The U.S. image in Africa has been based on more than trade and aid. Africans admire and seek to emulate U.S. rule of law and institutions of governance largely free of corruption. They seek to emulate American elections that are credible and accepted by winners and losers. U.S. ethnic and religious pluralism has long been admired. So, too, has been the American tradition of at least some civility in politics. With the ambiguous exception of Liberia, the United States was not a colonial power and public opinion (if not government policy) was generally hostile to colonialism. The success of American democracy and governance made U.S. criticism of “big man” and other sleazy governments credible to Africans.
Alas, no more. It will take some time and considerable American effort to repair the damage to U.S. governance reputation in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. elections. The comments below are based on contacts in Nigeria and South Africa, though it is likely that their views are shared across the continent.
For many Africans, Hillary Clinton‘s personal wealth and lack of transparency as illustrated by her use of private e-mail servers for public purposes smacks of the personal corruption with which they are all too familiar. As for Donald Trump, his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric resonates negatively in a part of the world sending significant numbers of immigrants to the United States and in which perhaps half of the population is Muslim. Even more damaging are his claims that the political system is corrupt and that his defeat would be clear evidence that the voting is rigged. (His insensitivity to women resonates little in Africa, which is generally patriarchal in outlook.)
For many Africans the current electoral cycle provides evidence that American democracy based on the rule of law is not what it once seemed to be. In addition, the elections must be seen against the backdrop of other issues about which African care deeply: the persistence of racism, as illustrated by Trump’s rhetoric against the backdrop of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the police brutality that spawned it. White shootings of blacks, especially the Charleston church episode, also deeply resonate with Africans.
So, for too many Africans the United States is no longer a beacon of freedom and democracy. Rather, it shares characteristics with most African states such as government corruption, weak institutions, ethnic conflict, and dishonest politicians. For we Americans the reality is, of course, much more nuanced. But nuance does not travel well. Restoring the American image in Africa may be the work of the next decade.