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From neglect to contempt? US Africa policies during the Obama-Trump administrations

20 Dec 2020

From neglect to contempt? US Africa policies during the Obama-Trump administrations

20 Dec 2020

After George W. Bush’s high-profile adventurism in American foreign policy, under Barack Obama, Washington’s policies were lower profile. Specifically, toward Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) generally continued a status quo marked by an arms-length approach – confounding expectations that the first African-American president would approach the continent afresh. Obama did visit the continent five times and boosted military support to Somalia, Cameroon, and Chad in the War on Terror, also instituting military bases in over 10 African countries. However, the overall focus under Obama was elsewhere, unsurprising given Africa has not been, since the 1990s, usually high on the agenda of any American presidency. Nevertheless, there was a certain degree of consistency.

With Donald Trump coming to power, this relative inattention turned to arguable contempt. Trump’s foreign policy has meant that the US-Africa relations have been stagnant, if not deteriorating, for the last four years. The damage by his decisions and inaction have lessened Washington’s influence on the continent at a time when other actors and new dynamics demand a coherent response. Indeed, other players such as China (and, to a lesser extent, India, Russia, and Turkey) have been capitalizing on Trump’s disinterest in Africa. In terms of American influence, Trump’s presidency has seen a step backward for Washington.

Obama became president in the middle of a broader security-centered framework dominated by the War on Terror. Several initiatives under George W. Bush integrated Africa into this effort. The Combined Joint Task Force: Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was established in 2002 to prevent violent Islamist organizations in East Africa, as well as building defense capabilities in African nations. Later, the Africa Command (AFRICOM) was set up in 2007 to bring together all Defense Department programs in Africa under one umbrella.

Although Obama sought to balance counter-terrorism and civil rights, which Bush had been criticized for neglecting, an overall critique was that policy was on auto-pilot and that a focus on security gave less urgency to governance issues. At times, the United States aligned with dictatorial regimes, prompting Washington not to get involved or hold governments accountable for human rights violations in Ethiopia, where security matters were seen as more important.

However, in terms of concrete policy, the Obama administration did launch Power Africa in 2013 to help increase access to electricity across the continent with the goal of an additional 30,000 Megawatts power generation across SSA with 60 million new connections. This may be seen as both a business and a soft power initiative. There was an acknowledgment within Obama’s government that soft power programs helped increase American legitimacy. Thus, the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) was launched to help African youths based on the continent get ready for leadership positions by providing training, networking, and skills-building opportunities.

When Trump assumed office in 2017, after the impact of the global financial crisis had lessened and with the War on Terror effectively winding down, space for Trump to reinvent an Africa policy was opportune. However, Trump set out his stall early when his transition team sent the State Department four pages of questions about Africa that revealed an overly dismissive stance toward the continent and its place in American diplomacy. The transition team essentially questioned the very point of American involvement in aid, anti-terrorism, and trade deals with Africa. Some of the questions punted to the State Department included:

  1. “Why should we spend funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the US?”
  2. “Most [African imports] are petroleum products, with the benefits going to national oil companies, why do we support that massive benefit to corrupt regimes?”
  3. “Are we losing out to the Chinese?”

The overall thrust of the transition team’s question was transactional – what does America get out of the relationship. Given the nature of Africa’s current place in the global order, there is usually only one answer. A self-fulfilling dynamic was, from Day One, built into the mindset and attitude of Trump’s administration vis-à-vis the continent.

Unlike Obama’s policies, which are open to criticism, at least the importance of soft power and image, were recognized. Under Trump, this was abandoned, and a cynical, hard-nosed approach to Africa characterized policy. Trump’s “America First” agenda had no time for “s—-hole countries” except where he had “so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich” as he told the leaders of Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda at a luncheon in New York.

Due to Africa not being a high priority for Washington since the Cold War ended, the policy has basically been passed on to senior bureaucrats within the executive branch, resulting in long-established patterns and a general path dependency for US-Africa policies, unless there is a particularly activist president. Leadership from the presidency thus makes a difference. When Linda Thomas-Greenfield stepped down as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the State Department in March 2017, it took Trump until July 2018 to confirm that Tibor Nagy would be next in the post (an acting Assistant Secretary of State served in the interim). This was not necessarily unique to Africa but indicative of a general lack of interest in diplomacy: by February 2018, eight out of 22 Assistant Secretary of State positions were still vacant, including African Affairs and Western Hemisphere Affairs.

At the same time, Trump’s budget (released in March 2017 as America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again) sought to cut the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) budgets by close to 30 percent while eradicating agencies such as the US African Development Foundation, which finances grassroots development projects in 30 African countries, the Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Exchange (ECE) Programs and the Complex Crises Fund. The budget also sought to reduce funding for multilateral development banks, including the World Bank, by approximately $650 million over three years compared to the previous administration’s commitments.

