Trump and Africa: The continent must respond

Despite traditionally occupying a peripheral spot in US foreign policy, Africa received relatively increased attention over the last decades under the Bush and Obama administrations. The election of President Donald Trump signaled a potential turning point in U.S. foreign policy – one that would be more nationalist and focus less on Africa. Mr. Trump won his election on a campaign to put “America First” and be less bothered about the problems of other countries. In keeping with this campaign promise, after one year as president, Trump has not filled some important positions dealing with US African policy. This paper provides an overview of US African policy and makes some recommendations for the Trump Administration and African countries. It suggests that, instead of viewing Trump’s limited focus on Africa as problematic, Africa must embrace it as an opportunity to take leadership roles in finding solutions to their problems.

Image: Brookings


The election of President Donald Trump signaled a potential turning point in U.S. foreign policy. On the campaign platform, Mr. Trump had evoked themes that emphasized his plan to concentrate primarily on domestic issues and less on foreign policy. Trump’s repeated emphasis of “America First” during his inaugural speech left only a few wondering whether indeed, his campaign promises were going to shape up his foreign policy or not. In Africa, many leaders remained uncertain what an “America First” foreign policy in the Trump era would mean for U.S.-African cooperation. African policy has not traditionally occupied a preeminent spot in U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. However, over the last decade the U.S.-Africa relationship has blossomed with relatively popular programs like ‘African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)’ under Bill Clinton, the ‘President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)’ under George W. Bush, and ‘Power Africa’ under Barack Obama. The Obama administration furthering Bush’s enhanced interest in Africa, devoted considerable effort to African policy particularly in the areas of leadership and healthcare.

U.S. interest in African policy increased during the Bush administration partly due to the burgeoning threats to American security in certain parts of Africa. The weakness of states and persistent conflicts in countries like Sudan, Liberia, Angola, and Somalia, some of which had led to the creation of terrorist groups like ‘Al-Shabab’ demanded close attention from the U.S. Consequently, Bush’s significant role in Africa resulted in the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which brokered peace between Sudan and South Sudan in 2005. The Bush administration also committed more funds to support political, economic and infrastructural development in Africa, specifically launching the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), which extended development assistance to African countries. According to Andrew Natsios, USAID administrator from 2001 to 2006, the “U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) went from $150 million to $800 million by the time Bush left office and much of that was to Africa.” Andrew further states that, USAID went from $1.2 billion when [Bush] started in early 2001 to $7 billion when he left office – a 600% increase”.

Obama, after succeeding Bush maintained the level of attention given to African policy. In fact, one of his early foreign trips as president was to Africa, specifically Ghana in July 2009. On this trip, Obama touted America’s strong partnership with Africa, promising to further strengthen the relationship. Obama’s administration actively pursued conflict and resolution policies in Africa, playing varying roles – overt and covert – for example, in the Arab spring which led to regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.  In the case of Libya for instance, the Obama administration spearheaded the passage of a resolution by the UN Security Council which authorized military intervention. The goal of the resolution, Obama explained, was to save the lives of peaceful, pro-democracy protesters who found themselves the target of a crackdown by then leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. In 2013, Obama committed about $7 billion to launch the ‘Power Africa’ program which had the goal of doubling access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa over five years.

Donald Trump, unlike his immediate predecessors – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – has shown less interest in Africa. After a year in office, Mr. Trump has spoken very little about Africa during foreign policy discussions, except for some brief references to Libya and Benghazi as criticisms against his political opponent, Hilary Clinton. The expectations that President Trump would make progress on Africa policy and give it appropriate attention have been low since his campaign. Whenever given the chance, Mr. Trump has spoken about his desire to “Make America Great Again” by focusing on an “America First” agenda. The absence of officials in his administration with expertise and interest in African issues betray his level of commitment to any progress in African foreign policy. After one year as president, Trump has not filled some important posts dealing with US African policy at the State Department. As Luce and Gramer note, “with no assistant secretary for Africa in place, and key ambassadorships still empty in South Africa and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, critics say the administration is rudderless when it comes to setting policy on a range of issues that affect the continent”.

