The choice of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President-elect and Vice-President-elect, respectively, has rekindled hope for a renewed impetus in United States’ foreign relations across the world, particularly in relation to its multilateral diplomacy, even as US interests fundamentally remain the same. For Africa, a Biden presidency presents a new opportunity to move past the strenuous relationship between Africa and Trump’s presidency in the last four years.
Africa’s relations with the US has traditionally been checkered. But President Donald Trump arguably led the most conflicted US strategy on Africa. From referring to some states in Africa as “shithole countries,” to arbitrary travel bans and funding cuts, Trump’s administration will be remembered for its limited interest in strategic cooperation with Africa.
However, the positive aspect of Trump’s administration is the invaluable lessons on the urgency of African agency and self-reliance – an agenda that could be consolidated through African strategic engagement with the Biden administration. Self-reliance and sustainable peace are two critical areas where Africa could re-strategize its cooperation with the US.
Africa’s Quest for Self-Reliance
Biden’s plan for Africa in the face of pressing domestic priorities within the US, is still unclear and the potential benefits are speculative. But the Biden-Harris campaign’s Agenda for the Diaspora provides some glimpse on what to expect. Unlike Trump’s US-Africa strategy that is transactional and focused on countering the influence of China and Russia, and fighting violent extremism, Biden’s agenda is more Africa-centered and seeks to promote a “mutually respectful engagement” with the continent. Trump’s US-Africa strategy which was unveiled by the former US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, in 2018 was bent on ensuring that Africa plays to the tunes of the US in matters of global power competition. This approach mostly resulted in a confrontational and opposing stance to endogenous initiatives on the continent.
For instance, in 2016 when the African Union (AU) adopted a 0.2% levy on imports coming into Africa, Trump’s administration was quick to write letters warning African states and the AU that the levy violated the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules of non-discrimination and reciprocity. The Trump administration argued that WTO members may not apply tariffs on a product coming from one WTO member (of non-African origin) and not apply the same tariff on the same or like product when it originates in another WTO member of African origin.
The levy was initiated to enable AU member-states to pay their annual dues and to enhance the AU’s self-reliance and capacity to proactively mobilize resources for initiating programs and interventions which had previously been constrained by the lack of funding. The Trump administration threatened reprisals in the event of the implementation of the levy, leading African negotiators to explore alternative solutions through seeking a WTO waiver and an accelerated continental free trade area. Indeed, the US concerns inspired African leaders to expedite the processes leading to the adoption, signing, and ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in line with the Abuja Treaty of 1991. The AfCFTA creates a single continental market for goods and services thereby addressing some concerns about differential treatment, but more needs to be done to operationalize the AfCFTA. A waiver from the WTO obligations is another option being considered in terms of the 0.2% levy although some African states have gone ahead to implement the levy.
But the recent US objection to the candidacy of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is reflective of Trump’s administration keenness to prevent the emergence of a WTO leadership that could favour African trade interests. This further entrenches the Trump’s pattern of hostility towards Africa leadership and influence in international organizations. It also reflects a pattern following the administration’s failed opposition to the re-election of the Nigeria’s Akinwumi Adesina as the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), the sanctions placed on the Gambian chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Ms. Fatou Bensouda, as well as the unfounded criticisms of the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Director-General, Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom and the halting of funding to the WHO for allegedly taking sides with China over actions taken to rein in the new Coronavirus pandemic.
With the AfCFTA in force, the actual work of industrializing Africa and achieving intra-African trade requires renewed deals with global powers like the US and the European Union (EU). While AfCFTA is about African ownership, the support of external powers and significant inflow of capital is required for the public and private sectors to initiate massive industrialization projects including reliable energy and good transport networks to seamlessly consolidate intra-Africa trade. Biden has already expressed keenness to strengthen trade relations and boost economic ties and urbanizing initiatives within Africa.
Partnership for Sustainable Peace
The quest for “lasting peace and security” is another critical area for Africa’s partnership with the US as affirmed by the Biden-Harris campaign agenda. The trend in African peace and security landscape is the move towards a continent-wide collaboration for peace especially through the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). It is interesting that the Biden campaign agenda is keen on multilateralism including “restoring and reinvigorating diplomatic relations with African governments and regional institutions, including the African Union.”
The Trump administration continued the fight against extremism, but the approach was largely driven by direct bilateral engagement with African states, while only providing minimal support to international and regional cooperation for peace. Notably, Trump’s funding cuts affected UN allocation for peace operations. The shortfall in UN funding affected the UN-AU mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) and the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) which are gradually drawing down their operations.
The funding cuts also had a significant impact on regional peace initiatives. Trump’s administration blocked the AU’s request on the use of UN assessed contributions for African peace operations in the Sahel, Somalia, among others. The AU’s Peace Fund was meant to only generate up to 25 percent of the funds for its peace operations. The remaining 75 percent was expected to be covered by external partners including the UN which has the primary responsibility for international peace and security.
There is no doubt that the Trump’s administration – like previous US administrations – provides significant funds for regional initiatives such as AMISOM and the G5 Sahel. But the US could do more to support predictable funding for these regional initiatives. While efforts at national levels are key, a coordinated approach is integral in terms of addressing security challenges which are increasingly transboundary in nature. Although a Biden administration could also block the use of UN assessed funds, African states have a negotiating opportunity to consider possibilities for predictable funding for African missions including through support to initiatives such as the AU’s 0.2% Levy and the AfCFTA.
Furthermore, as part of the quest for sustainable peace, African leaders should work with the US to re-evaluate the increasing use of drone strikes on the continent. The Trump administration reduced the size of the US African Command (AFRICOM)’s Special Forces since 2017, shifting towards a backup plan characterized by a heavy reliance on flexible and frequent use of precision drone strikes. This was made possible when Trump repealed Obama’s conservative stance on drone operations. In March 2017 for instance, Trump permitted US commanders to carry out strikes in Somalia without seeking high-level vetting unlike before. This flexible approach entail that drone strikes may not only target leading terrorists but also foot soldiers without ‘unique skills or leadership roles’ and who do not have to meet any threat criteria. Additionally, under Trump’s orders, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was not required to publicly disclose the number civilian casualties in airstrikes.
The increased use of drones raises concerns over the value placed on non-American lives under Trump’s administration. Documented drone strikes in Somalia between August 2017 and May 2018 revealed high civilian casualties, including the destruction of livelihoods. The US however rejected most of the reports of civilian death only agreeing to a few civilian casualties. Reports have also shown that indiscriminate counter-terrorism efforts could drive terrorist recruitment and operations. While the wanton drone strikes appear enticing and spare US troops from harm, the impact on counterterrorism itself in the medium to long-term is not sustainable.
The Biden administration could be a key ally for African agency and self-reliance moving forward, but it is important for the continent’s leaders and people to be cognizant that the US government remains driven by its national interests, and to note that the real impetus for meaningful economic and political change lies within the continent. For instance, in economic affairs, Africa has to intensify efforts to realize economic growth through the AfCFTA while maintaining diversity in global relations and maximizing partnerships for sustainable and long-term benefit. In the political realm, the popular uprisings that led to the ouster of former president Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan in 2020 and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in 2017 as well as the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria are reflective of the internal quest for democracy, human rights, and inclusive social development.