"Africa remained under the radar of Donald Trump"

THE APPOINTMENT OF IDEAS. Increased militarization and commercial opportunities: the historic Maya Kandel deciphers US policy towards the continent.

US President Donald Trump at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 26, 2018.
US President Donald Trump at the UN 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 common thread, now at the center of its foreign policy, is based on five fundamental principles: nationalism, unilateralism, militarism, protectionism and the development of bilateral relations based on ideological affinities. But this Trump revolution in foreign policy did not cover all areas and regions alike. While some cases have become "reserved areas" of the presidency, such as the North Korean nuclear, others have remained relatively below the presidential radar. This is the case of the African continent.

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

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Paradoxically, although it may induce indignation among the majority of Africans – the African Union has also apologized 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 which in particular influence it. We saw it again recently, when the Nigerian army justified the abuse 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, does a humanitarian tour on the continent in October, we are still in caricature. With his colonial helmet screwed on his head during a safari in Kenya, the First Lady seems stuck in another century of relations between Africa and the United States.

Security priorities and the fight against terrorism

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

In this context, the speech by Tom Shannon, then undersecretary of state for political affairs, in September 2017, remains until today the only real presentation of African politics under Trump. Echoing the Obama administration's strategy for Africa, it has overturned the hierarchy of priorities to put security and the fight against terrorism in the spotlight, emphasizing the continent's trade opportunities and leaving the promotion of good governance .

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The consequence was a growing militarization of American policy in Africa, accentuated by Trump's decision to delegate decisions on the ground to the military. The long-standing American involvement in Africa has intensified, particularly in Somalia, with an increase in military attacks against the affiliated groups of the Islamic State (IS). In the Sahel, the American commitment continued in cooperation with France, which remains at the forefront and with financial support for the G5 Sahel.

In parallel, the United States continued its plant in Niger, "Strategic position 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 of Egypt), even after the ambush that has killed four American soldiers in October 2017. American direct involvement in Libya has also intensified.

A field of comparison with the other powers

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

In both cases, these developments bear witness to the influence of the representative in the trade, Robert Lighthizer, a follower of protectionism who had already served under Reagan, and in particular the change of paradigm in American commercial politics, with the assumed nationalism that demands reciprocity or establishes conditions, to defend American interests.

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Another important element is the influence of the evangelicals and its translation to the Congress with the return of the "global gag rule", a clause reinstated to the arrival of every new republican administration and which prohibits the financing of any organization that you practice, advice or even summon abortion. This aspect has an important impact on the help of the United States to Africa, where family planning issues 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 roads of silk", the Congress passed a bill in late September that provides for a new investment policy, with major repercussions in Africa. The African countries, at the center of this growing competition between the United States, China, Russia and France, now have a multiplicity of alternative offers.

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

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