real life and death consequences with examples evident in Rwanda, the DRC, Somalia and Libya.