Africa Watch

Second-guessing the Trump administration on Africa

Donald Trump Jnr in Africa
Donald Trump Jnr in Africa poses next to a buffalo he had just shot on Zimbabwe hunt.jpg

Donald Trump as American president-elect created a lot of uncertainty across the globe and particularly in Africa, since Trump seems to be almost oblivious of the existence of this continent.  

An “isolationist”, elected on a ticket of “America's first” in all global matters, coupled with extremely contentious foreign policy ideas … It is fair to start pondering how Donald Trump will treat Africa.

All who have ventured an opinion in this regard, agree that at this early stage it is mostly speculative and that uncertainty about Trump’s foreign policy will continue at least until he appoints his top foreign policy and national security advisers. Even then it will take some time before his plans become clear.


His foreign policy ignorance is of great concern and is probably why his White House chief of staff appointee, Reince Priebus, told the media in his first press briefing: “’Getting his arms around foreign policy’ is one of Trump's four top priorities, along with health care, immigration and taxes, as he prepares for his first 100 days as president.”

Trump’s many controversial foreign policy campaign statements linger in the headlines, causing consternation and doomsday predictions.

But then, traditionally, campaigning promises and what actually happens afterwards often are in conflict. Reality tends to temper outrageous remarks and promises.

In this regard President Obama told Trump during their first meeting after he had been announced the winner, “Reality has a way of asserting itself”, and warned, “... this office (the presidency) has a way of waking you up”.  

Same foreign policy

In an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM), Howard LaFranchi argues that Trump’s “America first” mantra is not different from the foreign policy pursued by the Obama Administration:

“Obama is the president who labelled the United States’ NATO allies ‘free riders’,  who focused on getting the US out of George W. Bush’s Middle East wars while staying out of new ones, and who honed an offshore counterterrorism warfare that avoids placing American boots on the ground.”

President Obama, writes LaFranchi, “... provided the dress rehearsal to what many expect to be Trump’s more nationalist, America-first, and less interventionist foreign policy.”

Africa’s uncertain future

Despite all the foreign policy uncertainties, there is broad consensus that Africa is likely to slide down the Trump administration’s list of foreign policy priorities.

There is no evidence that Africa will receive the same level of attention as under his immediate three predecessors.

His few public statements and observations on Africa were less flattering and perhaps indicative of his lack of knowledge of the continent.

Praises for Mandela apart, he is on record for calling all African politicians corrupt and describing South Africa as “crime-ridden and in a mess, waiting to explode”.

In contrast to general international concern and some outright indignation, Africa's political elite mostly stayed clear of criticism in their congratulatory messages to Trump, emphasising the need for continuity in US-Africa relations.

South Africa’s president Zuma wrote on his Twitter account that he, “was looking forward to work with President-elect Donald Trump to build on the strong relations that exist between South Africa and the USA”.

Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta said ties with the US would also remain strong under the Trump administration: “They are old and based in the values that we hold dear: in democracy, in the rule of law, and in the equality of peoples. These values remain dear to the peoples of both nations, and so our friendship will endure.” Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe expressed hope to restore relations with the US and confidence that 2001 sanctions imposed on the Mugabe government, will be lifted.

Ironically, not long ago, Mugabe asserted that “Adolf Hitler Is Donald Trump’s grandfather” and posed the question “… are there enough doctors in America to check this man’s (Trump’s) psychiatric condition?”

This was in response to Trump, who during his campaign trail told war veterans: “I want to reiterate here before America’s greatest heroes that I will not condone any dictatorial tendencies exhibited by dictators around the world especially the two old men from Zimbabwe and Uganda.”  


A shift to more protectionism, as Trump promised, could mean the end for several US programmes for Africa, especially the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) introduced by ex-president Bill Clinton.

Agoa gives preferential access to exports from selected African countries to the US and served as a key framework for US-African relations, placing trade and investment at the forefront of the US’s Africa policy.

But it could easily be the first casualty under Trump because he might consider it a “bad” trade deal.

The consequences for South Africa, an Agoa beneficiary, could be severe. In 2014 (latest data available) US exports of goods and services to South Africa supported an estimated 50 000 jobs of which 30 000 were supported by goods exports and nearly 19 000 by services exports. The US is South Africa’s second biggest partner, after China, for imports and exports.

The US/SA goods and services trade was worth an estimated US$17.5 billion (about R237 billion) in 2015 while exports were US$8.4 billion and imports U$9.1 billion. South Africa can ill afford a drop in trade with the US, but fortunately it might not be that easy for Trump to scupper Agoa. It has been endorsed by the US Congress for the next 10 years and only Congress can rescind it.

 Foreign aid

About a third of American foreign aid is directed at health programmes, much of it going to Africa. A reduction in American aid could have far-reaching effects on health outcomes on the continent.

It would therefore be a disaster for Africa if Trump decides to review Pepfar (the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) initiated by President George W Bush, which provides millions  with drugs to help fight HIV/Aids.

Also of concern is what Trump would do with the Power Africa Act, announced by Obama during his 2013 Africa visit. With billions of US dollars promised, the plan is to bring electricity to 20 million households in sub-Saharan Africa.


If Trump forces his anti-immigration crusade into law the consequences for Africa would be devastating. A well-established diaspora population has, over time, become indispensable to many African economies. Last year remittances to Africa totalled US$35 billion. Repatriating thousands of immigrants and shutting the doors to many other people intending to come into the US and meeting requirements to do so, will have dire consequences for Africa.


Against the backdrop of Trump’s fervent anti-immigration and anti-terror views, it is likely that he might consider increasing security and military assistance and co-operation with Africa.

The US military footprint has slowly, and often secretly, been spreading across the continent since the formation of Africom (the US regional military command for Africa) in 2000 by president Bush as integral part of the “global war on terror” and to act as a “front line defence” to protect US interests in Africa.

Africom was also intended to thwart possible terror attacks against the US as radical Islam and anti-American sentiment escalated in Africa.

Trump is, however, stuck with a conundrum. He wants to reduce America’s military role in global conflicts, or provide it only at a price, but he has vowed all-out war on ISIS (and by implication those groups connected to it).

In Africa Trump can only achieve his goal (unattainable, many would argue) to destroy ISIS and related terror groups by increasing the US military’s footprint and improving the standard of Africa’s militaries.  

Against the backdrop of his expressed negative sentiments about Africa and by adopting policies that might be harmful to Africa, he might find African leaders less willing to participate.

Should US-Africa relations under a Trump administration head for choppy waters, China and other states, with an appetite for improving relations and business with Africa, would not be found wanting.  

by Garth Cilliers

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