Quadrennially, African countries take stock of what has transpired between individual countries and the continent as a collective on one hand, and the United States on the other during the administration of some American president.
The outgoing man who presided over the world’s most powerful country was not an easy man to deal with or find consensus with. There are those who have not come to terms with the fact that the enigmatic and clearly disruptive Donald Trump was in power for four years.
Trump came possessing neither the aura nor language of respectability and paying little to no homage to the international cooperative tradition post-Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It was hard for many Stateside to describe him as a Reaganite conservative since he departed from both the unabated regard for free markets although he thoroughly embraced the love for tax and spending cuts.
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Writing for the Australian Financial Review, Martin Wolf called Trump’s brand of right-wing politics “pluto-populism”, the sort that stayed true to the economic policies that made plutocrats happy while capitalizing on the cultural anxieties of those who felt shortchanged by the neoliberalism of the last four decades. That much many can agree with, however, when it came to Africa, Trump was much more than an oddity among other American presidents.
There are two ways we may look at Trump’s legacy on the continent. We simply need to separate the rhetoric from the groundwork.
In January of 2018, it was revealed that the American president did not hold much regard for people of Black-majority countries. “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?” he had asked at a briefing on immigration. Those who were in the meeting reported being stunned by the comment.
The backlash against the “shithole” comment from within Africa and across the world was necessary, at least in defending the dignity of the people he sought to denigrate. But having said what he said and where, we were also given a lesson in Trump’s nonconformist approach that no amount of diplomacy could hold him back from telling us those he thought were the expendables.
It was realpolitik sans the courtesies. Trump’s outside voice was also his inside voice. Not surprisingly, that won him many fans across a continent that is used to leaders indulging in over-elaborate “macho” politics. He was a strongman whose bluntness and willingness to hurt feelings was taken for a sort of modern-day episode of the German reformer Martin Luther sticking up to the Catholic Church. There were Africans who even praised him for referring to their homes as “shitholes”.
The catchphrase “Make America Great Again” sat all too well with an African audience too. In Africa, Trump’s supporters did not see the white nationalism western pundits purported to see in MAGA. Africa’s strife in spite of being arguably the most naturally well-resourced place on the face of the earth actually compelled a different understanding of making your homeland great.
But whatever psychopathology caused some Africans to believe they were deserving of Trump’s insult as comeuppance for underdevelopment is another issue for another time. The skeptics have always offered criticism, constructive and destructive, but they were bolstered by Trump’s rhetoric. For some reason, this crowd believed that what Africans needed to hear had been sugarcoated for so long.
The man’s allure, however, was not extinguished on blunt talk and nationalism because through the recommendations of his favorite Evangelical Christian preachers, Trump became a sort of Christian soldier marching onward to millions of welcoming Africans.
This was intriguing, especially because it was stupendous political marketing in the United States that branded Trump as the defender of Christian privilege and culture and when it was plugged in Africa, it worked, largely. This was also memorable because Trump was the first American president in living memory who consciously or otherwise, exported the image of a “Christian leader” for reasons of soft power.
Theologian A.O. Balcomb summarized in Evangelicalism in Africa: What it is and What it Does the appeal of American evangelical theology and by extension, Trump, writing, “[American evangelical theology] resonates both with the spirituality of Africa and the materialism and individualism of modernity.”
One way the politics of Christianity panned out was the formation of an alliance or perhaps unprecedented rejuvenation of this, between American evangelical leaders and their African counterparts. These elements continue to be united in their views on sexuality and procreation as well as on the rugged individualism of the prosperity gospel.
But that is all about the rhetoric which created in essence, a tough-talking American president with enough nationalist pride and Christian values Africans could identify with. Another truth was also the fact that Trump, the American president, did not veer off the precedents of US foreign policy on the grounds in Africa.
Prosper Africa, the program that couched the administration’s investment efforts on the continent was not different than what we have seen from his predecessors. The program was designed to offer assistance primarily to American companies that sought to establish relationships with African governments and private capital under the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act. Billions of dollars of was pledged to what can be described as America’s umpteenth reach-out program in Africa.
Certain differences must however be noted in the economic relationship the Trump administration fostered. Trade between Africa and the United States dropped remarkably to $41 billion in 2018, mostly because this administration favored bilateral agreements instead of multilateral trade pacts. Foreign direct investment from the US into Africa also fell steadily between 2017 and 2019. There was very little doubt that this period saw so many African countries turning east towards China.
On the issue of wars and conflicts, the Trump administration may have taken a slightly less assertive tone in reacting to those that happened between 2017 and 2020. Nevertheless, it did not wash its hands the battles America was already committed to under Barack Obama.
American soldiers continue to offer help to Sahelian countries that have been fighting Islamic fundamentalists and rebels. The Trump administration also played a vital role as Joseph Kabila was ushered out of power in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019. Sudan continues to receive support in the aftermath of the uprising that dethroned dictator Omar al-Bashir. And Cameroon was forced out of hosting a major African sporting tournament in 2019 thanks to pressure from the Americans and then-congressman Dana Rohrbacher.
The Trump-Africa relationship would be remembered as unspecial probably because he was the first American president in nearly 30 years who refused to visit the continent. But that took nothing away from America’s posture throughout which was indistinguishable from the years before.
What the relationship lacked in personal presidential attention, Trump made up for this in good diplomatic appointments. Tibor Nagy, the career diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for Africa, was in particular praised for the strengthening of ties between government on the continent and Washington. This feat actually raises the bar for the incoming Joe Biden administration.
The historical agreements encouraged by the Trump administration between North African countries Sudan and Morocco and Israel should not go unmentioned.
But Africans would also remember the man in action as president over his country. Trump stoked racial discrimination in a country that is struggling to overcome the birth defects of racism and threatened the sanctity of the American democratic process. At the tail end, he incited a failed mob attempt to overthrow the government that culminated in the first breach of Capitol security since the 1800s. Many, if not most Africans would say that this was not exactly an administration that served didactic lessons.
Conclusively, to simplify what Africans would remember about Trump is to misunderstand the palates of the continent. He appealed to a certain category of Africans and disgusted others. What either category can agree on is that he was far from what any of them have been used to.