One of the aspects of the utterly dispiriting, just-concluded U.S. campaign and election cycle was the all but complete absence of discussion about the United States and sub-Sahara Africa. It is true that the murder of the American ambassador in Benghazi was a political issue in the campaign. But, Libya is not part of sub-Sahara Africa and the Benghazi debate was about the war on terror and partisan point-scoring, not Africa, even North Africa.
Alas, there is nothing new about American inattention to Africa, always leaving aside head-line grabbing episodes of pandemic disease and terrorism. Many Africans expected that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 would result in a transformation for the better of hitherto U.S. inattention to Africa. Given American political realities, African expectations were unrealistic, even if the president’s father was a Kenyan. There were, indeed, two Obama administration initiatives: Power Africa, an effort to harness private and public funding for electrification, and the Young African Leaders Initiative, an effort to develop leadership skills in a democratic context. But, both remained small, and failed to match the influence that George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) achieved.
As for the incoming Trump administration, the American media reports much jockeying for influence and position. The president-elect has appointed Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, as his chief of staff, and Stephen K. Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Neither has shown interest in or empathy for Africa. Indeed, Bannon is credibly associated with those who espouse racist and anti-Semitic views.
However, neither is likely to be much involved in formulating U.S. policy specifically toward Africa. That will be the purview of the secretary of state, the administrator of USAID, and the assistant secretary of state for Africa. According to the New York Times, leading contenders for secretary of state are Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York during the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks, and John Bolton. The latter is highly experienced in foreign affairs. As assistant secretary of state for international organizations, he spear-headed a successful campaign to secure the repeal of the UN General Assembly’s designation of Zionism as a form of racism. He subsequently was ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush, where he promoted organizational and administrative reform. In both positions he regularly interacted with African political figures. However, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) has already publicly opposed Bolton as too close to the traditional Washington foreign policy establishment.
The position of assistant secretary of state and USAID administrator must await the confirmation of a secretary of state. Those appointments may well be delayed for some months after the inauguration.