A series of questions from Trump’s team indicate skepticism about current U.S. policy in Africa.
The President-elect of the United States has had precious little to say about U.S. policy toward Africa since his shock election victory in November 2016.
But a four-page list of questions on U.S. policy in Africa, submitted by Donald Trump’s transition team to the State Department, has indicated a possible skepticism about the country’s counter-terrorism policy in Africa, and also raises questions about the continuation of aid programs.
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The questions, reported by the New York Times, provide the first substantial indication of how Trump’s team sees U.S.-Africa policy changing over the next four years. Newsweek analyzes their possible implications:
Security and counter-terrorism in Africa
The Trump team’s questions appear to cast doubt on the efficacy of U.S. efforts at combating militant groups in Africa. In Somalia, where the United States has been involved militarily on and off for at least two decades, Trump’s team was blunt: “We’ve been fighting Al-Shabab for a decade, why haven’t we won?”
The question is a valid one, according to Stig Jarle Hansen, an Al-Shabab expert and research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. “It’s not only the U.S. failing to defeat Al-Shabab, it’s actually the U.S. failing to defeat almost any jihadi group in Africa and maybe [even] outside Africa,” says Hansen. While U.S. airstrikes and joint operations with Somali security forces have had some successes, Al-Shabab remains a potent threat in the Horn of Africa country, regularly carrying out suicide bombings, including in the capital Mogadishu. Jansen says that he does not expect Trump to pull the U.S. out of Somalia, but that he is likely to place more emphasis on training local security forces in order to finally eradicate militant groups like Al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab fighters rally in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, October 30, 2009. The United States has supported Somalia’s attempts to quash the Islamist group in recent years.MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Trump’s team also questioned the usefulness of a signature policy of outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama in Africa: the hunt for Joseph Kony. The Ugandan warlord’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), launched an insurgency against the Ugandan government in the 1980s but has become a peripheral threat in recent years, limited to kidnappings and attacks on small villages in South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Obama committed 100 troops to hunt for Kony in 2011 and upped the deployment with another 150 air forces in 2014.
“It seems quite likely that the Trump administration will stop funding the U.S. mission searching for Kony,” says Phil Clark, an expert on Africa’s Great Lakes region at SOAS University of London. “For Trump, military adventures in Africa—unless they relate to Islamist extremism—are a much lower priority than in other parts of the world.”
Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, left, at a meeting with a U.N. representative in Ri-Kwamba, then Southern Sudan, November 12, 2006. President Obama has made a concerted effort to capture Joseph Kony, sending hundreds of U.S. troops to the region in a bid to track down the warlord.STUART PRICE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Foreign aid and trade
Trump’s team appears to be keen to review and, if necessary, cull aid agreements and trade pacts with sub-Saharan African countries. On the plan introduced by George W. Bush to tackle HIV/AIDS on the continent, known as PEPFAR, the Trump team queried: “Is PEPFAR worth the massive investment when there are so many security concerns in Africa? Is PEPFAR becoming a massive, international entitlement program?” PEPFAR has committed more than $70 billion in funding to fighting HIV/AIDS—as well as tuberculosis and malaria—since 2003. The program has provided life-saving antiretroviral drugs for 11.5 million people.
The president-elect’s team also questioned whether U.S. aid to Africa could be going to the wrong places. “With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen?” the team asked the State Department.
“Trump seems to view most African states as inherently corrupt and squanderers of foreign aid,” says Clark. “This will probably mean some reduction in U.S. development programs in Africa and a scaling back of pro-Africa trade agreements.” The latter could include the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gives African countries tariff-free access to U.S. markets; AGOA was renewed until 2025 under President Obama.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (front L) poses with Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe (2nd R) and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (C) at a summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, December 4, 2015. China has overtaken the United States as Africa’s foremost trade partner.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS
One area where Trump’s team appear concerned at falling behind in Africa is in relation to Chinese investment on the continent. “How does U.S. business compete with other nations in Africa? Are we losing out to the Chinese?” the team asked. The figures show that Washington has fallen behind Beijing as Africa’s preferred business partner: China overtook the United States as Africa’s top trade partner in 2009, and in 2015, Chinese exports to Africa reached $103 billion, compared to $27 billion in U.S. exports, the Washington Post reported.
Trump’s impression of Africa
Overall, the questions indicate that a Trump administration will not view Africa as a foreign policy priority. This could work in the region’s favor, according to Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. “It’s not necessarily bad news for sub-Saharan Africa. It means that there won’t be senior level interventions in the region by the Trump administration, which means that middle-level officials might be able to frame policy,” says Vines.
Vines adds that the likely position adopted by Trump’s administration is not necessarily contrary to the outgoing U.S. government. “Even in the Obama period…Africa was not a high-level priority,” says Vines. “Trump’s not going to be able to escape some of the firefighting that takes place when crises pop up to bite you, but this will be handled by mid-level officials.” Vines points out that Obama only made one trip to Africa—to Ghana in 2009—during his first presidential term.
Clark agrees that Africa will likely “slide down” Trump’s list of foreign policy priorities, with the Republican’s key focus in the region being on containing Islamist militancy. “We should expect Africom [the U.S. military command center for Africa] to continue to play a major role under Trump, particularly in targeting these Islamist groups,” he says.
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