African Conflicts and Peace Keeping: Trump vs Predecessors

Despite tremendous improvements – with fatalities falling from 24,000 to 14,000 between 2015 and 2016[1], armed conflicts continue to devastate lives and families in Africa. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, as of 2014, there were ten active conflicts in Africa – Somalia, DR Congo, Algeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, Libya, and Mali. In 2017, new and recurrent conflicts have emerged in Togo, Burkina Faso and Central Africa Republic (CAR). Whereas most of these conflicts have been internal, their consequences have been felt beyond national boundaries and on the international level. It is therefore important that any internal efforts to address these conflicts are complimented with the necessary external support – from within Africa and the international community. Following the end of the Cold War, African states have increased their peacekeeping activities on the continent – deploying a majority number of troops to Peacekeeping Operations (PKOs) in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, CAR, DR Congo, among others (Victor, 2010). On one hand, this increase participation in PKOs is viewed as, perhaps, a response to the widely popular phrase “African solutions to African problems,” which justifiably calls on African states to play leading roles in finding solutions to the myriad of problems the continent faces. On the other hand, it has been attributed to the growing influence of the United Nations and particularly the United States in Africa.

The United States has traditionally played a significant role in addressing conflicts on the African continent. The first post-Cold War UN interventions in Africa, – UNISOM I, UNITAF and UNISOM II – which sought to tackle the Somalian conflict, were actively supported by the US under President Bush and Clinton. In addition to that, the Bush administration played an active part in getting the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan (GoS) to agree to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement(CPA) in 2005, which effectively ended the 21-year old civil war in Sudan. Barack Obama also played an active role in getting the GoS and the SPLM to implement the CPA – and to the eventual secession of South Sudan in 2011. During his administration, Obama did not hesitate to wade into African conflicts – intervening (directly and indirectly) in conflicts in Libya, Mali, Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan etc. While in Africa in 2015, Obama also had direct discussions with leaders from the region about the conflict situation in South Sudan which led to important resolutions that urged the parties to commit to a peace agreement (Office of the Press Secretary, White House 2015).

In contrast to his predecessors, President Trump has so far devoted little attention to African conflicts. Apart from him not making appointments for some important positions dealing with U.S. Africa policy at the State Department; many observers viewed Mr. Trump substituting himself with his daughter, Ivanka, during a G-20 session on Africa as manifest of his limited interest in the continent and its 1.6 billion people. Despite giving little attention to it, the Trump administration has been confronted with the consequences of African conflicts – with about 4 U.S. soldiers killed in Niger, and both Al-Shabab and Boko Haram (which threaten US interests) stepping up their activities in Somalia and Nigeria respectively – causing the death of close to 1,000 people. From the US embassy attack in Kenya to the murder of Christopher Stevens (U.S. Ambassador to Libya), the signs are clear that African conflicts can directly threaten U.S. security and interests. It is therefore important for U.S. foreign policy makers to consider African policy seriously.

Thus far, the clearest indication that President Trump will concentrate less on Africa is the 35% decrease in aid to the continent. According to USAID, the United States’ foreign aid to Africa was US$8 billion in 2015. However, the Trump administration requested for just US$5.2 billion in foreign aid to Africa for fiscal year 2018 (U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Documents, 2017). Whereas U.S. support for climate change and energy policy is expected to be the most affected by this decrease – in conformance to Trump’s stance on the issue, other areas including conflict intervention programs, such as the financing for arms purchases, capacity-building, and military training in individual African nations, as well as regional initiatives such as the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Program, which provides Peace Support Operations training to African troops might be affected.

Is there hope for US-Africa policy under President Trump?

