Will U.S.-Africa Relations Suffer In The Trump Era?

The Trump Administration’s Africa policy remains terra incognito.
03/29/2017 08:41 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2017

Early into the presidency of Donald Trump, his Administration’s Africa policy remains terra incognito. Though Africa watchers trying to glean future policy leanings have examined questions on Africa submitted to the State Department by the Trump Transition team in January, and scrutinized pronouncements made on the campaign trail, if experience with previous administrations is anything to go by, predictions concerning the tenor of U.S.-Africa relations at the outset of new administrations are frequently unreliable.

Following George W. Bush’s election as president, for instance, it was widely expected that he would turn a blind eye to both the continent’s travails and its potential. Yet it was under his watch that the Millennium Challenge Corporation was launched, which unhealthy conditionalities notwithstanding, provides countries with development aid. And, it was during Bush’s tenure that America’s aid to Africa spiked 640 percent. Bush’s contributions were particularly significant in the healthcare sector, and for that, he is rightly lionized across the continent. Bush conceived and supported the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which expended $15 billion in five years, allowing millions to receive anti-retroviral treatment and care. In addition, in 2005, Bush launched a $1.2 billion initiative to fight malaria.

Bush can be said to have exceeded expectations when it came to U.S.-Africa relations.

Some of Obama’s Africa initiatives were equally ambitious. For instance, Power Africa, Obama’s signature initiative, strives to help provide 30,000 MW of electricity to the continent by 2030; it has made steady progress towards this goal having brought to financial close (together with a variety of partners) 57 projects comprising more than 6,500 MW. Obama’s other major project, Trade Africa, designed, among other things, to boost trade within Africa and between Africa and the U.S., through a variety of initiatives, has expanded beyond its initial focus on the East African Community to include five more states; it has successfully facilitated an increase in exports to the U.S. by focus countries. Obama’s most visible and arguably most popular program is the Young African Leaders Initiative, which brings together approximately 1,000 young Africans for academic and leadership training in US academic institutions for six weeks.

Nonetheless, Obama’s record on Africa, whether based on facts or perceptions, fell below expectations.

Some have pointed out that Obama faced exaggerated expectations from a continent buoyed by the incomparable symbolism of America’s election of its first black president. Though there is some truth to this, a more persuasive argument might be that even more ambitious plans would likely have been thwarted by an intransigent and partisan Republican Congress.

Prior errant predictions notwithstanding, here is a not unreasonable one regarding official US policy towards Africa in the era of Trump: greater emphasis on business deal-making and a focus on anti-terrorism; with unrelated prior agenda items— say, “nudges” towards democratization— likely to be jettisoned. This would be consistent with candidate Trump’s declared priorities during the election and his public statements that it is not for America to decide how other people should govern themselves.

Regardless of the future direction of the Trump Administration’s Africa policy, the point here is that U.S.-Africa relations are susceptible to unpredictable ebbs and flows; and as a result, those eager to advance a Pan-Africanist agenda need not wait hands clasped for high tide. People of African descent, their governments and civil society, can continue to work towards a political, economic, and social renaissance, and closer ties with one another, in more ways than one. The present uncertainty about the Trump Administration’s policies is no reason to set aside pursuit of a more ambitious agenda.

THE CONTINUING RELEVANCE OF PAN-AFRICANISM

The case for vintage Pan-Africanism— broad and cross-continental in reach— remains strong. Some critics maintain that the interests of people of African descent in different parts of the world are incongruent with one another and best served separately and in a localized way. This abnegation of Pan-Africanism, especially on this side of the Atlantic, stems in part from the tensions between the African-American and African immigrant communities in the United States.

On the one hand, some African-Americans take umbrage at the distinctions that Africans draw between themselves and African-Americans. A number of African students in the United States, for instance, refrain from joining African-American college campus organizations, and certain African professionals do the same when it comes to professional associations. There is some foolishness to this accentuation of differences, of course. After all, the moment Africans’ soles touch American soil, the African-American experience becomes their experience; the majority of Americans, at least at first blush, detect no differences between African-Americans and Africans and discriminatory treatment is often meted out without distinction.

On the other hand, some African-Americans behave unreasonably when they are uneasy about cultural and linguistic differences between themselves and Africans. Rather than celebrate differences in dress, language, food, and overall culture, some African-Americans frustratingly ask a very limiting question: why are they not like us? Such closed-mindedness can make African-American student organizations and professional associations inhospitable for Africans, which does not exculpate Africans from shortcomings in their attitudes, but does provide partial explanation for their lack of engagement. In harboring unfair expectations of homogeneity between themselves and their African brethren, some African-Americans forget that the Pan-African family accommodates a rich panoply of varied histories and cultures.

