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Trump’s Phantom Africa Policy

It has previously been suggested that Africa may not be one of the Trump Administration’s policy priorities. Evidently, the Trump administration has appeared to be more inclined in building stronger relationships with non-African countries[1]. Since taking office Trump and his Administration’s policy towards Africa has often been vague, incoherent, and lacking direction – the only thing that seems to be clear about the US’s strategy for engagement with Africa is that there isn’t one.

A glaring example of this is that key official positions have remained vacant, with Donald Yukio Yamamoto still in the role of acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, a role he has held since September 2017, after a 6 month period with nobody in the role at all. Moreover, eleven US embassies and missions in Africa still lack leaders, with no appointees for vital roles such as the  Ambassador to South Africa. Worse still, President Trump’s openly derogatory comments about Africa have earned strong backlash from regional leaders. This shows no sense of urgency in developing and implementing a coherent policy for African countries and further shows the potentiality for negative US – Africa relations.

Nonetheless, an Africa policy is slowly beginning to take form with heavy focus on security, which has been the dominant theme of conversations between the US and African leaders for decades. In March, before being fired and replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on a trip to Africa, with stops in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. This marked the first time that a senior member of the Trump Administration had visited the region since President Trump took office. Tillerson’s visit reinforced the US priorities for Africa, first and foremost based on security and therefore focusing on war-torn areas. This focus meant that Ghana and South Africa, the U.S.’s largest trade partners with peaceful and a reasonable forms of democratic governance failed to make Tillerson’s visit list, when often these countries are visited by U.S. leaders.

The United States has extensive commitments across Africa, with between 5000 and 6500 servicemen and women serving in 50 of Africa’s 54 countries conducting counter-terrorism operations, supporting peacekeeping, training and helping national security forces.  Each country that Tillerson visited is a crucial partner to the U.S. in maintaining regional peace and fighting terrorism in Africa. Nigeria is grappling with Islamic State West Africa, still often known by its former name Boko Haram, with Chad providing military assistance to contain them; Ethiopia and Kenya are contributing peacekeepers to combat al-Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, and Djibouti hosts U.S.’s largest and only official military base in Africa.[2] Further, for the U.S these extremist movements in Africa – including those aligned with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are believed to have the potential to morph into direct threats to the U.S. Hence, Trump’s travel ban policy is still currently affecting countries such as Libya, Somalia and Chad and acts as a policy response to protect the U.S. from terrorist activities emanating from these countries. As well as these, the U.S. is doubling drone strikes in Somalia and troop deployments have also increased in countries such as Niger.

In line with attitudes towards other regions across the globe, the Trump Administration is intent on securitising its Africa policy while at the same time undercutting diplomatic tools and assistance – though Tillerson pledged $533 million for additional aid towards fighting famine and food insecurity in war-torn regions such as South Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Somalia, given his departure from the State Department, this may not be fruitful.  In short, with an Africa policy slowly emerging it is clear that the Trump Administration’s policy response to Africa is for the complete separation of military action from diplomatic and development efforts, constituting a total break from past administrations’ approaches and could potentially lead to failure in the long-run. The Trump administration’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2019 cuts diplomatic and development spending by 29% while increasing defence spending by 13%. Ultimately, the Trump administration is neglecting a holistic long-term strategy for its relations with Africa.

This raises the question: why is the US focusing on securitising its Africa policy? Put simply, security priorities hinge on Trump’s directives to put ‘America first’ and to make ‘America great again’. Security is prioritised by the U.S. because it acts as a preventative measure to protect the country from any threat direct or indirect. Traditionally, the securitisation of Africa by the U.S. has usually taken place within a larger framework of cooperation with African country leaders and the African Union, together with deep U.S. investments in health, democracy, trade and economic growth. Acting Assistant Secretary Donald Yamamoto stressed that the four main pillars that have framed Africa policy for many years will remain; peace and security, counterterrorism, economic trade, investment and development, and democracy and good governance. Trump proclaimed: “Africa has tremendous business potential, I have many friends going to your countries trying to get rich. I congratulate you, they’re spending a lot of money… It’s really become a place they have to go, that they want to go”. This statement shows Trump’s view of Africa in context with his wider shift to mercantilism in foreign policy, that the continent is somewhere with resources to be exploited. In the 1970s, Walter Rodney[3] argued that colonisation was based on making economic gains amongst the imperial powers, something which half a century later is still represented in Trump’s policy priorities.

It is evident that diplomacy or development is at best an afterthought for U.S.- Africa policy in the White House. This is not true of the Department of Defense however, and perhaps it should be seen as encouraging that leading lights in the American military are lobbying for these to be given greater priority. Commander of the United States Africa Command, Thomas David Waldhauser, in his recent statement on Capitol Hill, emphasised that “none of Africa’s challenges can be resolved through the use of military force as the primary agent of change.” Additionally, for the second year in a row, over 100 retired military leaders have written to Congress to emphasize that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defence is critical to keeping America safe.”

It is clear that the Trump administrations’ securitisation approach to Africa has great potential to backfire for at least three key reasons. Firstly, it is not context-specific as it does not ensure in-depth analysis to understand and address the root causes of violent extremism in Africa, which stems directly from a complex combination of issues that include unemployment and weak governance. As Waldhauser has noted, the United States “could knock off all the [Islamic State] and Boko Haram this afternoon, [but] by the end of the week, so to speak, those ranks would be filled.”

Secondly, it is not comprehensive and the Administration’s narrow focus on deploying troops, military advisers and selling weapons will not bring any structural changes needed to make African militaries more effective so that they can defeat threats on the continent, nor does it help foster the robust civil society institutions that help identify and challenge extremism. The Administration’s main focus is, perhaps rightly, to ensure that the threat from Africa does not spill itself out to the US, but it is pursuing that agenda in a one-dimensional and short-termist manner.

Thirdly, by effectively ‘leaving the field’ as far as soft power and diplomacy is concerned, the Administration is putting all its eggs in the military basket and thus Trump is ceding responsibility for leadership and relationship building to US rivals. China is offering African countries more than security cooperation, bringing in business deals, scholarships, and cultural exchanges that will allow China to increase its ability to advance its own global security agenda whilst still aiding in the development of Africa.

Africa as a continent has a lot of potential with its population set to likely double by 2050, making it around 3.5times larger than Europe at that time.[4] This means that Africa will have the world’s largest workforce, manufacturing goods and providing services to the aging populations in the West[5]. Simply put, the Trump Administration’s Africa policy will yield short-term victories. The White House would do better to focus on a more holistic, multi-pronged strategy with a more balanced array of policies including the uses of hard and soft power, and we may yet see America putting itself at an international disadvantage if it does not learn these lessons in time.

[1] Stremlau, J. (2017). An early diagnosis of Trump’s impact on US-Africa Relations and on Sustainable Democracy in the US and Africa. African Perspectives. Global Insights

[2] Feldstein, S. (2017) Why the Trump Administration Should Not Overlook Africa. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[3] Rodney, W. 1973. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications

[4] ibid. Feldstein,S (2017)

[5] ibid. </p>

Image source: Gage Skidmore via CC BY-SA 2.0

About Fadzai Nkwenzi

Fadzai Nkwenzi is a recent graduate of Coventry University, having successfully completed an MA in International Relations and prior to that a BA in Politics and History from Brunel University. Her Master’s thesis examined the utility of a human security framework in transnational human trafficking and asserted that current frameworks failed to protect and prevent human trafficking. Her research interests include transnational human trafficking, particularly a human security policy driven response to human trafficking; human rights, migration, international relations within Africa and Asia-Pacific and principles of good governance.