"Africa has remained under the radar of Donald Trump"

THE APPOINTMENT OF IDEAS. Increasing militarization and commercial opportunities: the historian Maya Kandel decrypts US policy towards the continent.

US President Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 26, 2018.
US President Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 26, 2018.
Credits: Eduardo Munoz / REUTERS

Tribune. Redefining the relationship with the United States was the heart of Donald Trump's campaign. This leitmotif, now at the center of its foreign policy, is based on five main principles: nationalism, unilateralism, militarism, protectionism and the development of bilateral relations on the basis of ideological affinities. But this Trump revolution in foreign policy did not affect all areas and all regions in the same way. While some cases have become "reserved areas" of the presidency, such as the North Korean nuclear, others have remained relatively under the presidential radar. This is the case of the African continent.

Donald Trump lost interest in Africa and accumulated the marks of ignorance towards him, even without premeditating him. In a speech in New York addressed to African counterparts, Namibia ("Namibia") becomes "Nambia." Ignorance and contempt. No one has forgotten, on the continent and elsewhere, that, according to American media, he has treated African states to "Shitty country" at a meeting on immigration in the Oval Office in January 2018. Sayings that he denies having held, but the controversy has installed the idea that Donald Trump despises Africa as much as his predecessor Barack Obama, born of a Kenyan father, respected this continent.

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Paradoxically, although he may induce outrage among a majority of Africans – the African Union had also demanded an apology after these insults – Donald Trump is emulated. We can not ignore the Trump effect on the questioning of multilateralism and the universality of certain principles and values, including human rights, which certainly transcend the continent but particularly affect it. We have seen this again recently, when the Nigerian military justified abuses by invoking the strong words of Donald Trump, the 1st November, during his speech on his migration policy. He had allowed his soldiers to use their weapons if they had to deal with migrants throwing stones.

And when the first lady, Melania Trump, makes a humanitarian tour on the continent in October, we are still in the caricature. With her colonial helmet screwed on her head during a safari in Kenya, the First Lady seems stuck in another century of relations between Africa and the United States.

Priority to security and the fight against terrorism

Beyond these deplorable exits that tarnish the perception of the continent by the United States, the African policy of the administration ran in a relative vacuum. While President Trump took office in January 2017, Africa's State Department official (Tibor Nagy, a career diplomat) was not confirmed until late June 2018. On the White House and Pentagon side, Africa leaders are two CIA alumni (Cyril Sartor at the National Security Council and Alan Patterson at the Defense Department).

In this context, the speech of Tom Shannon, then Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, in September 2017, remains to this day the only true presentation of African politics under Trump. Echoing the Obama administration's strategy for Africa, it has reversed the hierarchy of priorities to put security and the fight against terrorism in the forefront, while emphasizing the continent's trade opportunities and leaving the promotion of the good governance.

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The consequence has been an increased militarization of American politics in Africa, accentuated by Trump's choice to delegate field decisions to the military. The long-standing American involvement in Africa has intensified, particularly in Somalia, with an increase in military strikes against Islamic State (IS) affiliated groups. In the Sahel, US engagement continued in cooperation with France, which remains at the forefront, and with financial support for G5 Sahel.

In parallel, the United States continued its implantation in Niger, "Strategic location at the crossroads of three terrorist fronts with bases in Libya, Mali and Nigeria", according to Africom, the United States Command for Africa. This country now hosts the strongest US military presence (730 men) after Djibouti (4,000, out of a total of 7,200 for the entire continent outside Egypt), even after the ambush that killed four American soldiers in October 2017. The direct American involvement in Libya has also intensified.

A field of confrontation with the other powers

On the commercial side, the evolution is clearer. Applying the new precepts of transactional diplomacy and anti-free trade stance, the Trump administration has initiated several revisions to the Clinton era's commercial law, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), in question the free access to the American market of African products. This was the case with Rwanda, for reasons of reciprocity, but also recently with Mauritania, invoking slavery.

In both cases, these evolutions testify to the influence of the representative to the trade, Robert Lighthizer, a follower of protectionism which had already served under Reagan, and especially the paradigm shift in American trade policy, with assumed nationalism demanding reciprocity or setting conditions, to defend American interests.

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Another important element is the influence of the evangelicals and its translation to Congress with the return of the "Global Gag Rule", a provision reinstated upon the arrival of each new republican administration and which prohibits the financing of any organization that practices, advises or even evoking abortion. This aspect has a major impact on US aid to Africa, where issues related to family planning are paramount.

Above all, Africa appears in Trump's strategic documents as a field of confrontation with the other great powers. To counter the Chinese "new silk roads", Congress passed a bill at the end of September that provides for a new investment policy, with major repercussions in Africa. African countries, at the heart of this increased competition between the United States, China, Russia and France, now have a multiplicity of alternative offers.

Maya Kandel, historian at the University Paris-3-Sorbonne-Nouvelle, holds a blog on the foreign policy of the United States.

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