Will a future Biden Presidency be better than Trump for Africa?

As America is voting for its next President, all African countries are contemplating their future engagement with either incumbent President Donald Trump or an incoming new President Joseph (Joe) Biden. Indeed, whoever gets in the White House this coming November 4th will re-define America’s relationship with Africa.

Contrary to his immediate predecessors, over the last four years, President Trump has not set foot once in Africa. In addition, he not only made derogatory comments about African countries, but he also took actions to cut aid to African countries as well as prevent African nationals from coming to America. Despite all these, President Trump still enjoys a relatively positive image in Africa with an average approval rating of 52% among Africans, much higher than the global average of 33%, according to the Gallup World Poll.

As for Joe Biden, being the former Vice-President in the former President Barack Obama administration will perhaps define his future engagement with Africa. By picking Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden is also sending a strong signal about looking into the interests of diverse groups, including African-Americans. Moreover, Biden will have the possibility to pick experienced advisors from the former Obama administration, who can better shape America’s relations with Africa.

Diplomacy and Engagement with African countries
The last four years of the Trump administration have been marked by his “Make America Great Again” slogan and his “America First” policies. These have greatly influenced how the Trump administration shaped its foreign policies. Trump took unilateral actions and retreated from many multilateral agreements and institutions. The African continent took an even lower priority and it was only about a year and a half after his inauguration that Trump nominated Tibor Nagy as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. And nearly two years later, in December 2018, the former National Security Advisor John Bolton announced a new Africa Strategy and the Prosper Africa program.

While Bolton’s Africa Strategy was drafted in the context of the global rivalry between America and China as well as other countries like Russia, there does not seem to have a coherent, consistent and continuous approach in its implementation with the high turnover of the various members in the Trump administration. Bolton himself was fired and replaced by Robert O’Brien. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced by Michael (Mike) Pompeo, while he was still visiting some African countries. Another four years with Trump, Africa will likely see more of the same from the past four years.

While Trump wants America to retreat from its global leadership role, Biden wants to strengthen it. If Biden wins the Presidency this November, there will be some expectations that he will lean on the legacy of the Obama administration to rebuild and strengthen the relationship with Africa. Among the potential candidates for the position of Secretary of State are Chris Coons and Susan Rice. Coons served in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on African Affairs and is keen to give a boost to the Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). As for Rice, since she was the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs when the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was passed in 2000, her insights for a post-AGOA world will be useful. Moreover, she served in various leadership positions, including as the United States (US) Ambassador to the United Nations under the Obama administration.

African trade and Post-AGOA
Trade between America and Africa is mainly commodities based, namely oil and gas. With the shale boom, rather than being a net importer of oil and gas, the United States has become a leading exporter. As a result, trade with Africa has steadily declined over the years. With Africa being low in priority, there was no real impetus from the Trump administration to increase trade. In fact, with Trump liking tariffs as a negotiation tactic, AGOA was weaponised to force some African countries to remove their trade barriers against the import of some American waste products.

While AGOA has been extended till 2025 under the Obama administration, Trump dislikes multilateral trade agreements. If Trump remains in office, it is likely that AGOA will eventually be dismantled and replaced by bilateral trade agreements, that are preferred by Trump and his US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. The process has already started. During their last February meeting in Washington, President Trump and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta agreed to start a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), that will be the template for other African countries as well. The start of the US-Kenya free trade negotiations was formally announced last July.

In March 2018, the African Union (AU) brokered the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), encompassing the whole of the $3 trillion African economy with its 1.2 billion people. Forty four out of 55 AU members signed the agreement in Kigali, Rwanda. However, due to the coronavirus crisis, trade within the AfCFTA will only start this coming January 2021. With the AfCFTA, the African continent deals with third parties like America as one. For a Biden Presidency, multilateralism and global alliances will still be favored. As a result, for a post-AGOA world under Biden, America will likely have to think and negotiate for a FTA with the whole continent.

Investment in Africa
America has been playing catch-up with China in the African continent. China’s engagement with African countries is broad and extensive with massive infrastructure development everywhere, encompassing electrification, port, rail, road, telecommunication and others. In October 2018, President Trump enacted the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act. The BUILD Act basically created the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) with an investment capital of $60 billion. The DFC will support Obama’s Power Africa and Trump’s Prosper Africa initiatives.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a trillion dollar infrastructure development global initiative. In Africa, China has invested and provided billions of dollars in preferential loans for its economic development. Against China’s BRI, America’s DFC seems lightweight. Hence, to counter China’s influence and enable American companies to capture more opportunities in Africa, either Biden or Trump will have tWo do much more, since America is indeed far behind.

For sure, Biden and Trump have a very different vision for America in the future. While Trump wants to turn inwards and focus on America first, Biden wants America to build alliances and keep leading the world. Both approaches will impact the continent in many different ways. At the end of the day, Africa and African leaders are very pragmatic. While some African leaders like and embrace the ‘strong man’ image of Trump, others prefer to have a more predictable and stable relationship with America under Biden. Ultimately, Africa will adapt to either a Biden or Trump Presidency.

Author: Richard Li
Richard Li is a Partner with STEEL Advisory Partners, a management consulting firm that serves clients across industries. Having spent his working career in strategy consulting, he worked with various global clients and covers themes such as Corporate Strategy, Transformation, Digital Innovation and Risk Management. He is an avid observer of World Affairs and Emerging Markets, particularly the African continent.
Photo: Cape Town, South Africa. Author: Arthur Brognoli (Pexels.com)