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Why Africa gives a thumbs up to Donald Trump’s America

François Soudan
By François Soudan
Editor-in-chief, Jeune Afrique

François Soudan is Editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique

Posted on Friday, 7 June 2019 14:21, updated on Sunday, 9 June 2019 19:39

Despite putting Africa at the bottom of his foreign policy priorities, US President Donald Trump remains widely popular on the continent

Every year, a leader of public opinion polls, Gallup Poll asks the world to judge America’s foreign policy. In 135 countries, they ask, “Do you agree or disagree with the way the United States is exercising its leadership?” Most reacted poorly to US President Donald Trump taking over the 76 square metre Oval Office.

The global approval rating for US foreign policy stands at 31% — 3% points below China, and on a par with Russia. This has never happened before. Much of Europe, Asia and Latin America also rejects the Trump administration. In Venezuela, repeated hints at US military intervention have further tarnished Washington’s reputation.

Falling image across Middle East

It’s clear Trump doesn’t care about his image around the world. The Middle East mostly rejects America’s leadership, with the exception of Israel, of course. His doctrine, “America First”, seduces US voters. Trump’s not trying to make friends with foreigners.

The erosion to US soft power – building goodwill through economic or cultural influence –  is the least of his worries. He sees soft power as a hangover of Obama and Clinton administrations – a fad to be put on the shelf. Hard power is what matters in Trump’s America.

Trump’s positive rating in Africa

There is one continent where Trump’s image is unscathed – Africa. Not all of Africa, of course. In the Maghreb, from Rabat to Tripoli and Cairo, the Trump administration’s popularity indices are at their lowest. Only 16% of Moroccans and Tunisians see value in Trump’s foreign policies. Overall, with an approval rate of 52%, Africa has a positive image of Trump’s America.

  • This is particularly clear in countries like Togo, Guinea, Niger, Ghana, Congo-Brazzaville and Benin – where approval ratings exceed 60%. Across sub-Saharan Africa, Trump’s supporters outnumber the critics.

The results of the Gallup poll expose a paradox: Trump’s biggest approval comes from countries he once described as “shitholes”.

Explaining the phenomenon

Since a billion-plus Africans are neither amnesiacs nor masochists, why does Trump enjoy support in Africa?

There are certainly specific reasons:

  • Many Africans still believe in American dream compared to their counterparts in Europe. With or without Trump, this facet of American soft power is resilient.
  • Trump has never set foot on the African continent. He also shows no desire to visit anytime soon. What he knows about the continent probably from his wife, Melania’s Out-of-Africa selfies, wearing a colonial helmet and crocodile-skin stilettos.

But, Trump’s profound lack of interest is a blessing for American diplomats stationed on the continent, who are far from Republican voters. It gives them the freedom to speak and act in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and elsewhere, based on the classic State Department roadmap, regardless of the administration in charge.

Room to manoeuvre for American diplomats

From supporting human rights to civil society organisations and their opponents, American ambassadors in Yaoundé, Kinshasa, Nairobi or Algiers enjoy a margin of freedom unheard of in Trump’s administration, far greater than that enjoyed by their European counterparts, especially in France. This has a lasting effect on Africans’ opinion of the United States.

  • France would probably come out far worse than America in French-speaking Africa. At the request of France’s Foreign Ministry, the Quai d’Orsay, in 2017, a discreet survey on the former colonial power’s popularity rating within its former territory was never made public. A reliable source tells me the results were “worrying”.

Finally, there is one last possible explanation for this paradox. And it’s worrying. Perhaps, many Africans believe Donald Trump is right – Africa is a “shithole”. This might explain why young Africans long for the American dream. You don’t leave a country that offers you a future. Our leaders would do well to think about it.

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