It is improper to draw upon dissensions of this type to argue against continued relevance of a broader cross-continental form of Pan-Africanism. There is nothing that makes people of African descent, by virtue of the mere pigmentation of their skin, preternaturally disposed to infighting; tensions between long-time residents and recent immigrants is a feature of community relations elsewhere in the world.

Besides, progress locally— be it economic or in terms of civil rights—and progress on the Pan-African front, are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they are mutually reinforcing. Vibrant local African, Caribbean, and African-American communities are better placed to strengthen a trilaterally linked Pan-Africanism conjoining these communities; and on the flipside, enhanced Pan-African cooperation, can better support the individual renaissance of each of these communities. Not recognizing this, means turning one’s back on history.

After all, Pan-African movements and conferences of the previous century embraced a cross-continental approach. The 1900 Pan-African Conference, for instance, attracted 32 delegates from the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States. Present were Benito Sylvain (Emperor Menelik’s Haitian aide-de-camp), a lawyer from Trinidad, a doctor from Lagos, and W.E.B. Du Bois, just to mention a few. Conference participants resolved to strengthen solidarity between people of African descent worldwide and to advance their civil rights and business interests, but they also pledged to work towards improved relations between the Caucasian and African races. Hence, the Conference highlighted a form of Pan-Africanism which was expansive and non-vindictive, and which remains relevant to this day.

Committed Pan-Africanist that he was, Du Bois realized the symbolic relationship between the African and African-American struggles and explained to critics, “To help bear the burden of Africa, does not mean any lessening of effort in our problem at home. Rather it means increased interest.”

POLITICS

One of the ways in which the Pan-African agenda can be rekindled, in keeping with the spirit of yesteryear, is in the political arena. And here, one need not wait for clarity on what direction the White House’s Africa policy will assume, in order to move forward. At the macro-level, African and Caribbean countries could caucus and coordinate more frequently in multilateral fora in order to promote common interests as part of the “global south.”

Institutionally, they need not create new organizations; they could retool existing ones. The ACP (the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states), a grouping of 48 sub-Saharan African states, together with 18 Caribbean and 13 Pacific states has mostly been used as a vehicle for negotiating debt relief and trade deals with the EU.

Though existing use of the ACP as a common front for deal-making vis-à-vis the EU is sensible, consideration ought to be given to a repurposing of the organization’s activities to better and more broadly coordinate member states’ positions on a whole host of other issues, from climate change to global trade negotiations.

This would be in keeping with the the ACP’s mission, which includes, in part, the goal of striving for the “sustainable development of its member states,” “their gradual integration into the global economy,” and “consolidation of unity and solidarity among many ACP countries.” Certainly some of this already happens, but not nearly enough.

Pan-African cooperation in politics can also be enhanced through the creation of a forum of like-minded political parties which wish to work to further a common Pan-African agenda.

Pan-Africanism can draw inspiration from international groupings of ideologically affiliated political parties. Examples include the Centrist Democrats Political International— a rassemblement of moderately conservative Christin Democratic parties, which include Spain’s People’s Party and Angela Merkel’s CDU. The better known Socialist International, instead, comprises the likes of Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party, India’s Congress Party, South Africa’s ANC, and Germany’s SPD. Though somewhat more informal, left-leaning political parties in sub-Saharan Africa, such as South Africa’s ANC, Ethiopia’s EPRDF, and Tanzania’s CCM, have, from time to time, engaged in joint discussions to advance African interests.

There is no reason why political parties from the Caribbean, Africa, and even the Democratic Party in the U.S., cannot exchange ideas and cooperate to advance Pan-African interests. Given the objectives of the project, the parties involved are likely to be progressive in nature, but drawn from a cross-continental pool.

RE-INVIGORATING CROSS-CONTINENTAL TIES & THE DIASPORA

Beyond the political, how can concrete links be built across continents, by peoples of African descent to incentivize cooperation for joint gain? Ghana and Ethiopia can serve as two pertinent examples.

Ethiopia has sought to increase engagement by the Ethiopian Diaspora in their country of origin, by conferring Ethiopian Origin IDs which grant rights akin to citizenship, such as the right to travel to the country without a visa and the right to reside and work in Ethiopia, without the permits required of foreigners. There are restrictions in the political arena and a prohibition on investment in financial institutions. The plan has yielded positive results and has acted as a magnet for the Diaspora, encouraging some to relocate and persuading others to deepen their ties with the country in other ways.

