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US Africa policy in an era of Trumpism


With the strange reality of a “post-fact” worldview and the unrelenting nationalism, which have been defining pointers since the emergence of the Donald Trump presidency in the United States, both scholars and practitioners alike are still struggling to define what the right engagement strategies should be.

Governments in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia are struggling to understand the new ways of Washington. The extent of this quandary is particularly overwhelming because President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine, insists on rewriting the decades-long rules of cooperation, which have governed relationship between states in the international arena.

Although the post 1945 international system was by nature anarchic, given the twin concepts of sovereignty and territoriality, clear norms enunciated by the international system galvanised states and non-state actors to work together towards addressing a plethora of issues of global concern.Although the international system was also characterised by conflicts and power politics as states struggled to advance their national interests within the space, there was nonetheless space for a healthy dose of cooperation. Cooperation in world affairs was further cemented and made inevitable by the realities of globalisation.


As the global space passed through an incremental process of compression due to the phenomenal breakthroughs in technological advancement, there were optimistic and majestic pronouncements about the emergence of a “global village,” with its different streets and hamlets. These realities were made even more significant by the fact of the United States dedicating its soft and hard power assets to promoting the ideal of a world driven by cooperation and interdependence, where democracy and the free market amounted to the specific realisation of that ideal. Not minding the inequalities precipitated in the American push to realise these ideals, the renowned global scholar, Francis Fukuyama still used the attractions of American style democracy and the need to internationalise it as the basis for his glittering “end of history” thesis in which he essentially approximated the triumph of democracy and the free market after the Cold War to the final phase of global political evolution.

Little did the scholar, and those who picked up his thesis, reckon with serious internal contradictions as would now be seen in the Trump phenomenon. The United States as the bastion of democracy, which had overseen the collapse of the rival ideology of communism, in the eyes of Fukuyama had presented the world with a model of how government and governance should be carried on.

The irony now is that optimistic portraits of global cooperation, multilateralism and the free market have taken a hard hit from Trump’s resurgent nationalism. His populism anchored on the “America first” mantra and the primacy of “alternative facts” in his worldview have continued to alarm global affairs experts.

It is against this background of the disruption of global norms of cooperation and international understanding that policy makers, especially in Africa must deftly adjust, and subsequently engage the Trump administration.Beyond the emotive generalisations around the Trump phenomenon therefore, African policy makers have their work cut out for them to put the spotlight on specific and concrete issues of interest, while exploring channels for achievement of strategic goals.

Unlike the time of his predecessors when US presidents formulated specific pet projects reflecting their visions for the African continent, the Trump administration does not appear interested in strategic engagement with the African continent. Although President Trump’s faux pas, like his widely condemned “Africa is a shit hole,” comment plays to the sentiments of his anti-immigration base of voters, African policy makers have to come to terms with the cold reality that the continent never really featured highly in foreign policy priorities of the United States.

As Nigerian scholar, Jideofor Adibe notes, the core foreign policy concerns of the United States have never really included Africa.He further observed that the tangential place of Africa in US foreign policy priorities explains “why most American presidents visit Africa, or formulate their Africa initiatives only at the twilight of their tenures. In this sense, it does not really matter who becomes America’s president because relations with Canada, Europe, South America and the Middle East will always be privileged over relations with Africa.”

This pragmatic view offers a window for policy makers in Africa to come to terms with the place of the continent in US foreign policy priorities. For instance, a look at the timeline within which Trump’s last three predecessors made concrete and clear efforts to engage with Africa confirms that reality.Bill Clinton, who was applauded for his pro-black policies and his positive steps towards Africa only signed off his signature Africa policy, the Africa Growth Opportunity Act in 2000, seven years into his presidency. Similarly, the 44th American President Barrack Obama, who is well loved on the continent on account of his African descent only signed off and launched Power Africa, his pet project for the continent, five years into his tenure. These pointers hold very important lessons for government and policy makers on the continent.

Until Africa begins to take itself seriously and make itself relevant in the global space, what it gets would only be the result of some carefully packaged afterthought. The Trump phenomenon notwithstanding therefore, Africa has a responsibility to push itself into global reckoning, and stop waiting for the benevolence of the world powers.With these pointers in mind, an early opportunity for Africa to begin giving a sense of its direction with respect to defining some irreducible minimum for engagement with the United States, presents itself with the visit of Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.


The secretary of state’s shuttles across Africa would put some strategic interests in view. Security is one of those key areas, especially with the mushrooming of ISIS-backed insurgents like the Boko Haram in Nigeria, and other Islamists insurgents in the Sahel.Technical cooperation in this area is in the interest of the insurgency-ravaged African countries, as well as the United States. There are also traditional talking points around promoting good governance, and spurring mutually beneficial trade and investments.

