Since assuming the US presidency in January, Donald Trump has looked to block Muslims and refugees from entering the country, threatened Iran and North Korea, and attempted to kill the planet by pulling out of the climate deal. The African continent rarely features in his early morning Twitter tirades.
A lot has been said over what is being described as “Trump’s indecision over Africa” – he has yet to appoint a head of the African Affairs bureau in the State Department; the only African leader he received at the White House has been Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; and he is rarely on the phone whispering sweet nothings to African leaders.
But make no mistake, Trump’s plan for the continent is already in motion.
That Muslim ban? Three out of the original seven countries were African. Now it is three out of six. Talk about the US reducing funding to peacekeepers? Eight out of 15 missions are on the continent. The proposed 2018 budget that reduces foreign aid? If it passes Congress, aid to the continent focusing on health, nutrition and security will drop from $8 billion to $5.2bn.
Trump may not be pushing a fully formed African agenda yet, but certainly many of his plans and policies are set to impact the continent. And it does not augur well.
Think of Trump not as the president of the free world, but rather for what he really is: an old white man with antiquated, parochial and racist views of the world. Trump has no interest in democracy, human rights or the rule of law when it comes to partnerships or international diplomacy. Follow the money and you’re likely to bump into a thin cake of batter for a foreign policy.
With China making significant dents in American and European influence on the continent, the Trump administration knows it cannot afford not to be involved. But Trump wants to alter the terms of US engagement. This administration’s priority in Africa is primarily national security and fighting “terror”. All the proposed cuts to development are to offset a military budget likely to increase by $54bn.
Unlike George W Bush or Barack Obama, who traded influence for development and aid, Trump will look to trade influence for “security”.
Where previous presidents looked to use back channels to assert military goals on a continent sensitive to neo-colonial or imperialist agendas, Trump will have no such qualms bullying and arming whoever is willing to pay his price.
The US has long been concerned that parts of the continent, in particular the Sahel and parts of central and East Africa, could fall under the influence of so-called Islamic terror groups. Watch now as the US exploits these concerns to deepen military resolve on the continent with buy-in by many of the puppet and undemocratic regimes. Trump will connect with leaders who fawn over him and shower him with gifts, and will promptly alienate those who ask questions.
His disdain for process, penchant for nefarious and crass capitalism, and emphasis on securitisation will gift some of our worst African leaders with an opportunity to create or cement their own tyrannical legacies.
Trump’s policies, undefined as they are at this point, follow a roadmap that was laid long before. Since the launch of the US Africa Command (Africom) in 2008, US military influence has quietly expanded across the continent, conducting a shadow war in the Sahel. There are massive drone bases in Djibouti and Niger. And while it is unlikely there will be more troops on the ground, what this does mean is a larger military influence through logistics, trainers, special short term operations and consultants.
In May, Trump sent a small contingent of troops on an “advise and assist” mission with the Somali National Army to fight the Somali group al-Shabaab. Meanwhile, and predictably so, he pulled out the troops from Obo in the unfashionable Central African Republic, where they were meant to find Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony. Violence has already broken out in this part of the country as armed groups fill the vacuum left by the American troops.
The move to cut aid and expand its military footprint on the continent will be disastrous.
Since 2003, US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) has committed more than $70bn towards HIV, TB and malaria that has assisted almost 12 million people. Many of the medicines and the like are not comfort drugs: they are urgent and life-saving. But humanitarians, aid workers and African governments have long known that this dependency was always a recipe for disaster. To blame Trump for our own inaction is puerile.
But as per everything Trump, the shifting US policy on Africa provides a unique opportunity for some African leaders to get their houses in order: escape the aid-dependency trap and resist the urge to intensify US militarisation on the continent.
Not as easy as it sounds, but owning our destiny has never been more urgent.
This is an America that
will no longer look to assist in alleviating some of the factors driving conflict or extremism or social dysfunction on parts of the continent. The solution furthered by the US will be primarily militaristic; social development can go to hell.
Azad Essa is an online news and features journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.