Ghana has an even more expansive policy designed to accommodate people of African descent, provided they meet certain requirements, such as the lack of a criminal record and a degree of financial independence. Under the “Right to Abode” policy, some five thousand people of African descent from the United States and the Caribbean have chosen to make Ghana their home. The new transplants are active in the country as entrepreneurs and teachers, others are retirees.

Both the Ghanaian and Ethiopian models are not without their problems; among other things, support for those who move is not as strong as it should be once they actually do make the move. Things could be improved here by establishing effective “one-stop” departments catering to the needs of Diaspora arrivals— supporting them in business or philanthropic endeavors, or even just helping them navigate the complexities of everyday life as returnees or new arrivals, whichever the case may be. Rather than leaving them to their own devices, members of the Pan-African Diaspora should be helped adjust to their new lives, and in so doing, members of the Diaspora will be better placed to help themselves and their host countries.

Regardless of the differences between the Ghanaian and Ethiopian policies, both provide different models (one consanguineous, the other broader in reach), which other African countries can build upon in order to reengage the African Diaspora more fruitfully. As the situation in the mother continent improves, there might even eventually develop a greater degree of parity in the relationship, with investments flowing the other way too (i.e., investments being made by Africans in entities based outside the continent). The investment last year, by a Ghanaian firm in a struggling black-owned Chicago bank, could be a harbinger of things to come, albeit far into the future, provided that growth of indigenous African enterprises on the continent does not meet unanticipated headwinds.

This Ghanaian infused investment into a Chicagoan bank, is also illustrative of another point. Pan-Africanists need not wait for pro-Africa policies to emanate from Washington, nor pray for African or Caribbean governments to assume Pan-African dispositions. Support from one or the other would certainly help, but committed Pan-Africanists in business or civic society can also take the initiative and find their own ways of advancing Pan-African ties.

EDUCATION

An effective stimulant—one with little immediate impact, but definite long-term effect on Pan-Africanism—is education reform. African schoolchildren are more likely to learn about the exploits of Bismarck and the worldwide impact of the Russian revolution, than the history of their own countries or that of prominent Africans. Many schoolchildren are not taught of Nkrumah’s impeccable Pan-African credentials and aspirations, nor are they taught about early Pan-African pioneers. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s meetings with, Nkrumah and Kaunda, founding fathers of Kenya and Zambia, respectively. Close to none have heard of the dedication of lesser known, but still important individuals like Col. Robinson, an African-American fighter pilot who moved to Ethiopia in 1935 as a pilot trainer for the nascent Ethiopian Air Force involved in the war effort against Italy.

This is not, of course, a case for the expungement of world history from African curriculums, but merely an argument in favor of the integration of African elements into history and literature courses, as well as the arts. Cross-continental cooperation can best flourish if there is appreciation of the fact that there is precedent for a robust and expansive Pan-Africanism.

Reinforcing the relatively minimal number of study abroad programs is another way to breathe life into the Pan-African agenda. Increasing the number of students of African descent in the United States, Africa, or the Caribbean (including study abroad by African students in African countries other than their own), can constitute a transformative experience by encouraging students to work and engage with Africa in their future careers; or simply, motivating them to remain informed and interested in African and Pan-African issues.

The challenges presently faced by people of African descent worldwide, require cooperation between Pan-Africanists on projects which are realizable in the short, medium and long terms; from political cooperation to lighting the fire of Pan-Africanism in youth. The support of a sympathetic American administration would be helpful here, but it is not indispensable to the objective of forging closer ties between people of African descent worldwide.

What is critically important, however, is that exponents of Pan-Africanism work together in ways that advance a form of Pan-Africanism fit for this day and age. This means resuscitating a form of Pan-Africanism which draws inspiration from the halcyon days of the movement, but which is, at the same time, tailored to present needs. Among other things, a modern Pan-African movement ought to be broad in reach and resist any descent into vengeful racism. Rather, it ought to be based on what the late Africanist Ali Mazrui referred to as “dignitarianism;” a desire to uphold the collective dignity of black people across the world. Pan-Africanism of this stripe, and with these goals, demands more than perfunctory nods to a shared heritage; instead, it requires solidarity and active collaboration which crosses ethnic, linguistic, religious, and national lines.

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