Trump’s Africa Policy Is Better Than It Looks

In Brief

Trump’s Africa Policy Is Better Than It Looks

The Trump administration has largely continued U.S. policies in Africa aimed at building economic ties, political stability, and health care, but it lacks a strategy for the continent’s looming geopolitical and national security challenges.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump shows little interest in Africa, yet his administration has carried on many of the constructive policies of its predecessors. This continuity is largely due to bipartisanship in Congress and the appointment of capable officials. Still, Washington would benefit from more vigorous planning for increasingly pressing issues on the continent, such as its population boom, insecurity, and the impacts of climate change.

What are the Trump administration’s most significant Africa policies?

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The administration’s signature initiative, Prosper Africa, is designed to assist U.S. companies seeking to do business in Africa. It is supported by the bipartisan Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, which established the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to replace and augment the capabilities of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Among other things, BUILD doubled the limit [PDF] on investments from $29 billion under OPIC to $60 billion under DFC. Though neither were specific to a region, sub-Saharan Africa represented the largest share of OPIC’s portfolio. 

A crowd of Ghanaian children in brown and yellow school uniforms wave American and Ghanaian flags
Children hold flags as they greet U.S. First Lady Melania Trump upon her arrival in Accra, Ghana, on October 2, 2018. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The administration arguably advanced the cause of democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo by supporting the easing out of strongman Joseph Kabila in early 2019. It has also backed initiatives to end the civil war in Cameroon and support Sudan’s fledgling democracy following the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir.

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In late 2018, First Lady Melania Trump made goodwill visits to four African countries, focusing on maternal and newborn hospital care and education, as well as her anti-bullying campaign.

Perhaps the most high-profile policy decisions that have affected African countries were not actually focused on Africa. Restrictions on travel and refugee resettlement from Muslim-majority countries, including many in Africa, have been driven primarily by promises to Trump’s political base. In general, Africa’s view of the United States has declined under Trump, but there are exceptions, such as in Nigeria.

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How different is this from past administrations?

Since President Ronald Reagan, each president has had a signature policy initiative or focus for Africa, and with Prosper Africa, Trump is no exception. But unlike his predecessors, he does not appear to be personally involved in this initiative nor other aspects of U.S.-Africa policy.

  • Reagan sponsored what he called “constructive engagement” to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa.
  • President George H.W. Bush personally worked to end civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Somalia.
  • President Bill Clinton sponsored the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the major trade and investment link between the United States and Africa.
  • President George W. Bush established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and initiatives to fight malaria and to support girls’ education. Bush also established the Millennium Challenge Corporation to improve African infrastructure.
  • President Barack Obama’s Power Africa and Feed the Future initiatives were designed to mitigate chronic electricity and food shortages on the continent. His Young African Leaders Initiative was designed to address a leadership deficit.

What roles have diplomats and members of Congress played?

Despite heavy turnover in top diplomatic cabinet posts, U.S. policy toward Africa has been left in capable hands. The most consequential appointments have been Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state for Africa since July 2018, and Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) since August 2017.

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Nagy is a career diplomat with extensive Africa experience, and Green is a former Republican member of Congress and former ambassador to Tanzania. Both continued work on U.S. assistance programs and conflict-resolution initiatives begun under previous administrations. They visited the continent frequently and built positive relationships with African political leaders.

Green has announced he is stepping down from his post, effective this month; his acting successor will be John Barsa, an assistant administrator at USAID. Trump’s ambassadorial appointments for Africa have been credible, though many were long delayed.

Moreover, Congress has proven a bulwark against proposals by Trump’s Office of Management and Budget for massive cuts to foreign assistance—both bilateral and through UN and other multilateral agencies—that would likely affect Africa more than any other region. Had those been implemented, traditional U.S. policies with respect to health, democracy promotion, and security assistance in Africa would have been eviscerated. Congress, however, has preserved or increased existing levels of funding with bipartisan majorities. It has also pushed back on administration proposals to reduce the already small U.S. military presence on the continent.

What’s the bottom line?

With its explosive demographic growth, accelerating urbanization, and potential for new economic ties, Africa is an area that should already be of heightened interest to the White House, as it is to Congress, the business community, and civil society.

Jihadi extremist groups are destabilizing some African regions, which will pose a threat to U.S. national security. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to throw already fragile African states, including those facing precarious political situations, into chaos. Meanwhile, China, Russia, and other non-African countries are becoming more economically and politically active on the continent, overshadowing the United States and its long-standing relationships in the region.

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