It is too soon to say what the lasting consequences will be of President Trump’s “travel ban” of the citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and his 120-day suspension of all refugee admissions to the United States. But, it could have serious effects on U.S.-African relations. In 2010 the Pew Research Center found that of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population of 823 million, 234 million were Muslims. The Islamic population is heavily concentrated in West Africa where U.S. strategic and economic interests on the continent are the greatest, especially Nigeria, where at least 50 percent of the country’s population of two-hundred million is Muslim. However, there are Muslim minorities in nearly all African countries.
In general, African Muslim opinion about the United States appears to be largely favorable or indifferent. However, in parts of the Sahel, northern Nigeria, and in the Horn of Africa, radical jihadist groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are anti-American, though attacks on U.S facilities and American citizens have been rarer in West Africa than in East Africa.
If African elites perceive President Trump’s immigration and refugee policies as in fact a “Muslim Ban” and part of a larger “war on Islam,” then a general hostility to the United States is likely to grow. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the outgoing chairman of the African Union Commission, is quoted in the media as saying, “We are living in turbulent times. The very country to which many of our people were taken as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries. What do we do about this? Indeed, this is one of the greatest challenges to our unity and solidarity.” Among at least some African intellectuals, President Trump’s ban and suspension is likely to become part of a general narrative of grievance against the west. (Dlamini-Zuma is a UK-trained medical doctor, the ex-wife of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, ex-minister of health, and ex-foreign minister in successive, post-apartheid South African governments. She has never been particularly friendly toward the United States.)
Dlamini-Zuma’s successor as the chair of the Commission of the African Union is Chad’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat. He is a Muslim, and a former prime minister of Chad, where roughly 60 percent of the population is Muslim. He has been a leader in the regional fight against Islamist militants in northern Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, and the Sahel. Were he and others of his ilk to come to see the United States as involved in a “war on Islam,” there would be new, detrimental consequences for U.S. interests.