Like most parts of the world, Africa is still waiting, anxiously, for United States (US) President Donald Trump to articulate his policy for the continent.
More than a month after his inauguration, he has still not even nominated assistant secretaries of state for Africa and other regions of the world; nor has he appointed many ambassadors. As one critic put it – ‘radio silence’ has replaced the daily traditional press briefings at the State Department.
The vacuum of reliable information about Africa policy has naturally been filled with speculation. This mostly pivots round the question of whether Trump would implement his radical America First campaign rhetoric in Africa. Or will he – perhaps through ‘benign neglect’ – leave it to the State Department’s Africa hands to get on with it, implementing a fairly orthodox, bipartisan policy?
If the latter proves true, Peter Pham, vice president and Africa director at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, seems to be the front-runner for the assistant secretary job. Several other names have also been mentioned, however, including veteran military intelligence officer and specialist on international crime syndicates, Charles Snyder; Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in the Department of Defense; and Jeffrey Krilla, former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour.
Pham points out that US-Africa policy has been bipartisan through several administrations. He generally supports that policy, which has been built around keystone projects such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – which gives duty-and quota-free access to the US market for most exports of eligible African countries – the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) and Africom, the Defense Department’s dedicated Africa Command.
However, in an interview with ISS Today, Pham – stressing that he was speaking as the Atlantic Council’s Africa director and not for the Trump administration – said he believed the election of Trump, who has shown himself to be ‘unbound by convention,’ offered a unique opportunity for revisiting that bipartisan policy to fine-tune and re-calibrate it.
One of the key policy changes Pham has advocated, in an Atlantic Council document directed at the Trump administration called ‘A measured US strategy for a new Africa,’ is what he calls ‘earned engagement.’
The US, he says, should only grant diplomatic recognition to governments which earn it by demonstrating that they have legitimate sovereign control over their countries. Large areas of Africa are still ‘pre-Westphalian, where central governments face a continuing struggle to establish even a modicum of dominion over national territory,’ his strategy says. The external legitimacy that US recognition confers on even failed and inherently illegitimate governments helps them to trade on their offices, while offering the US no advantages in return.
Pham offers Somalia as a prime example. Neither Republican nor Democratic US administrations recognised any of the 15 transitional governments that followed the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991.
He deplores then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s departure from this bipartisan policy in January 2013, when she recognised the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, which came to power by a ‘dubious’ process including extensive vote-buying, he says.
In his paper, Pham suggests instead that the US could recognise sub-national entities where these are exercising greater legitimate sovereignty – such as Somaliland, the breakaway state in north-western Somalia that is officially recognised by no country, yet is preserving good order.
The South Sudan government is even less deserving of US diplomatic recognition, Pham says, having driven its people into a civil war, which in turn precipitated famine.
And Pham believes US diplomatic recognition of the government of Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila should depend on his continuing to honour the 31 December 2016 ‘St Sylvestre’ accord with his political opponents, whereby he should retire from office this year after elections.
Washington insiders say that the Trump administration has already taken up Pham’s ‘earned engagement’ policy, not only for Africa – and that this will become apparent when Trump’s first National Security Strategy is published shortly.
Some analysts fear a US retreat from Africa under Trump – but Pham clearly does not. On the contrary, he laments what he sees as a neglect of Africa by previous administrations and calls, for instance, for an expansion of US diplomatic missions, including into the Boko Haram-tormented regions of Nigeria, north of the capital Abuja.
Pham insists that it is squarely in America’s interests to expand its presence in Africa to bolster the already rising security, good governance and prosperity on the continent which are creating a rapidly growing market for US companies. ‘The Trump administration has put great emphasis on boosting manufacturing in the US. Well, those goods have to be sold somewhere,’ he says.
Some analysts fear though that these quite orthodox sentiments may not represent the prevailing thinking in the White House – which might favour instead the aggressive implementation of Trump’s radical ‘America First’ campaign slogan.
Anton du Plessis, Executive Director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, says even though it’s still too early to discern Trump’s Africa policy, there have been some disturbing warning signals.
One was a New York Times article published on 25 January which reported that Trump was preparing executive orders that would cut all US funding to organisations and countries that pursue policies deemed to contradict America’s. The orders would pave the way for drastic funding cuts also to United Nations peacekeeping operations – which are now 28.57% funded by the US – the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Population Fund, which oversees maternal and reproductive health programmes. The Trump administration has also been reported as seriously questioning the value of US development aid to Africa, particularly programmes to advance democracy and good governance.
Noting that most UN peacekeeping missions are in Africa, Du Plessis worries that the US is abandoning the international project to help bring peace, democracy, the rule of law, good governance and human rights to Africa, jeopardising all the hard work done over succeeding decades. Trump’s dangerous rhetoric on important issues like torture, the role of the judiciary, and the media does not bode well either, he says.
Democracy, the rule of law, good governance and human rights are values that still struggle to take root in many countries on the continent, and Du Plessis fears that Trump’s desertion of these would ‘put wind in the sails of certain African leaders, encouraging them to do whatever they want to do in the name of bolstering national security and fighting terrorism…’
This will aggravate the rise of populism and nationalism in Europe, which is also jeopardising development aid budgets directed at boosting good governance, rule of law, democracy and human rights in Africa.
Du Plessis fears that Trump will ‘securitise’ US policy, funding and engagement in Africa, focusing too heavily on tackling security problems such as Boko Haram, while ignoring efforts to create stability in the long term through democracy, good governance and sustainable development.
Pham dismisses such criticism, saying the Trump executive orders cited by the New York Times seem to be just two among many draft proposals which have not been signed. Nevertheless, he says the Trump administration would be right to review the value of each UN peacekeeping mission on its own merits rather than giving them all carte blanche.
Likewise with development aid, he says, which he favours in principle, as it advances US interests, but believes individual programmes need to be reviewed. He deplores, for instance, how millions of dollars of US aid money from its Millennium Challenge Account was used to pay Chinese contractors for an irrigation project. And those criticising Trump for planning to cut democracy and governance programmes are ‘arriving a little late,’ he says, as the Obama administration already cut such programmes by 45%.
To the ‘securitisation’ charge, Pham says an element of security concern is necessary in Africa – and his strategy paper calls for more resources to be channelled into Africom, not only to address insecurity directly, but also to continue to beef up African militaries.
In his paper Pham concludes that America’s ‘failure to invest more in institutions, personnel, training, and strategic focus’ in Africa has been ‘incredibly short-sighted. This deficit needs to be addressed by the Trump administration.
So which Trump will show up to Africa? The America First isolationist narrowly focused on defeating terrorism? Or the Africanist taking an enlightened self-interest, longer-term approach to the continent?
We should soon get a glimpse of an answer. Washington insiders believe Trump will be obliged to appoint an assistant secretary of state for Africa soon as the present incumbent, Linda Thomas Greenfield, retires on 10 March, and Trump needs to be briefed for two imminent summits, of the G7 and G20 where Africa – especially the immigration issue – will dominate the agenda.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant