Trump’s election bad for Africa, Namibia in particular

VOTERS in America will decide on November 3 whether Donald Trump remains in the White House for another four years or his challenger Joe Biden, who is best known as Barack Obama’s vice-president, will lead the Democratic Party as the next President.

Regardless of who wins the presidential race, the US foreign policy implications on Africa and Namibia in particular will be widely impacted.

Trump’s predecessors’ (George W Bush and Obama) highlights during their tenure was a combined estimated investment of N$30 billion to the Namibian economy in contrast to Trump’s N$1.5 billion ($89 million) in October to fight HIV/AIDS under the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar).

In July 2008, the Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a five-year, N$5.3 billion ($304.5 million) compact with Government to reduce poverty and accelerate economic growth. The compact sought to improve the quality of education and training for underserved populations, and attempted to capitalise on Namibia’s comparative advantages to increase the incomes of poor Namibians in the northern areas of the country.

In 2017, Trump displayed his ignorance or lack of interest in African countries when he spoke to African leaders at the United Nations and made not one but two references to a country called Nambia.

“Nambia’s health system is increasingly self-sufficient,” Trump said approvingly at one point.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem — good healthcare or not, Nambia doesn’t exist. And so the U.S. President’s laudatory comments about a nonexistent country swiftly invited ridicule online, with many suggesting that Trump had created an entirely new nation by combining two existing ones — Zambia and Namibia.

Trump may not be personally interested in Africa, but his administration has remained diplomatically engaged on the continent.

U.S. Africa police needs a reset

Early in his administration, Trump seemed poised to make major changes to U.S. policy toward Africa. His signature ‘America first’ approach was inherently skeptical of foreign involvement, especially in what he allegedly called “shithole countries” in the developing world. He opposed international trade agreements, including with African nations that he viewed as unfair to the United States. He sought to reduce U.S. funding for international organisations upon which Africa depends heavily for aid. And as a part of his administration’s shift away from countering violent extremism and towards great-power competition with China and Russia, he proposed reducing U.S. military presence in Africa.

Trump seemed disinterested in and even contemptuous of Africa. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, he did not travel to the continent during his first term. Nor did he engage personally on policy issues of particular importance to Africa, such as public health or the credibility of elections. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, gutted the State Department’s expertise on African affairs (a loss that has not been remedied under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo). Trump has met with African heads of state on the margins of the UN General Assembly and he has received a handful of African leaders at the White House, but these gestures have been largely overshadowed by his unfiltered comments about Africa.

Africa at the mercy of Trump administrators

When she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley played a significant role in persuading the dictator Joseph Kabila to relinquish power in 2019. The administration also supported Sudan’s fledgling democracy after the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir. In September, it prepared to remove Sudan from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a designation that has locked Khartoum out of the international financial system and prevented it from normalising relations with Washington. The administration has neglected some issues and regions —it has done too little to counter the spread of terrorism in the western Sahel and in Mozambique.

Even the president’s emphasis on great-power competition hasn’t resulted in a significant military drawdown in Africa. According to the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), on any given day the continent hosts approximately 6 000 Department of Defense personnel, down from 7 200 in 2018 and 7 000 in 2019 but roughly in line with Obama-era troop levels. While Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have pushed for further cuts to AFRICOM forces, concerns over great-power competition in Africa led to bipartisan pushback from Congress. Documents from October 2018 show that AFRICOM plans to spend more than $330 million between 2021 and 2025 to reinforce and enhance its network of 27 bases in Africa, many of which are low-profile ‘lily-pad’ bases.

If  Biden prevails in November, his administration should speedily rejoin the Paris climate accord and restore funding to the WHO. Both moves would benefit the U.S. as well as African nations, and they would provide platforms for future cooperation. Renewed U.S. leadership roles in multilateral forums would also improve Africans’ perceptions of America and help restore its soft power.                

But whichever candidate wins, Africa’s future will remain largely in African hands. For good or for ill, the United States does not wield as much influence in Africa as the former colonial powers. Its ties to the continent have traditionally been shallow, and U.S. businesses have been timid about investing and trading in Africa. Popular U.S. support for greater involvement in Africa is limited, and U.S. policymakers have been slow to recognise the continent’s growing importance. Nevertheless, African demography, security and health issues will mandate greater U.S. diplomatic engagement. To be effective, the next administration’s policies towards Africa must reflect African realities.