I have returned from a rather illuminating visit to the United States Capitol. The visit involved interactive meetings with senior Republican legislators in both the Senate and the Congress, State Department employees, the business community and the donor community. I also attended the 65th US National Prayer Breakfast addressed by President Donald Trump.
The palpating sense of uncertainty has engulfed everyone in Washington, DC, from lifelong Republicans, who should be celebrating total control of the Senate, Congress and the White House to a common liberal citizen, who seems really scared at what this change portends. The Trump incursion caught the American political establishment unaware.
The US seems to be on a journey of self-rediscovery, keen to figure out what the next four years will be like. Discussing this with Mr Richard McCormack, a former ambassador, I got a sense of how transitions are generally messy. He served as an executive vice-chairman of the Bank of America and in President George W. Bush’s administration, as Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs. He has played a key role in four transitions and was instrumental in championing Aids relief under Pepfar and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, which helped Africa. On the upheavals that have rocked the Trump Administration’s first weeks in office, he said there was nothing out of the ordinary. This view seemed to corroborate earlier opinions that even President Barack Obama’s transition had its own share of mistakes. Whereas Mr Obama had many former Bill Clinton staffers, the bulk of Mr Trump’s transition staff are new with little experience of government. As the administration settles, a more certain pattern will emerge, perhaps with the offloading and reassigning of some staff away from the centre of power. There is already talk of hiring a new press secretary and issues with the Security Adviser position.
Africa seems not to have a strategic champion of its interests in the new Washington.
Mr Trump’s views on Africa have largely been nonexistent. After his surprise victory, the only African leader he spoke with within the first few days is President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. This has to do more with the strategic nature of the country in the Israel-Arab world equation than as a key African ally. Without a conscious effort by Africa to champion its interests with the new administration, many decisions may be undertaken that will hurt the continent. Three out of seven countries whose citizens were barred from entering in the United States are from Africa.
The administration is moving to reduce American commitments to climate change, and Africa will be the most affected. Mr Trump’s team is sceptical about the criticality of the US engagement with Africa. Questions on why Aid funds are sent to Africa whereas there is suffering in the US should be worrying.
But there is still some hope. The Republican Party Platform of 2016 recognises Africa’s potential and notes that alliances should be strengthened through investments, trade, and the promotion of the democratic and free market principles. Africa ought to take advantage of this recognition. The administration has also voiced concern on whether the US is losing ground to China in terms of trade. This provides the best basis through which Africa can substantively engage with the new administration. There are many projects in rural Africa that depend on donor funding, and whereas I am no champion of aid dependency, an abrupt cut will be devastating on the lives of many African poor.
This period before alliances and priorities are firmed up, the continent’s leadership must assert Africa’s position as a key player on the global stage with whom America and the rest of the world must engage. As development agencies funded by American taxpayer resources struggle to defend their programmes in Africa, the continent must inject its own voice into that narrative.
The general feeling when Mr Obama left office was that he should have done more for the continent. But maybe we should ask what the continent did to take advantage of his presidency. The US is the world’s strongest economy and a key player in geopolitics. Engaging it is not subordinating the interests of Africa; it is just being smart.
Lone Felix is an Equity Africa Fellow with interest in public policy and global affairs.