Refocusing US-Africa partnership for the Trump era
The dust is finally settling on the shock election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States (US). Beyond the world’s generalized anxiety, Africa more than ever requires a calibrated lens to identify priorities and define pragmatic actions to advance the continent’s interests with Washington. Ultimately, Africa needs to leverage opportunities and manage risks represented by the American leadership change. Africa should strive for more purposefulness and pro-activeness in its agenda-setting, outreach and follow-through actions.
For the past two decades, global observers have faulted both American interventionism as well as inaction for conflicts from Iraq to Afghanistan through Libya to Syria. With Mr. Trump’s imminent ascension, many analysts now worry that a US turn inwards will exacerbate geopolitical and geo-economic risks worldwide. Valid as these global concerns may be, it is the risk of gradual neglect of Africa by the new US administration which must worry leaders from Abuja through Pretoria to Yamoussoukro. Admittedly a crucial relationship for Africa than for the US, Africa stands to gain immensely from a well nurtured and productive US-Africa partnership under Trump.
The need for responsive and engaged leadership on both sides has always been crucial to realise shared objectives. In the current conjuncture, Trump’s rise and his emphasis on America first shifts the burden of initiation and outreach decidedly onto Africa. Efforts to build momentum to drive a renewed engagement must also commence sooner rather than later in the life of the Trump administration.
Re-defining mutual interests
To achieve success in this relationship, Africa requires a recalibrated approach which although shaped by global discourses must also reflect the continent’s challenges and distinct development needs. Very importantly, consolidating economic win-wins for human development, and advancing good governance, human rights, and security should remain overarching priorities for the relationship long into the future. Africa’s re-articulation of this partnership and its human development rationale will help to maintain traction for active US engagement in African long beyond the Trump presidency. In furtherance, African states should seek ways to align their policy objectives better to explore synergies where possible with US foreign policy priorities soon to be defined by the Trump administration. This will help shape broader opportunities for US-Africa entente, and ultimately alliance, on issues of common interest regionally and globally.
In furtherance, African states should seek ways to align their policy objectives better to explore synergies where possible with US foreign policy priorities soon to be defined by the Trump administration. This will help shape broader opportunities for US-Africa entente, and ultimately alliance, on issues of common interest regionally and globally.
President-elect Trump will take charge in the US at a time of renewed economic uncertainties in Africa. This is manifested for example in the challenging economic outlook, as the worst global commodity downturn in history threatens stagnation, social instability and reversal of development gains recorded over the past decade. With an average price fall of 50%-66% for most minerals and energy resources since 2014, Africa’s growth rate declined from 6.8% on average in 2003-2008 to about 4.5% in 2014 and only 3% in 2015. Very significantly, the impact of the commodity rout extends beyond Africa and is evident in constrained global consumption, lower investment and other headwinds facing developed economies and emerging regions alike.
In this world of intertwined economic fortunes, African states must move in concert to engage the incoming US president with a clear list of policy priorities. They must envision how to extend flagship policy partnerships and initiatives. These cover commercial opportunities in energy cooperation, trade, and investment, which is in large part embodied in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Bolstering regional and global goods such as well-managed migration, environmental governance, and security cooperation must also be priorities. Also, there is a need for greater openness to the US effort to promote institution- and capacity-building in Africa.
Shared global concerns
Both the US and Africa must zero-in on strengthening cooperation to expand global goods such as better managed migratory flows. US leadership and goodwill will be essential to maintain focus on the issue and reach sustainable solutions. As a policy agenda will which shape the global development and security outlook for decades to come, the action here is long overdue. It requires a new tone in inter-governmental dialogue, one focused on a joint search for solutions and a reimagining of opportunities and responsibilities for all frontline stakeholders: migrant sending, transit and receiving countries. Beyond the bluster of Mr. Trump’s campaign, including the impracticable proposal to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, there is a need for a new realism in the global north. Governments must reform asylum systems, better regulate flows of economic migrants, and shape the political consensus needed to actualise sensible balanced solutions.
The Leaders’ Summit on refugees convened by President Obama on the side-lines of this year’s General Assembly meeting of the United Nations provides a promising framework for upscaling inter-governmental efforts in this area. Global leaders’ participation at the summit was conditional on pledging new commitments to tackle the refugee crisis. Going further, leaders must come to terms with the growing problem of undocumented economic migrants. This calls for urgent, concerted action to better manage migrant labour flows, either at their origins or in the destination countries. Failing this, the world faces a humanitarian emergency in slow-motion, which would compound the human suffering now too visible on the frontiers of richer regions like Europe. Here, President Trump should lead the search for determined solutions, advancing the pay-to-play process already built into the Obama summit initiative.
There is also need to work concertedly to strengthen flagship development initiatives and interventions, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which underpinned President George W. Bush’s humanitarian legacy in Africa. Another example is Power Africa, which promises a similar transformational legacy that can help expand business opportunities on the African continent. This initiative unveiled by the Obama administration in 2013 to help incentivise and foster investments in power projects can reconcile Africa’s specific development needs to the Trump administration’s focus on optimising the commercial opportunities for US businesses.
There is much that can be done to optimise this potential lifeline intervention so that it can begin to make a real difference for small, medium and large scale businesses in Africa. Providing this affordable and reliable energy can also mean sustained profitability for US energy investors.
Whilst Power Africa targets 10,000MW of electricity generation, it has so far facilitated only about $20 billion worth of commercial negotiations that were already in the pipeline. Yet, significant complementarities exist between Africa’s energy needs and the US’s capabilities in this field that must be optimally explored. The initiative requires a new impetus from the incoming US administration, which should work to widen its ambition and scope. On the African side, systemic constraints to power generation and distribution in Africa, including regulatory challenges, fragmented institutions, incoherent plans and misaligned incentives, will need to be urgently addressed. To this end, the US should dust up its original incentives-based plan which seeks to leverage public funds to facilitate major power deals in Africa, with US companies such as General Electric in the lead. The US should also help incentivise and re-channel commitments from within Africa itself such as the $2.5 billion pledged by the Tony Elumelu Heir Holdings in support of the US initiative and similar projects.
Ultimately, the most important shift that is required is a mental one, which requires both sides to favour pragmatism over preoccupation with dogma. Africa will do well to seek out and advance shared interests with the US government regardless of the latter’s ideological posturing. A Trump-led America too could benefit from this economic pragmatism which would extend public-private partnerships that are demonstrably advancing development in Africa whilst expanding markets for US multinationals on the continent. A key determinant of success will be the ability of policymakers in Africa and Washington to nudge the relationship in this pragmatic direction that can more meaningfully respond to Africa’s unique needs and challenges.