Under Trump, the State Department lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors and 20 percent of its most knowledgeable bureaucrats, many quitting in disgust.[1] At times, these diplomats were then replaced by Trump’s campaign donors or friends, bereft of any experience or basic qualifications. Thus the current American Ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, upon taking the post, tweeted that her son, Martin Marks, was her “chief of staff”. After her deputy at the embassy, David Young, raised concerns about nepotism, Marks reportedly pushed him out.[2]

With the State Department actively sidelined, the Pentagon took over with often little oversight in terms of the actual policy. Counterterrorism strikes and special operations missions expanded, with the concern that such missions possessed no rounded stratagem and were not accompanied by diplomatic efforts. In October 2017, four American soldiers were killed by ISIS in the Greater Sahara in Niger, generating debate over the existence of American forces in Africa on hitherto largely unknown missions. Trump did not comment on the ambush for 12 days after, drawing criticism from commentators.

In late 2018, Trump announced that Washington would be cutting 10 percent of its troop presence in Africa over the next several years, including half of the counter-terrorism forces working in West Africa. The rationale behind this was apparently a desire to counter Chinese and Russian influence by shifting efforts to more conventional approaches (although no intelligible rationale has ever been offered). The Defense Department has merely stated that the goal was to “realign our counter-terrorism resources and forces operating in Africa over the next several years in order to maintain a competitive posture worldwide.”

With Trump pursuing a confrontational posture toward China from the moment of his inauguration, analysts have increasingly discussed the specter of a new “Cold War” in Africa, pitting Beijing against Washington. This is the last thing that the continent needs. Indeed, Trump’s stance toward the continent was an observable characteristic was his framing of Africa as some sort of chessboard for great power struggles, mainly targeted against Beijing.

Thus, in December 2018, National Security Adviser John Bolton laid out a new strategy, that the US would now choose its African partners “more carefully,” which in practical terms implied that African countries would now be expected to take sides. Bolton made this explicit with his comments that under the Prosper Africa policy, “we will encourage African leaders to choose high-quality, transparent, inclusive, and sustainable foreign investment projects, including those from the US,” while reevaluating American support for UN Peacekeeping Operations. Bolton went on, in line with the America First philosophy that “The United States will no longer provide indiscriminate assistance across the entire continent…countries that repeatedly vote against the US in international forums, or take action counter to US interests, should not receive generous American foreign aid.” China and Russia were specifically accused of seeking to increase their influence in Africa through corrupt economic dealings (Bolton mentioned China over 15 times when presenting Prosper Africa).

Since then, Washington has been assiduously pushing a narrative about Chinese predatory practices in Africa and claiming that Beijing is pursuing “debt-trap diplomacy” across the continent. Seeking to delegitimize China, rather than construct a coherent foreign policy toward Africa, at present, seems to be central. Africa was momentarily caught in the middle in May 2020 when Trump suddenly announced that Washington would be “terminating its relationship” with the World Health Organization (WHO) during one of his spats with China. Accusing the WHO of failing to effectively counter COVID-19 because China had “total control” over the WHO via Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organization’s Ethiopian head, Trump provoked the chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to defend Tedros and his leadership. Other African leaders from countries such as Namibia, Rwanda, and South Africa also felt compelled to defend the WHO chief from Trump.

Across some parts of the continent, Trump’s attacks were construed as part of a pattern where his administration was seen as hostile to international organizations’ African leadership. Previously, Trump had sought to block the second term bid of the African Development Bank President, Akinwunmi Adesina, through corruption claims. Adesina’s independent spirit and determination to defend the best interests of Africa displeased Trump’s administration. Even though cleared by the Bank’s Ethics Committee of false allegations, Washington did its best to remove Adesina from office. As the Bank’s largest non-African shareholder, Washington, pushed by US Trade Secretary Steven Mnuchin, demanded Adesina’s extra investigation on top of the formal process. Previously, Trump vetoed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment as head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) after a WTO nominations committee recommended that she be appointed.

Where Trump has taken a practical interest in Africa, he has been unsuccessful. Trump sought to intervene in Egypt and Ethiopia’s deteriorating relations over a dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. Despite claiming that he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for the “deal” he claimed to have negotiated between the two (apparently a reference to his involvement, at the invitation of Cairo’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to solve the disagreement over the GERD), Trump’s mediation was unsuccessful due to Ethiopia’s view of him as not being neutral and more supportive of the Egyptian point of view.[3] This became open when the US cut aid to Ethiopia in September 2020 after Ethiopia started filling the dam’s reservoir.  Then, in October, Trump suggested that Egypt “will end up blowing up the dam…they’ll blow up that dam…they have to do something…They should have stopped it long before it was started.” Given that the Horn of Africa is a region marked by chronic insecurity and deep geopolitical tensions, Trump’s casual remarks were unhelpful.

