On April 29, Donald Trump reached 100 days in office as president of the United States. He’s a controversial head of state — one whose election campaign and subsequent ascension to power was met by widespread criticism and resistance, particularly from large US cities — and the dust has not settled for his administration.
Instead of assuaging fears and infusing greater certainty into global affairs, the announcement that he intends to cut $1-billion in foreign aid and diplomacy to fund various “America First” projects has the rest of the world concerned about the fate of peace, security and development.
Trump’s 2018 budget calls for the elimination of funding to the US African Development Foundation, a grant-making agency that provides operational assistance, enterprise expansion and market linkage to early stage agriculture and energy and youth-led enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa. While the proposed budget aims to maintain its commitment to Pepfar, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (established by George W Bush in 2003), it remains mum on other significant US-Africa initiatives such as PowerAfrica, the African Growth and Opportunity Act and its military command in Africa, Africom.
Delays in the appointment of an assistant secretary of state for Africa has had the knock-on effect of delaying messaging on US-Africa developments. Concerns are high that Africa will be marginalised under the new US administration. Given the changing global landscape and the emergence of other players seeking to expand their influence and power, not least China, Africa will not struggle to find support for its agenda. To maintain its dominance, the US should move more quickly to articulate proactive engagement with Africa under the new administration.
Far from being just the repository of the world’s mineral resources, Africa boasts a rapidly rising population while being home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. According to World Bank forecasts, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tanzania are to grow at 6.9% to 7.7% between 2016 and 2020. These provide opportunities for consumer markets and expanded trade for both countries.
The US has not been immune to these opportunities. Under Barack Obama, Africa enjoyed good relations with the US. While his administration gained some notoriety in South Africa in 2015-2016 over imports of cheap cuts of meat from the US, Obama was ultimately instrumental in securing a bipartisan approval for the extension of Agoa for another 10 years, offering security to African countries dependent on access to US markets.
Pepfar has rolled out crucial HIV treatment for more than 11-million Africans to date. The Trump administration plans to maintain current levels of treatment under Pepfar. There are also clear indications that counterterrorism will continue to be central to US interests in Africa. This reportedly formed the basis of telephone conversations with presidents Jacob Zuma and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari in February. But there has been no new articulation of policy since the US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa was adopted in 2012, resulting in the current uncertainty.
In the absence of the appointment of key senior state department personnel, a new strategy is unlikely to transpire soon. Recent reports that the new US administration did not meet Rwandan President Paul Kagame when he was in Washington in March fuelled uncertainty about Africa’s position. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson inflicted further damage in late April when he suddenly cancelled a meeting with the African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, angering the African delegation and souring relations with the AU.
Perhaps these are simply gaffes by an inexperienced, understaffed administration. But in the context of massive proposed cuts to US aid funding, coupled with silence on an Africa strategy, they feed the assumption that Africa will not assume importance in US affairs.
The proposed budget cut in foreign aid points to this growing marginalisation. If affected, it would significantly affect the ability of the US to follow through on commitments that directly affect Africa. The World Health Organisation and United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund are heavily funded by US contributions to the UN, as are critical UN peacekeeping operations, the bulk of which are in conflict-prone Africa.
But there are opportunities in a possible US pullback. In June last year China announced increases in its troop contributions to the UN, another sign of its growing global clout. As a long-time ally of Africa’s liberation movements, China says it seeks win-win solutions on trade, industrialisation and development in Africa. This has catalysed African growth and development, and China’s expanded military presence is in line with its growing economic interests.
Although their presence is lower, countries such as Turkey, Brazil and India are assuming greater responsibility in ensuring peace and security in Africa. Renewed focus on violent extremism and increasing the capacity of the state to govern are some of the central concerns of the European Union in proceeding with developments on a new EU-Africa Joint Strategy in November this year.
More importantly, the AU is to step up domestic funding and response capacity against emergent security threats. This was confirmed at the AU Summit in Kigali in July 2016. The establishment of the African Standby Force and a rapid response unit, the African Capacity for the Immediate Response to Crises, though much delayed, are well-conceived African peacekeeping instruments. With greater political will and funding, this could bolster the AU’s work in places of conflict, diminishing the need to depend on UN interventions and potentially reducing the influence of outsiders in African affairs.
In these uncertain times, Africa’s strategic relevance remains clear for other world powers who recognise the mutual benefits of strategic, concerted engagement with the continent. The US risks losing momentum in Africa, diminishing its power and sphere of influence. A more astute US foreign policy would do well to prioritise the continent.
Aditi Lalbahadur is the programme manager of the foreign policy programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs.