Donald Trump’s transition team has sent the State Department four pages of questions about Africa that reveal an administration deeply skeptical of Africa’s place in US foreign policy. Throughout the queries, obtained by the New York Times, Trump’s team questions the value of US engagement on the continent in humanitarian aid, anti-terrorism campaigns, trade deals, or the search for Joseph Kony, the head of the violent Ugandan guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. “The LRA has never attacked US interests, why do we care? Is it worth the huge cash outlays?”
Here is some perspective to some of the queries from Trump’s transition team.
“Are we losing out to the Chinese?”
One of the first questions in the document, according to the Times, is “How does US business compete with other nations in Africa? Are we losing out to the Chinese?” One could argue, as Peter Navarro, head of Trump’s National Trade Council, has, that this is the case. Navarro wrote in his 2011 book, Death by China, that China’s “is moving relentlessly across Africa… locking down strategic natural resources, locking up emerging markets, and locking out the United States.”
Trade between China and Africa has surpassed that of the US and its African partners since 2009 when China became the continent’s top trading partner. As Janet Eom, the research manager at the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University Chinese points out, exports to the continent were $103 billion last year, compared to $27 billion for the US, according to data compiled by the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.
Chinese companies like Tecno, sell their inexpensive cell phones across the continent. The Chinese pay TV provider Star Times now competes with the likes of DSTV. State-owned Chinese firms are building infrastructure across the continent, from highways and government buildings to opera houses and nuclear plants. Chinese companies won one-third of all World Bank infrastructure projects in Africa between 2007 and 2015. Today, China wins more construction bids from the World Bank than any other country in the world.
Still, the US isn’t “losing out to the Chinese.” The US is still the largest source of foreign direct investment in Africa, notes Eric Olander, co-founder of the China-Africa podcast. The US is the number one source (pdf, p. 18) of foreign direct investment in Africa, ahead of China who is ranked seventh, according to a 2015 Ernst & Young report on Africa’s investment attractiveness.
US businesses have a competitive edge in Africa. Trade deals like the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which the Trump transition team also questioned in their queries, are bringing US retailers to countries like Ethiopia where they can manufacture their goods cheaply and ship them import-free to the US. In some parts of the continent, China’s development model has become more popular, but overall the US still leads, according to polls.
The bigger issue may be the question itself. “The phrasing of the question is quite revealing. First, it alludes to what many expect to be Trump’s transactionally-oriented foreign policy agenda with a particular bias towards corporate interests. What’s laughable here is how stunningly unsophisticated the premise is,” Olander writes.
“Why should we spend funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the US?”
That’s a good question. Corruption, from petty bribes to high-level political graft, has a corrosive effect on public and private institutions across the African continent. Government officials continuously take from state coffers, siphon aid money to spend on lavish lifestyles, and yet the majority of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are failing to address corruption, according to a 2015 Transparency International report. Critics of development aid to Africa have noted that it facilitates the growth of this vicious cycle of corruption: heightening the risk of conflict, increasing debt and inflation, and posing as an obstacle to foreign direct investment.
But the insidious effects of corruption affect the poorest of Africans most, who because of it are deprived of basic necessities like food, healthcare, education, and sanitation. This is where the role of American aid comes in: as a tool to promote and create openings for change.
American aid to the continent just doesn’t involve the transfer of money from one government to another. Besides military spending and debt relief, US aid in Africa is also used to support diverse social, political and economic programs and institutions. These include boosting agricultural productivity, healthcare services, empowering civil society, enforcing reconciliation among communities, promoting intra-regional trade and employment, besides helping communities deal with droughts and erratic rainfalls. Focusing on these specific institutions is a way to tackle institutional weakness and ensuring that the government is not the only recipient of aid money.
US spending in Africa doesn’t have to be just aid. Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies, large corporations, and a new commercial vibrancy. Technological innovation across the continent has revolutionized the delivery of information, inspired the creation of digital hubs, and introduced solutions to address persistent local problems. The continent, with its booming young population, is open for business, ready to do more trade and accept less aid.