The GERD, which can hold 88 percent of the average yearly flow of the Nile River, poses a potential risk to Egypt and Sudan’s water security, given that Egypt depends on 90 percent of its water from the Nile, of which 57 percent comes from the Blue Nile, which is what the GERD is damming.[4] Historically governed by a 1959 treaty, based on a colonial-era 1929 agreement, Egypt claims veto power over any construction projects on the Nile River or any of its tributaries.

In addition, when increases in the average water yield occur, this is shared equally between Egypt and Sudan; there is no allowance for the water needs of the Nile states, including even Ethiopia, even though Ethiopia’s highlands supply more than 80 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River. In terms of accommodating the GERD, both Cairo and Khartoum want a binding, enforceable agreement. Addis Ababa favors a non-binding flexible arrangement with guidelines, not fixed arrangements, apparently to maintain autonomy in what Ethiopia sees as its domestic affairs and to correct the colonial treaty. The African Union has sought to foster dialogue and has remained studiously impartial.

In December 2020, despite losing the election and virtually a lame-duck president, Trump announced that the US would pull out nearly all of its 700 troops in Somalia. The decision was sudden and ad hoc, prompting alarm in Mogadishu, which had utilized the American troops in the fight against Al-Shabab, and Nairobi. The withdrawal order fitted a model of Trump’s: ordering reductions of American troops levels in places such as Afghanistan and to bind Joe Biden’s hands just weeks before the new administration assumes office. Equally, it allowed Trump to claim that he had fulfilled a campaign promise to halt America’s “endless wars” (while leaving the aftermath to both the people on the ground and, of course, Biden).

During Trump’s tenure, both Morocco and Sudan normalized ties with Israel, and it is certain more will follow, Chad being perhaps the next. The recognition by Morocco of Israel in December 2020 came with a quid pro quo. The recognition by Morocco of Israel in December 2020 came with a quid pro quo. Some African officials view the American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara as a shift in US policy, which previously sought to find a peaceful resolution to this problem through UN-led efforts (via referendum and directs talks).  With the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty, Trump may well increase tensions in the region and generate a strong reaction by POLISARIO and by its historic ally, Algeria. Of course, he will be out of office by then.

With regard to Western Sahara, Morocco has historically received support for its position from several (mostly Muslim) African governments and from the Arab League.  Individually, the Arab League member-states’ positions have varied, matching their ideological positions, geostrategic concerns and broader political alignments. Except for Algeria, one has shown any great interest in the matter, wishing to avoid an Arab vs. Arab scenario.  Given the peripheral nature of the issue and the fact that the consensus is on Morocco’s side, Trump’s decision is unlikely to damage relations with the broader Arab world. Algeria is the only country that maintains an actively hostile stance toward Morocco’s claims. However, it does demonstrate the transactional nature of Trump’s diplomacy.

Obama’s Africa policies were based on leading from behind and encouraged multilateralism and softer forms of exercising power, a strategy designed to preserve a position of belief in American leadership in resolving crises and fostering some soft power elements (as evidenced by Power Africa and YALI). In contrast, Trump did not build any meaningful relations with the continent and met only two African presidents in the Oval Office while in power (Nigeria and Kenya). Unlike previous presidents, Trump never visited a country in SSA after assuming office. Trump’s lack of positive interest in the continent marked a period in American-African relations that may well be remembered for the wrong reasons.

Given Trump’s refusal to accept he lost the election, the idea that Washington can lecture African countries on how to run elections has now become questionable. Yet that is precisely what is currently occurring in Ghana, with the American Embassy in Accra telling the Opposition that they should resolve concerns over the validity of the Ghanaian general election in court. What goes around comes around, and as the Biden-Harris administration prepares to take over, damage repair must be high on the list of priorities regarding Washington’s relations with the continent. Unlike Washington, China has not spent the last four years neglecting Africa (and Africans).


[1] Billy Perrigo ‘Top Diplomat Says U.S. Has Lost 60% of Its Career Ambassadors Under President Trump,’ Time, November 9, 2017,

[2] Sara Smit ‘Trump’s ambassador to SA under fire for nepotism allegations,’ Mail and Guardian, February 10, 2020,

[3] Farouk Chothia ‘Trump and Africa: How Ethiopia was ‘betrayed’ over Nile dam,’ BBC News, October 27, 2020,

[4]‘Ethiopia/Egypt/Sudan: Trust, linkage, and cooperation can end dam dispute,’ Africa Report, October 21, 2010,

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