Opinion: Be Patient With Trump In Africa. First He Has To Make America Great Again

Kurt Davis Jr.
Written by Kurt Davis Jr.

The jury remains out on how President-Elect Donald Trump will approach Africa. As the he fills out his presidential cabinet, pundits – in support and against his decisions – weigh in on what to expect from a very unorthodox and eccentric American politician…so why not do the same on Trump and the massive continent of 54 countries?

Understanding presidential motives with Africa

The U.S. strategy with Africa is understandably complicated and convoluted by the three realities.

First, U.S. presidents are elected every four years, can only serve two terms, and rarely come from the same political party three terms in a row. For example, since Harry Truman won election in 1948 after succeeding President Franklin D. Roosevelt, only twice has an American political party won the White House consecutively with two different candidates. Only one of those times was for a third consecutive term for the same party – that being the 1988 election of President George H. W. Bush following the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Secondly, U.S. presidents have different personal and political agendas. President Barack Obama is arguably most appreciated in Africa for being Kenyan. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, as an American citizen (thank you, Donald Trump for settling this issue), outgoing President Obama is often referred to as the first African-American president. His parents were Ann Dunham from Wichita, Kansas, and Barack Obama, Sr., from Nyang’oma Kogelo, Nyanza Province, in what was then the colony and protectorate of Kenya.

The most beloved president on the large continent is probably President George W. Bush. He pledged billions of dollars to combat AIDS, boost education and controversially teach abstinence. His launch of the Millennium Challenge Corporation was well received in 2004 with bipartisan support. Former President Bill Clinton is also well liked for his work with the Clinton Foundation, an organization that has done great work in Africa but also is ironically part of the many narratives that hurt the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign against Trump.

Africa is 54 countries…oh how this is often forgotten. Presidential interests accordingly are not monolithic across each country. Presidents avoid countries in different terms for different reasons that can range from not choosing a side in an uprising (Tunisia) and security (Somalia — Bush made a visit in 1992) to disagreements on policy and democracy.

For example, former President Carter (in 1978), Clinton (in 2000), and Bush (in 2003) made visits to Nigeria to meet with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who served both as a military leader in the 1970s and again later as an elected leader in the 2000s. Obama is believed to have avoided Nigeria on state visits because of its challenges with combating terrorism and some skepticism about the leadership.

For the nerds, Senegal is a favorite with visits from former President Roosevelt (in 1943), Clinton (in 1998), Bush (in 2003) and Obama (twice in 2013).

It is a Trump world

Trump is first and foremost a businessman. The notion of Trump’s business not engaging the world would be ludicrous. Thus, it is hard to expect Trump to not engage other leaders in these complex global times. Trump also represents the populism movement that found footing in Brexit and its physical incarnation in the recent American election. He accordingly will not engage every leader with the belief that they love the U.S. or will work in the interest of the U.S.

Critics will argue that Trump could emblazon the global scene with the us-against-them mentality but he is very aware of the Bush you-are-with-us-or-against-us approach. Trump more likely may flip the global norm on its head and decide that he will only engage leaders with proven track records of good leadership and mutually beneficial engagement. This could mean a drastic cut in aid to some countries but could also mean a bump to some other countries.

It is thus appropriate to expect a rebalancing in the U.S. financial and political partnership with some countries. Countries with significant commercial power and/or high foreign aid and investment will be pondering what this means. Think Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa. Trump openly indicates that he will avoid past administrations’ efforts dating back decades of picking the “more suitable” winner in internal political disputes. But, as all presidents come to acknowledge, this is easier said than done.

Picking the right friends

Businessman Trump knows better than anyone that you must have the right friends or allies to survive. He, as his Cabinet selection process indicates, is man about utmost loyalty but also willing to cross the aisle and engage his critics — even if after an ugly Twitter battle.

A Trump administration will have its special partners. Tunisia could be the surprise special relationship. A successful democracy in Tunisia would be a great boost to the fight against terrorism. Nigeria – in the words of all Nigerians – is special and its relationship could go either way with Trump. Trump wants to help the oil and overall energy industry in the U.S. maintain its successes and regain some of its losses (coal), as demonstrated by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This could mean sustained low energy prices that would hurt Nigeria. Also, what will Nigeria do in the war against terrorism and Boko Haram, which aligns itself with ISIS?

Political and financial engagement with Egypt, South Sudan, and South Africa will see some rebalancing. How does Egypt help the U.S. fight terrorism? What is South Sudan today and what can it become? There is no clear vision of the leadership. And what is Trump to think of President Jacob Zuma in South Africa? The battle over the U.S. chicken ban last year in South Africa with the Obama administration would have likely encountered more harsh language from a President Trump. But what would have been his policy response?

What does Trump want for a legacy?

Africa was a policy priority for the previous three administrations—Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Clinton and Bush still make regular visits to the continent. Clinton supports the work of the Clinton Foundation on the continent and Bush still performs a significant amount of community service work.

What will become of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)? It was enacted in 2000 and renewed in 2015 through 2025. The renewal vote was 394-37 in the House of Representatives and 97-1 in the U.S. Senate. Trade that benefits the U.S. is low-hanging fruit for Trump. But how does he view this act and trade with certain African countries? Trump openly pushes an agenda that will re-evaluate all trade agreements to see if they align with U.S. interests. Trump will also be very aware of the role China is looking to play on the global scene, how Africa is part of that equation, and the potential for opportunity and downfall in figurative proxy wars in Africa.

How will terrorism play out in this process? Trump wants to be the president who knocks out ISIS. He will have to face the reality of an African continent where ISIS has found some grounding with local terrorist organizations, including al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Does he find willing partners in unexpected countries? Trump’s call with Taiwan shows the potential for him to engage leaders we have secretly funded at times but not openly schmoozed with on the global scene. Trump’s uncertainty in style could bode well for leaders fighting terrorism on the continent. It could also blow up in their face.

Be patient with Trump

Trump knows the world is complicated. His critics rightfully argue that he doesn’t know how complicated relationships are in the global power dynamics. But, to be fair, Obama did not understand the magnitude of some situations and how complex they may be. Obama argued for the U.S. withdrawal from some hot spots more than Trump did in his election candidacy. The hot spots will be there.

Hot-button issues will include South Sudan as a failed state, Ethiopian political protests, and the non-electoral process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Africa specialists will note that South Sudan could pull the U.S. in if the fight against genocide reaches full global engagement. D.R.C. instability has been at the center of greater regional instability in the past (think Rwanda and Burundi). Then again, these hot-button issues should not overshadow the slowing growth on the continent in certain countries, uncertainty in the South African leadership, and the endless leadership of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. We must be patient because Trump cannot make everything great again. First he has to “make America great again.”

Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker with private equity experience in emerging economies focusing on the natural resources and energy sectors. He earned a law degree in tax and commercial law at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and a master’s of business administration in finance, entrepreneurship and operations from the University of Chicago. He can be reached at kurt.davis.jr@gmail.com.