As noted earlier, Africa has typically occupied a less than preeminent spot in foreign policy decision making by successive U.S. administrations. If things remain as they are now, Mr. Trump would not be the first U.S. President to give little attention to Africa, however, he will contribute significantly to the stalling and/or reversal of the recent advances that have been made in the US-Africa relationship. There are, however, signs that things might change for the better under this administration. In his first encounter with African leaders at a working lunch meeting in New York, President Trump reiterated the United States’ commitment to support conflict resolution and counter-terrorist activities in Africa (Office of the Press Secretary, White House, 2017). He noted that his administration will continue with the efforts of previous administrations to resolve conflicts in Africa – specifically mentioning conflicts in Central African Republic, Congo, Libya, Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan. In addition to that, Trump announced his plan to send his UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, to Africa to “discuss avenues of conflict and resolution and, most importantly, prevention.”

Nikki Haley’s three-nation tour to Africa – Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – was the second by a senior official in Trump’s Administration; following Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis’, trip to America’s military base in Djibouti. Haley, like Mattis, primarily focused on the impact of African conflicts on US security interests while touring the continent. In South Sudan, Haley called for a swift resolution of the conflict – offering US support for the resolution process. Whereas these trips do not suggest a dramatic policy change in the Trump administration, they give an indication that the administration might be warming up to consider Africa more seriously. However, for the Trump administration to be considered a sincere partner of Africa, it must clearly define its policy toward Africa – detailing the areas of interest/focus, the implementation strategies and the expected outcomes. In addition, the administration must immediately make the necessary appointments to important positions dealing with US African policy at the State Department. This should be done in sync with the appointment of ambassadors to all African states that have diplomatic relationship with the US.

Wrapping Up

Though the Trump Administration is yet to fully develop its Africa policy and strategy, much change should not be expected in terms of scope and structure. Mr. Trump, despite limited attention has reiterated America’s commitment to support conflict resolution and counter-terrorist activities in Africa. However, President Trump campaigned on an agenda that emphasized the need to put “America First” in all endeavors – including America’s international relationships. Africa and its leaders should, therefore, not expect high capital-intensive programs like the AGOA, PEPFAR, and Power Africa to be initiated under President Trump. At best, the US will continue to provide country-specific and regional aid for economic development, good governance and counter- terrorist activities.

Instead of viewing President Trump’s limited focus on Africa as problematic, African leaders must embrace it as an opportunity for them to take up leadership roles in finding solutions to their problems. Perhaps, it is about time Africa heeds to Obama’s call during his 2009 visit to Ghana that “we [Africa] must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.” Africa cannot sustainably rely on the United States and the international community to address its conflicts and economic challenges. The African Union and sub-regional organizations like the ECOWAS, SADC have already played important roles in addressing conflicts in Gambia (forcing Yahya Jammeh to concede electoral defeat), Mali (supporting the government to battle Islamist groups) among others. The time has come for these organizations and Africa to do more in addressing the challenges which the continent faces. More regional cooperation in areas of trade, security, and innovation will be instrumental in equipping African states with the necessary resources in leading this charge – with its vast natural and human resources, Africa does not need to depend on U.S. or any other country/bloc, for that matter, to address its problems.

[1] The Armed Conflict Survey by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) provides a breakdown of the number of fatalities that resulted from conflicts in Africa. In their 2017 survey, IISS reported a decrease of about 10,000 fatalities in armed conflicts in Africa between 2015 and 2016. More details about the survey is provided on their website
Maxwell Adjei

Maxwell Adjei

Contributor at InPRA
Maxwell Adjei is a Ph.D. student in Political Science (Conflict Analysis and Management) at Kent State University. He received a master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA) and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science (International Politics) from Park University (Missouri) and University of Ghana respectively. His research interests include international organizations (IOs), sustainable development, conflict resolution, peacebuilding and security in Africa, democratization, public policy, and social enterprise.
Maxwell Adjei