Washington, DC — Despite dire predictions, the Trump Administration’s overall policy toward Africa represented continuity. Foreign aid continued; skilled diplomats were appointed and deployed to resolve conflicts; and the signature Africa programs of past presidents remained unabated. The administration launched a trade program, and President Trump himself intervened to mediate a brewing conflict in east Africa.
Still, Trump fought to withdraw troops from Africa, publicly positioned the continent as a field for “great power competition”, and infamously referred to African nations as “shithole countries.”
Even Congressional Republicans who reflexively backed President Trump’s policies balked at these moves. U.S.-Africa policy has an ironclad history of bipartisanship dating to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration: a deep friendship grounded in trade, aid, and security support. At a time of unprecedented partisan acrimony, support for strong U.S.-Africa relations is practically guaranteed to be noncontroversial.
As the American presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek once wrote, “when received political priorities are most fully discredited and the president stands foursquare against them, the power and authority of the office are most fully and effectively aligned.” In other words, the rejection of Trumpian politics and policy by voters provides Biden with a source of power to successfully implement reforms – that is, where he is not hamstrung by Congress.
And there is perhaps no policy area in which Biden is more likely to obtain wide-ranging Congressional approval than in U.S.-Africa relations.
This provides Biden, a longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a tremendous opportunity. Some have suggested that Africa will not be a priority for his administration. I disagree.
Biden has already signaled the importance of Africa in his foreign policy by nominating Linda Thomas-Greenfield – a deeply respected former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs – to be UN ambassador, and to head the transition at the State Department. Biden’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and heavy reliance on Black and African diaspora voters, is also likely to provide motivation for a more potent U.S.-Africa policy.
To this end, Biden faces a choice: whether to carry on with the U.S.-Africa agenda established by past presidents, or to “disrupt” it with something entirely new. Here’s where U.S.-Africa policy could lead in the next four years.
Biden’s approach to aid
Every recent American president has launched a signature African aid program of their own. Bill Clinton launched the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a duty-free trade policy; George W. Bush created PEPFAR, a program to distribute HIV/AIDS medication that has saved over 18 million lives; Barack Obama created Power Africa, an electrification program, and Feed the Future, to improve food security; and Trump launched Prosper Africa, a U.S.-Africa trade and investment initiative.
Biden will innovate new ways to engage with the continent towards a more stable, more secure Africa
Because of Biden’s focus on climate change, it is likely that his signature program will focus on this issue. Herein lies Biden’s opportunity for an innovative Africa policy. The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that coal power generation in Africa could rise as much as 20 percent by 2050, paring gains against fossil fuels made elsewhere as demand for energy on the continent grows. A significant investment program to reduce dependence on fossil fuels in Africa would be a major achievement for Biden’s climate change agenda.
Addressing climate change will require a more systemic approach than other aid programs – a chance to address some of Africa’s other underlying long-term challenges. A green investment and electrification program could create millions of jobs and billions in revenue for African nations: supporting a transition to renewable energy while mitigating the consequences of climate change by protecting African agriculture and fisheries. African forests, a major carbon sink, should also be protected from slash-and-burn logging and expanded through new plantings.
These are major projects that will require substantial African labor, providing employment for millions of disaffected youth who would otherwise be targets for recruitment by militant groups. Besides breaking the “resource curse,” moving African economies away from oil could also act as an opportunity to deny corrupt elites a key source of rents and patronage.
Biden will face resistance from Congress in working to enact a substantial climate change program for the U.S. But an African climate change plan, framed as an aid and investment program, would receive a much warmer reception. The moment is right for this politically viable and relatively inexpensive initiative.
There are other African issues, with less domestic resonance, that will require Biden’s urgent attention.
Civil wars in Cameroon and Ethiopia
In Cameroon, an Anglophone minority is waging war against Paul Biya, who has been president for nearly thirty years. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has declared victory in a conflict with the leaders of the Tigray state, but an insurgency is already brewing to oppose him. These wars have had horrific consequences: massacres, torture, ethnic cleansing, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The broader effects of the Ethiopian conflict are particularly worrying. The stability of Ethiopia as a unitary state – the second most populous in Africa – was already jeopardized by simmering ethnic tensions before the war, which threatens to spread insecurity and conflict throughout the greater Horn region. Eritrean troops have been reported in Tigray, and clashes between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces are raising tensions along their contested border.
The Trump administration was not active in seeking solutions to either conflict, beyond routine calls for an end to violence and the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid. I am optimistic that Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, will take a more direct approach.
Blinken is a longtime advocate of diplomatic, humanitarian, and military intervention, even praising Trump for bombing Syrian forces after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. In Africa, Blinken will find numerous leaders willing to abuse and repress their citizens. But as Secretary of State, diplomacy will be his mandate, and I expect he will use it to its fullest potential.
Beyond COVID-19: a pandemic of insecurity
While COVID-19 does threaten Africa, for structural reasons, it is less dangerous than in other regions. Mortality data is spotty, but current information suggests 80% of cases in Africa are asymptomatic. Africa’s youthful population is a major reason: 91% of African COVID-19 cases are among people under 60 years old.
In the early stages of the Biden administration, officials are likely to work with African leaders to provide COVID-19 support and prepare for vaccine delivery, a substantial logistics challenge in a land area 2.5 times the size of the U.S. But Biden’s appointees will need to confront another, more intractable pandemic, with no end in sight.
The security situation in Africa is rapidly spiraling out of control. Terrorist groups are gaining ground across the continent, and the Pentagon is readily admitting that U.S. and international forces are unable to contain them. The consequences could spread far beyond Africa.
On December 16, the U.S. government announced it was charging a Kenyan man with planning a 9/11-style attack on American soil with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, in which he would hijack a commercial airliner and fly it into a skyscraper. The foiled plot was a reminder of how African terrorist groups are eager to emulate their allies in the Middle East, long bent on attacking the West.
The charges came just ten days after President Trump ordered all U.S. troops to withdraw from Somalia, in a move that could most charitably be described as an “unforced error.” Trump had repeatedly sought to reduce troop levels across Africa during his administration over strong objections from both parties in Congress. The resurgence of militant groups in Somalia, Nigeria, and across the Sahel testifies to this strategic failure. The rise of a new terrorist group in once-peaceful Mozambique, proclaiming its intention to establish a new Islamist caliphate, is especially troubling.
Biden will need to address this problem swiftly, reversing the withdrawals President Trump is hurriedly pushing through. But more troops alone will not resolve the underlying reasons young Africans choose militancy: hunger, joblessness, and desperation.
Trump’s isolationist “America First” policy reflected a weariness among the American public with military deployments abroad into war zones that have no major U.S. interests in play. Biden and Blinken will need to justify themselves as they reassert America’s military role in Africa. That’s why new deployments should be paired with a wide-ranging recommitment to development aid that will help Africans build economies that sustainably deliver for their people. As the administration deploys this aid, it should make clear that it has higher expectations than the Trump administration for transparency and the rule of law in African governance.
Biden and Blinken, have their work cut out for them. But these are exciting times for U.S.-Africa policy. Beyond a recommitment to our existing friendships, I believe the Biden administration will innovate new ways to engage with the continent towards a more stable, more secure Africa.
Herman J. Cohen was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), U.S. ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), a National Security Council member (1987-1989) and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service.