February 21st 2018

World / Africa & Diaspora

Donald Trump and Africa: Off to a good start

When the champion of democratisation looks the other way, presidents can get away with heinous crimes, in a replay of the cold war, when America used its might to advance the political interests of leaders allied with it, irrespective of the consequences for the country in question.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comSunday, 15 Jan 2017 11:49 EAT

President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting.

Days before he assumes office on January 20, U.S. president-elect Donald J. Trump has reignited the fascination Kenyans showed for him throughout the Republican primary contest. The president’s interrogation of the rationale of U.S. aid to Africa, as reported by the New York Times, has struck a chord with Kenyan pro-democracy activists who see some of America’s programmes in Africa as being counterproductive or outdated, gulping U.S. taxpayer dollars without the intended benefits for Africa.

In the land of Barack Obama’s father, the outgoing U.S. president is immensely popular, looked at more as a son than the leader of a distant superpower. But Kenyans also have mixed feelings about Obama’s presidency, which gave them a glimpse of U.S. policy-making and the limits of America’s power. In the election, more Kenyans preferred former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, whose name they had recognized for decades, to Trump.

However, Trump was the favourite with a niche group of intellectuals for quite an unexpected reason: his promise to erase the memory of Obama! Mr Trump’s appeal was his daredevil willingness to take the 'establishment' down in flames rather than comply with its antidemocratic notions about who was best to lead America. Just as many Americans saw Mrs Clinton as representing the establishment, here she was part of Obama’s underwhelming legacy, which is examined ahead.

To capitalise on Mr Trump's intriguing personality, upcoming news websites seeking to drive traffic created 'fake news' in which Trump variously disparaged or endorsed Kenya’s leaders or promised to deport Kenyans from the U.S if he became president. Such sites scoured the bigotry in Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric to create in Kenyans’ minds a persona who was at once mean, tough, business-like, and not well informed about Africa nor tied to its corrupt leaders.

The buzz bypassed the bigotry against immigrants and blacks for which Mr Trump was pilloried by the U.S. media, focusing instead on the way a then-seemingly unattainable Trump presidency would alter the relationship between the U.S. and Africa, Kenya in particular. Despite the rhetoric of Mrs Clinton’s 'foreign policy experience', in the world’s most underdeveloped continent, many saw her as embodying traditional attitudes of western leaders toward Africa: keeping Africa in the periphery, poor, in need of help; while strengthening security cooperation and pampering elites with development aid that largely went into leaders’ pockets.

Successive American presidents have allied with African dictators who inflicted enormous damage on their countries, a legacy modified only for a brief period during the U.S-led push for democratisation on the continent in the early 1990s. With China rivaling U.S. business interests and Africa’s governance deteriorating according to all major indices, Mr Trump's transition team could never have been more justified to probe not merely specific programmes of the outgoing administration but the underlying principles of U.S.-Africa relations.

In Kenya and much of Africa there is an ongoing prognosis about whether the positions which endeared candidate Trump to the people here will indeed be realised. Many recognize that, contrary to entrenched conventional wisdom, Republicans have generally had more positive impacts on Africa than Democrats. Nothing illustrates this point better than the legacies of the last two presidents: Africa's son Obama and George W. Bush, the Republican whose global legacy was making the world infinitely more dangerous than he had found it through the ‘war on terror’.

While President Bush will be remembered for his economic and foreign policy failures, in the world’s most marginalized continent his miniscule achievements stand out to date. These include giving South Sudanese people a state of their own, which incongruously has got destroyed under Obama’s watch. Sudan’s 50-year old internal strife had ravaged the south, rendering it into a different state that could never compete fairly as part of then Africa’s largest country. The creation of the Republic of South Sudan was the noblest option, and Bush did all he could to get the southerners a state in 2005.

In 2007/08, the president once again, through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, oversaw remarkable international efforts to mediate a horrific post-election conflict in Kenya, following incumbent Mwai Kibaki's last-minute rigging of the presidential vote tallying. In the face of mass killings, the president was decisive enough to moderate U.S. support for Kibaki, whose re-election had precipitated ethnic violence on a scale the western world had never imagined. It was a fruitful intervention that brought peace, gave Kenyans a grand coalition government and a new constitution whose impact is still reverberating, notwithstanding a fierce counterattack by the nation’s elite.

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) needs no emphasis. Through it, the U.S. provided substantial funds for HIV prevention, treatment and research which contributed to turning the tide of Aids deaths on the continent. The U.S. contributed more funding than any country to the Global Fund on AIDS, and the president was key to persuading multinational drug companies to allow the manufacturing of generic drugs.

Recognised by Africans and Americans alike, these gains were possible only because Bush paid high level attention to Africa, where he visited more countries than any previous US president (including Obama). At the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in 2013, which brought together five living US presidents, Jimmy Carter praised Bush for his work on Africa, saying: “Mr. President, let me say that I'm filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you've made to the most needy people on Earth".

President Bush was no roaring success for Africa, and his ouster of moderate Islamic Courts Union in Somalia at the end of 2006 remains an emblem of U.S. security missteps on the continent. His retirement spurred hope for the whole world, more so for Africa given President Obama’s heritage. But what a disappointment it has been. President Obama all but ignored Africa, except for escalating military operations, allying with dictators and pushing the business goals of U.S. corporations to the top of policy on the world's poorest continent.

Thanks to President Obama, the most prosperous African country, Libya, lies in ruins. Somalia has moved closer to failed statehood, with drone operations on an unprecedented scale for a country where the U.S. is not officially at war. From Mali to Congo to Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Chad, the president looked the other way while democracy was trampled.

Mr Obama never saw an African election whose result he did not endorse. During his trip in Africa in July 2015, he incongruously declared, to his national security adviser Susan Rice’s astonishment, that Ethiopia’s election in which the ruling party had won 100 percent of the vote had been “democratic”. Save for countries that were plunged into civil war by contested elections, such as Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia is the sorriest state as far as governance is concerned.

In 2005 elections, opposition parties won more than half the seats in 307-member parliament, notwithstanding the tight grip on the country by authoritarian prime minister Meles Zenawi. After five years of killings, detentions and anti-terrorism legislation designed to curtain the opposition, the opposition could win only one seat in parliament in 2010. Mr Zenawi died shortly thereafter, succeeded by a little known politician who resorted to even more repression to maintain his authority, hence the 100 percent win in 2015.

Kenya, which Obama should have known better than his predecessors, went in the opposite direction than Bush left it. The implementation of the universally hailed 2010 constitution ran into headwinds that culminated in a rigged election in 2013, which was a do-or-die battle for two candidates standing trial at the International Criminal Court for violence of 2007/08. After feeble warnings about the potential impacts of Kenya being led by a pair standing trial for crimes against humanity, the Obama took the lead in sanitising Kenya’s leadership through high-level meetings until the charges against the Kenyan president and his deputy were dropped by the ICC.

Africans recognize that America can’t solve the continent’s problems. But the role of dominant economic, political and military power is decisive in determining the continent’s political direction. The experiences from the return of multiparty system, and political reforms in South Sudan, Kenya and the fight against HIV/Aids highlighted above indicate the difference American policy can make on the continent.

President Trump need not merely advance established programmes, some of which no longer make sense, such as U.S. search for Joseph Kony, who many young Ugandans haven’t even heard of. The war against Al Shabaab, which has killed thousands of Somalis seen East Africa destabilised, deserves review. Mr Trump might as well unearth areas in which U.S. aid has undermined core American interests, such as U.S.-financed weapons for Somali government forces ending up in the hands of the Al Shabaab.


Stay Connected