Navigating Shit-hole Countries: The US in Africa

Mar 15, 2018|Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

It is hard to imagine President Trump surprising anyone anymore. His election defied the wisdom and explicit request of Africa's most famous 'export' and predecessor, Barack Obama. His reported flip-flops and policy about-turns are equally confusing and comical. But, earlier this year, Trump's reference to many African countries as 'shithole countries' led to a flurry of attacks condemning the president as racist and raised the timely question of the Trump administration's commitment to the African continent.

In spite of this, there is reason to believe that the US' relationship with the continent retains its priority, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, referred to Trump's comment as 'a thing of the past' and took pains to stress the increased commitment and strength of the U.S-Africa partnership. And while Africans may feel insulted or aggrieved by the Trump Era, perhaps little has changed regarding how the US sees the continent. 


'Our American President'

It wasn't so long ago that Africa could take some pride in the result of an American presidential election. On November 4th, 2008, an African-American was elected President of the United States. Mixed with this pride, there was hope; hope that as 'one of our own' was in office, things were poised to change and our conditions with it.

In hindsight, the Obama promise seems mostly unfulfilled on the continent. It all started so brightly, too. Within his first six months in office, Obama had already travelled to Ghana. But relations plateaued afterwards. For the youth, he continued to mingle with the strongmen dictators on the continent, and the one he did remove ranks as one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency

The memory of George W. Bush as the friend that Africa needed during his tenure merely fueled growing disappointment. Obama's signature program implored African countries to seek trade; many governments simply wanted aid. In admonishing Africans to rise to the occasion, and leaving the field for rivals like China, it armed those who claimed that America's president had forgotten his African roots.

Obama remains admired on the continent, and his legacy is possibly tinted by the unattainable standards imposed on him when he assumed office. 


'Their American President'

For a man accused of having an obsessive desire for affection, genuine or purchased, not travelling to Africa seems like a missed opportunity. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the man charged with convincing Africa not to abandon the red, white and blue for the red of the east. However, it is a tough ask. While Tillerson was rightly concerned about China's influence on the continent amid worries that African countries are unwillingly piling on debt they cannot hope to repay, the lack of American attention rings true to many. Meanwhile, American aid, still the largest on the continent, comes with conditions on human rights, governance, etc. Chinese aid does not and is more amenable to the current crop of African leaders. Worse still, American aid is set to shrink, with 37% of the humanitarian aid that the U.S budgets at risk.

Not unlike the previous three US Presidents, Trump has shown no clear policy on Africa in his early years. However, it may be that he doesn't even know enough to have one. He invented the nation of Nambia (no, it's not a neighbour of Wakanda), has failed to populate government offices focused on Africa with experienced and permanent members of staff, and has, again, ceded ground to China which last year opened a rival naval base in Burundi – home to the only American base on the continent. Obama's signature 'Trade not Aid' policy has been left untouched, and in a sign of growing discontent at increasing African numbers in the US, Trump has placed three African countries (Libya, Chad and Somalia) on his travel ban list. 

The truth is, Africa expects little from Trump. Yet, as a businessman, it is strange that he has chosen not to tap into the economic potential of the continent, or perhaps, its ability to make his friends rich. African leaders will do well to take recent meetings with the former Secretary of State to heart- he was apparently fired mid-way through his trip- the most high profile for a Trump administration official. Meanwhile, China forges ahead on this front, even when it has become apparent that its approach comes with costs to recipient countries. Cynics would scoff at the perceived obsession with other countries, and charge Africa to take care of itself. Yet it would be ignorant to assume that any change will happen immediately, and till then the US should take the time to figure out what it's investment in these 'shitholes'. 

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