US President-elect Donald Trump must make Africa a priority because it is in the United States’ interest to help tackle the security, humanitarian, and developmental challenges emanating from the continent, according to J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
Pham said the Trump administration must focus its Africa strategy on four key principles—earned engagement, realistic expectations, effective partners and partnerships, and flexible structures. Pham, who is vice president for research and regional initiatives at the Atlantic Council, is also the author of a new paper—“A Measured US Strategy for the New Africa.” The paper will be released on December 5.
The rise of populism in the West—marked by Trump’s election, a British referendum to leave the European Union, and the rise of rightist political parties across Europe—is viewed by some as possibly emboldening strongmen in Africa.
Pham, however, said it could actually go one of two ways for African strongmen. The rise of populism could indeed give entrenched leaders an excuse to rally the nation around themselves “as an ‘us-against-them’ proposition,” but it could just as well “change the political calculus of the international community’s relationships with African countries and potentially cut what have essentially been subsidies to some of the continent’s predatory regimes.”
Instead of picking the “right” winners in internal political disputes, the Trump administration should seek to engage with partners in Africa who have proven themselves to be effective and legitimate, Pham writes in his paper, adding: “The United States should refrain from conferring de jure recognition on states absent effective sovereignty.”
The United States must also set more realistic expectations of its African partners’ capabilities. Noting that the global financial crisis has diminished the will of the West to dole out foreign aid, Pham writes that this opens a window of opportunity for the private sector to help modernize infrastructure in Africa.
Pham also advocates that the United States develop “special relationships” with key African nations. Noting that the United States already has special relationships in Africa with Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia by virtue of these nations being major non-NATO allies, Pham said: “Other African countries, by their sheer size or strategic location or unique circumstances—places like Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and its largest economy—likewise have a critical place in US foreign policy.”
Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, was ignored in the recently concluded presidential election cycle. While this was not unusual, what matters is what happens next. Africa presents “unique opportunities” for the Trump administration, especially because of the broad bipartisan support for African policy, said Pham.
Over the past two decades, the US Congress taken significant steps to shore up the US role in Africa. It passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), enacted the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), established the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), passed the Power Africa Act and the Food Security Act, and extended AGOA.
J. Peter Pham spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Has the rise of populism in the West encouraged, empowered, and emboldened strongmen in Africa?
Pham: No doubt some of the continent’s strongmen or long-staying rulers may try to derive some sort of benefit from this. Some of them are remarkable political survivors who have, over the years, weathered a variety of changes in the rest of the world and will try to exploit any leverage they can to prolong their grip on power.
Populism, on the one hand, can give some African leaders the temptation to rally the nation around themselves as an “us-against-them” proposition. On the other hand, populism in the West may also change the political calculus of the international community’s relationships with African countries and potentially cut what have essentially been subsidies to some of the continent’s predatory regimes.
Q: Why is it in the US national interest to confront security, humanitarian, and development challenges in Africa?
Pham: Africa is today more than ever an integrated part of the global system. Not only do the fifty-four countries in Africa represent the single largest bloc in any international organization to which they belong, but in terms of security perhaps in no place aside from Iraq and Syria is the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [also known as ISIS or Daesh] as implanted as it is in Africa. It is not the only one. Affiliates of al Qaeda have long been active in Africa. You also have locally-grown extremist Islamist groups, some of which have subsequently aligned themselves either with ISIS or with al Qaeda—Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb among others.
Then there are the economic considerations. Eleven of the twenty fastest-growing economies in the world for the period from 2016 to 2020 are African countries. Africa also has a wealth of important natural resources. Africa’s growing middle class provides a big market for US products. Trade with Africa has burgeoned several times over since 2000 when, under President [Bill] Clinton, the African Growth and Opportunity Act was enacted. That piece of legislation was renewed under President [George W.] Bush and was extended again last year, under President [Barack] Obama, by lopsided margins in Congress. This single initiative has, conservatively, created some 120,000 export-related jobs in the United States alone.
Q: What more should the United States do to enhance the ability of African governments to address these challenges themselves?
Pham: It is not so much about what we can do; it is ultimately the responsibility of African states and people to do it for themselves. The United States is there as a partner because Africa’s security and prosperity are inextricably linked to our own security and prosperity.
We have to have a realistic US policy. Realism means we have to acknowledge Africa for what it is, including its increasing geopolitical importance and the growing economic dynamism of the continent. But realism also means we don’t look at this continent through rose-tinted glasses; we have to acknowledge that there are real security, humanitarian, and developmental challenges; and, finally, we have to have a realistic policy to manage all the above.