Trump’s team also questioned the use of trade pacts like the Africa Opportunity and Growth Act, which gives some products made in Africa duty-free access to the US. “Most of AGOA imports are petroleum products, with the benefits going to national oil companies, why do we support that massive benefit to corrupt regimes?” the team asked.
But since its creation in 2000, $480 billion worth of products has been exported under the program. AGOA also created 300,000 jobs and 120,000 in Africa and the US respectively. And while petroleum products accounted for the largest imports, the trade also involved textile, footwear, electrical and car machinery, and processed food—all of which benefit American and African manufacturing industries.
To minimize fraud and break the hold of corrupt regimes, Africans will need to know that they have a pragmatic partner in the US government—not one that holds them to the actions of some of their double-dealing leaders.
Why is the US bothering to fight the Boko Haram insurgency?
The scale of US efforts in the fight against Boko Haram has already been up for debate during the Obama administration. Citing incidents of government corruption and human rights abuses by the army, the US has refused over the last three years to discuss selling weapons to Nigeria. But the narrative has changed since Muhammadu Buhari took office as Nigeria’s new president in May 2015. A $2 billion arms deal fraud has been uncovered as the army has become more accountable.
Under Buhari, the army has also secured the release of 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls through negotiations brokered by the Swiss government and the International Red Cross. With negotiations expected to continue, there’s a chance more of the kidnapped schoolgirls will be recovered. With better accountability in the army, perhaps Trump administration will consider changing the US’ position on selling weapons to Nigeria, which some intelligence reports say is poorly equipped to fight Boko Haram.
“Why hasn’t al Shabaab been defeated?”
The war against the Somalia-based militant group has been unsuccessful for several reasons. First, the Somali government, which receives support and funding from the international community including the US, has largely been ineffective. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government, marred by allegations of corruption and misappropriating funds, has done little to provide much-need public services since it was elected in 2012.
The government is also still holed inside the capital, with little or almost no control over much of the country. The rest of the country is also divided into federal states, all with competing leadership and varying interests who barely cater to the needs and wants of their people.
The African Union peacekeeping forces have also struggled to defeat the terrorist group. The involvement of neighboring countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda in AMISOM has also complicated the place and role of the forces, changing “its dynamic from a peacekeeping force into a political vehicle” as Abukar Arman, Somalia’s former special envoy to the United States, has written. The Western-backed forces have also been accused of gang raping women and trading food aid for sex, sullying their reputation among the local population. The United Nations has also accused the troops of selling American-supplied weapons to al-Shabaab.
Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab has accelerated its campaign, killing high-ranking government and intelligence officials and masterminding suicide car bombs throughout Somalia’s election season.
“We’ve been hunting Kony for years, is it worth the effort?”
The six-year hunt for Joseph Kony, the rebel leader of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, has been described as “searching for a needle in 20 haystacks.” Even though the LRA poses no threat to America’s national security, the deployment of 100 US troops to help Uganda and neighboring countries fight Kony, has bipartisan support from politicians and human rights advocates.
Kony and his combatants have been diminished in both power and numbers, with senior commanders either captured or killed and the fighters reduced to fewer than 200. This has proved difficult for American and partner nations to find him—especially given that the rebel leader instructed his followers not to use electronic communication. American troops in Uganda also rarely leave their camp and are only on the ground to advise and provide information.
Kony has also exploited the turmoil in the central Africa region to move from one country to another. Over the last few years, civil and ethnic conflicts have been raging in Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan, where Kony was said to be in hiding in 2015.
“Expectation management is, I think, a reality,” Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the US Africa Command said in 2012. “There’s a little bit of what I call the ‘man on the moon’ effort here, that the US, you’re able to put a man on the moon. What do you mean, you can’t find this guy, wandering around in Central Africa? But it is very, very complex.”