The initial indicators and the demands of the America First doctrine points to cooperation on security as the low hanging fruit for Africa-US relations in the Trump era. The killing of US marines who were on a mission in Niger Republic was one of the first major headaches the Trump administration had to address. As a result, the administration’s engagement in Africa seems to be focusing first on finding entry points for cooperation on matters of security. As pointed out by Ambassador John Campell, an ex-US envoy in Africa, Trump’s initial lethargy in terms of engagement with Africa is changing with a shift of focus towards security.

This shift, he writes, “is also reflected in the administration’s budget proposal, which may end up having the biggest initial impact on U.S. policy toward Africa. However, the other dimension of US foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa, which African governments must be prepared for, is the monumental cut in development assistance.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Ambassador Campell reckons that the State Department would see a roughly 30 per cent cut, if the Trump administration gets its way. He said: “Included in that cut would be USAID, meaning that almost all development assistance would be eliminated, as would many health-related programmes. Africa would be disproportionately affected; at present, roughly one-third of USAID funds go to the continent. Trump’s budget would also nearly half the U.S. contribution to United Nations peacekeeping operations, more than half of which are in Africa.”

These are some of the hard facts African governments and diplomats must be ready to strategise around, as they engage the US with Trump at the helm.Like Adibe, Rosemary Oyinlola, who teaches International Politics at Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, does not see any groundbreaking development arising from Tillerson’s visit.According to her, Tillerson’s visit would naturally raise a lot of questions, which you get after an election in America, which include the new president’s policy towards Africa.

“This came up strongly after Obama was elected, but what did Obama really do for Africa, in spite of the fact that he was the first African-American to be elected president? Since Africans in Africa did not elect American presidents, whatever they do is a product of benevolence, which is always tied to their interests.

“Trump foreign policy towards Africa is obvious and some would say it is hostile considering the many derogatory words he has said about the continent. So, his Americans First message should be understandable because Africans in Africa did not vote him into office, except those who live in America and are qualified to vote. His Americans First message is obvious in the country’s immigration policies, just as all his statements have shown. These people, whatever they do, would be in their own interest, anything outside that is a product of charity. The thing is responsibility must start with us as a nation. And for us to keep looking to IMF and other world bodies is a childish thing for a nation that is almost 60 years.”

On whether the visit could in any way change Trump’s policy on migration, she said, “I do not think America’s migration policy under Trump is going to change just because the secretary of state is visiting Nigeria. He is not President Trump, whose idiosyncrasies factors and proclivity we all know. So, it is not going to change. Like I said, we have to understand what national interest is, which is what they don’t joke with. So, the migration policy is not going to change. But it all boils down to keeping our house in order. When do we begin to? That is another question.

The university teacher is equally pessimistic about the chances of any benefits accruing to the country on account of the visit “because we have had these visits in the past, and it is normal that every nation should have a bilateral policy, or a policy stand towards the continent, but it does not mean that the interest is always for the other country, as each nation would explore the relationship to its benefit.”

Onyinlola further warned that it was time the country stopped expecting a “a saviour in a donor from every visit. This is because Africa needs to rise up to its own responsibilities, especially Nigeria. This is more so that Nigeria’s perception in the international scene is dwindling. In the 1960s, many could deduce what the country’s foreign policy was all about- decolonisation, supporting other African countries, and non-alignment. But what is the foreign policy of the present administration? It is not obvious. Aside that, we cannot feel any foreign policy drive of this present administration because the country’s foreign policy has not been well articulated of recent. I suspect that Tillerson’s could be one of the mechanisms to remedy some of the unpleasant things that Trump has said about Nigeria and Africa.


“The other thing I suspect of the visit is that given the issue of arms and gun control in America, especially now that gun issuance has reached a point of saturation, where these weapons are in the wrong hands and are being used for other motives, the secretary of states may also use the visit to talk about gun sales. This is because rather than legislate for gun control, the US would be looking for outlets to sell those weapons out. So it is not surprising that many of the places that the secretary of states will visit are places prone to violence, or places that have security issues,” Onyinlola said.

She continued: “So this could be an attempt to discuss arm sales, as these countries with security challenges would be looking for opportunities, and willing to buy arms to combat insurgencies in their countries … One thing I have observed as a teacher of international politics is that over the years, African countries, especially Nigeria, have not understood the place of national interest, the reason our national interest is not well articulated, as our foreign policy goals are not in the interest of the average citizens. Under Ojo Madueke, we had citizens-centred diplomacy, which was about putting Nigerians first, but how well have we implemented that?

“So I think the whole visit will be for US’ benefits except we do not want to be sincere. And if we do not articulate our foreign policy for the understanding and interest of the average citizens, how then can our leaders be able to negotiate in the interest of the country when they seat with world bodies and leaders.”

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