There are four elements to such a measured Africa policy. One, we have to engage with partners who are effective and legitimate. We can’t simply recognize governments because someone raises a flag and says he or she is in charge. We have to ask, do they exercise effective sovereignty and are they viewed as legitimate by the people. We simply cannot afford to engage in make-believe and pretend they are what they are not. Second, we have to have realistic expectations, not being overly optimistic about what our friends in Africa can do and not being unduly sanguine about what we in the West can and will do. Third, we have to look toward effective partners and seek out partnerships. Finally, we have to have nimble, flexible structures of government adapted to working with the dynamic Africa of the twenty-first century.
Q: Have you seen any sign that Africa will be a policy priority for Trump as it was for his three immediate predecessors—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama?
Pham: It is domestic issues that drive election debates and as far as foreign policy is concerned, it is usually security-related foreign policy issues. To me it is not exceptional that Africa didn’t come up in the presidential debates, but that doesn’t mean that some of the principles that were articulated during the recent campaign, in particular by President-elect Trump, about putting American security first, freeing American business, and seeking more equitable rules of trade, don’t apply to African situations.
I would make the argument that Africa presents unique opportunities for the next administration, not only because it has security challenges that need to be addressed as well as considerable economic opportunities for American businesses and workers, but also because of the broad bipartisan support that African policy has largely had.
AGOA was renewed last year by a 394-37 vote in the House of Representatives and a 97-1 vote in the US Senate. For an administration looking for a quick success, a well-reasoned and strategically-focused Africa agenda is something that Democrats and Republicans have shown time and again that they can get behind.
Q: In your paper, you recommend that the United States develop “special relationships” with key African partners. Which countries do you have in mind and what should be the contours of this special relationship?
Pham: We already have certain special relationships in Africa. Egypt, Morocco, and—as of a little over a year ago—Tunisia, are formally designated as major non-NATO allies. They have a special place in our geopolitical calculus and in our security architecture for the world.
Other African countries, by their sheer size or strategic location or unique circumstances—places like Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and its largest economy—likewise have a critical place in US foreign policy.
Q: What specific hot spots should the Trump administration focus on in Africa?
Pham: By the time the next administration takes office, all signs are that President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will have overstayed his constitutionally mandated term in office by a month: his second and final term of office expires in less than three weeks, December 19. That is going to cause a major political crisis in that country, which will reverberate across central Africa. One cannot forget that the last time that they have had anything similar to this in the Congo, the resulting conflict that dragged in almost all the neighboring countries became known as “Africa’s World War.”
In Nigeria, the military has made significant strides against Boko Haram—I was on the frontlines in northeastern Nigeria earlier in the month with an Atlantic Council team. On the other hand, one can also see the growing internationalization of that conflict with the arrival of foreign fighters and the influence of ISIS on the faction of Boko Haram led by Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Nigeria is a critically important state and some have argued America’s most important relationship in Africa should be there.
There are also worrying signs in the Horn of Africa. The Somalis have for a third time delayed the presidential selection—I won’t call it an election because it isn’t one—threatening again to undermine the progress that has been achieved in recent years in Somalia at such great cost.
The situation in Ethiopia is increasingly worrying with the massive popular protests, and the government’s reaction to these demonstrations, including the declaration of a state of emergency. Ethiopia is one of the most significant African counterterrorism partners of the United States. It is a linchpin of regional security, and what happens in Ethiopia is critically important.
After nearly three years of civil war, South Sudan is not only a failed state—one failed, above all, by its so-called leaders—but one where the specter of genocidal violence looms larger with each passing day.
In North Africa, with the exception of Morocco, which is an anchor of stability and, in fact, the country in the world with which the United States has its oldest unbroken treaty relationship, we have problems in Libya with ISIS, we have an aging autocratic regime in Algeria, and we have Tunisia with the highest number of foreign fighters per capita anywhere joining ISIS.
In South Africa, we have had a succession of political crises, culminating in recent days with a foiled attempt within the ruling African National Congress to unseat President Jacob Zuma. Across the Limpopo River, Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian autocrat Robert Mugabe seems intent, before he goes to meet his maker, on destroying whatever is left of the country he hasn’t ruined already since coming to power in 1980. The introduction this week of an ersatz currency, the so-called bond notes that are supposed to be interchangeable one-to-one with the US dollar, will probably cause hyperinflation and put the proverbial final nail in coffin of the once-flourishing economy.
And these are just some of the challenges that the new administration will have to contend with from day one before it can focus more strategically at building the geopolitical, economic, and other relationships necessary to consolidate US bonds with the new Africa.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.