The United States presidential election is upon us and Africans, like the rest of the world, have been a captive audience as incumbent Donald Trump and his challenger Joe Biden wooed voters for a four-year mandate as leader of the free world.
It’s fairly safe to assume the majority of Africans are probably Team Biden: after all, for eight years he was the right hand man of Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan and whose election in 2008 as America’s first black president was cheered throughout the continent.
Although Africa might not have benefited as much, economically, as many had rather unrealistically expected from Obama’s presidency, he remains widely very popular, and his endorsement of Biden carries significant weight.
On his part, Trump has in his first four year term signalled, at best, a distinct lack of interest in Africa, and at worst a contempt for it.
Even before he became president, Trump alienated many Africans through his relentless attacks on Obama, including an unfounded suggestion that he was born in Kenya rather than the US and was therefore an illegitimate president.
In addition, Trump has yet to set foot on the continent since his inauguration in January 2017, although his wife Melania did visit Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt two years ago.
If he fails to win a second term on November 3, Trump would be the first US president not to have visited Africa while in office, since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Added to that, many Africans have neither forgotten, nor forgiven, how the outspoken former real estate tycoon, who is often accused of being racist, queried in January 2018 why the US would want immigrants from Haiti and African nations, calling some of them “sh*thole countries”.
Africans have also not been spared from the Trump administration’s moves to tighten immigration rules – particularly for third world countries – in pursuit of its “America First” agenda. In January, Nigeria was among six countries whose citizens are now blocked from obtaining US visas that can lead to permanent residency.
Not surprisingly, China has overtaken the US as the recipient of most African students. The gap is likely to widen further after Washington introduced proposals that would limit student visas for 36 African countries to two years, forcing them to incur additional costs to extend the permits and complete their studies.
African leaders, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, have bristled over Trump’s criticism of how the World Health Organisation, headed by Ethiopian Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus handled the outbreak of Covid-19.
Trump accuses WHO of being sluggish in sounding the alarm that the coronavirus was now a pandemic, and of being lenient on China, where the virus was first reported last December. Trump says the Asian giant did not do enough to contain the pandemic within its borders, leading to it sweeping across the whole globe.
Africa’s largely impoverished countries are likely to bear the brunt after Trump in July formally began the process of withdrawing the US from WHO. Washington is the global health agency’s largest single contributor, providing more than US$400 million.
Senior officials from Biden’s Democratic Party have indicated that if elected, he would quickly move to restore US membership of WHO and rejoin the Paris climate agreement, a crucial pact for Africa countries vulnerable to climate change.
The latest Trump slight to Africa has come in the form of his government’s opposition to former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination as director of the World Trade Organisation.
A WTO nominations committee recommended that the group’s 164 members appoint Okonjo-Iweala, but the U.S., which is critical of the agency’s handling of global trade, prefers South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee and could very well scupper the Nigerian’s chances for the job.
To Trump’s credit, US programmes in Africa have continued during his presidency, led by Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, a former career diplomat with vast experience of the region.
African countries continue to benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) enacted by Trump’s fellow Republic George W. Bush in 2000, which allows exports from eligible countries into the US, duty and quota-free.
To qualify for AGOA, which has been renewed to 2025, African countries must work to improve the rule of law, human rights, and respect for core labour standards.
Data from the International Trade Administration in June last year showed that US companies have invested over US$50 billion in Africa since 2017, when Trump assumed the presidency.
His administration also launched Prosper Africa, an initiative which aims to assist American companies seeking to do business on the continent.
Also worth noting is that while on paper Biden looks like the more-palatable US presidential candidate from an African perspective, if he should win he would, like Obama in 2009, inherit a greatly weakened domestic economy, this time due to the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like Obama, this could very well force Biden to focus his energies, at least in the initial years of his presidency, on rebuilding the U.S. economy, at the expense of foreign relations, including with Africa.
Article By Stella Mapenzauswa