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Stakes are high for Africa in US presidential election

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Monday, 26 October 2020 15:25

Election 2020 Trump
President Donald Trump acknowledges supporters as he leaves a campaign rally at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Londonderry, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)010251955

In a week’s time, Americans will see their votes counted in an election seen universally as the most consequential for half a century. Consequential for the direction and stability of the country for decades, and for the international system it has dominated.

The collision between authoritarian populism and a global public health emergency has unleashed the direst predictions about the United States. A crop of dramatic political tomes such as Frank Buckley’s American Succession: the looming threat of a national breakup are flying off the shelves.

Given the US’s political and economic reach, even with China coming up fast on the inside, everyone has a reason to watch the political ructions in Washington DC, and in the 50 states.

Africa has not figured in any of the presidential and vice-presidential debates,

The futures of the myriad UN agencies, the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the international financial institutions, the IMF and World Bank – which are meant to be steering economies out of pandemic-induced recessions –  are all in play.

READ MORE Coronavirus: ‘People’s vaccine’ campaigners claim victory at WHO summit

Then there is the US stance on climate change, its withdrawal from the Paris treaty.

Africa has not figured in any of the presidential and vice-presidential debates, or in much of the campaigning. Yet it has a serious stake in the outcome as shown by a clutch of Trump administration actions in the last few months.

Fight over the Nile

The most egregious is President Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ethiopia into accepting a deal with Egypt in the long running dispute over a hydro-power dam on the Nile.

Earlier this year, talks in Washington DC were brokered by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, on instructions from Trump, in a move designed to show that the White House could handle international diplomacy. On this occasion it couldn’t.

Affronted by what they saw as an ultimatum from Mnuchin to sign a lop-sided agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the team sent by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed withdrew from the talks.

Last month, the Trump administration suspended US aid to Ethiopia, attempting to ratchet up the pressure. Hell hath no fury like a President seeking re-election and diplomatic validation.

READ MORE US decision to halt aid to Ethiopia over GERD risks complicating talks

For comparison:

  • US aid to Ethiopia (110 million people) is around $800m a year.
  • US aid to Egypt (103 million people) is over $1.7bn.
  • US direct aid to Israel (8.6 million people) is over $3bn a year.

Yet the aid ploy failed. The African Union with its chairman Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to mediate a tripartite agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, on the pace at which the dam could be filled. Insiders say there has been progress on the technical issues but matters of geo-politics and national pride in Cairo and Addis Ababa have complicated the latest round of talks.

On 23 October, Trump threw a spanner in the works at a press conference in Washington DC when asked about an agreement on the dam: “[…] it’s a dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way and they’ll end up blowing up the dam.”

Radio silence from Cairo, whose President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was once described by Trump as his ‘favourite dictator’. But Abiy shot back from Addis Ababa: “Ethiopia will not cave into aggression of any kind…[it] may be confronted by poverty but [we] are rich with history, patriotic citizens whose commitment to defend their citizens is unparalleled.”

READ MORE Egyptian farmers living in the shadow of Ethiopia’s dam

Unthinkable as an Egyptian-Ethiopian conflict over the dam may seem, Trump’s nonchalant remarks might be taken as a licence for destabilisation by Cairo’s security operatives. In two countries with big armies and regimes facing well-armed opponents at home, the potential for miscalculation is vast.

Shoving Sudan to recognise Israel

Just as problematic have been the Trump administration’s negotiations with Sudan over its removal from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Before that could happen, Washington insisted that the Sudan government would have to pay $335 mn in compensation to US victims of terrorist attacks aided and abetted by the ousted Islamist regime of Omer al-Bashir.

As long as Sudan stays on the state sponsors of terror list, it would be barred from getting credits from the IMF and World Bank, or indeed any commercial loans denominated in US dollars. Sudan’s economy, with inflation over 200% last month and national income set to shrink by 7% this year, is in a parlous state.

READ MORE Can Trump be trusted to remove Sudan from its terror list?

And the government in Khartoum, which came to power on a wave of revolutionary fervour last year, is an uneasy coalition of progressive reformers under Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok and old regime generals and warlords under General Abdul-Fatteh Burhan.

Against all the odds and a splintered, corrupt security system, Hamdok is pushing through some bold reforms in what he hopes will be the country’s three-year transition to free elections after three decades of dictatorship. Then Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, threw another condition into the deal. Sudan would also have to normalise relations with Israel, in the wake of similar moves by United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Hamdok, knowing the mass opposition to such a move in Sudan and solidarity with the Palestinian cause said the issue would have to be decided by an elected government at the end of the transition.

Pompeo cranked up the pressure with the help of Saudi Arabia, offering a grandiose aid deal to Khartoum and cutting deals with Sudan’s generals. Although the Saudi monarchy wouldn’t risk a bilateral normalisation with Israel, it has been working ever more closely with Benyamin Netanyahu’s government, as it tries to undermine Iran’s influence in the region.

With their eyes on local politics, Sudan’s civilian leaders don’t want to join that power game. But Pompeo and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman appear to have forced Khartoum’s hand.

No one knows where Khartoum will get the $335mn to pay Washington to get off the terror list. Many suspect it will come from Saudi Arabia’s coffers.

Two putative beneficiaries from the Sudan-Israel deal are Trump who wants to show results from his administration’s much derided Middle East peace plan ahead of the election, and Netanyahu who is facing trial on corruption charges.

Sudan’s generals are the other beneficiary. Burhan, who chairs the transitional government’s Sovereignty Council for another six months before handing over to a civilian leader, is looking for a pretext to extend his stay in power.

READ MORE Sudan’s transition overlord Hemeti still wreaking havoc in Darfur

Dealing with the fall-out from mass protests against the recognition of Israel could fit the bill. Burhan’s meeting with Netanyahu in Uganda in February, lambasted by everyone in Khartoum from hardline Islamists to communists to nationalists, was a continuation of the dialogue with Israel already started by Omar al-Bashir (self-styled scourge of Zionism) at the urging of Saudi Arabia.

None of that will stop Bashir’s supporters and other armed factions mobilising against Hamdok and his civilian ministers whom they blame for the treacherous deal with Netanyahu and betrayal of the Palestinians.

The Pompeo- Netanyahu-Mohammed Bin Salman intervention will undermine Sudan’s democratic politicians. Instead, it will boost Sudan’s generals and their control over the notoriously corrupt and oppressive military industrial state.

Pompeo’s selective prescriptions

That sits uneasily with Secretary Pompeo’s declared policy aims in Africa, set out on 8 October: “The United States is committed to supporting free, fair, inclusive elections. The conduct of elections is important not only for Africans, but also defenders of democracy around the world. Repression and intimidation have no place in democracies….”

And he followed up with a warning: “[…] We will watch closely the actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider consequences – including visa restrictions – for those responsible for election-related violence.”

Already a clutch of Nigerian politicians involved in elections in Edo and Ondo state have been sanctioned by the US. But what about regimes lambasted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for repressing and intimidating the opposition: for example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Not only do international human rights activists accuse Washington of selective indignation towards offending regimes, they point to a growing list of anti-democratic practices by the Trump administration and its supporters at home.

After a vigorous internal debate, the Brussels-based Crisis Group, whose job it is to sound the alarm on incipient conflicts around the world, is assessing the risks of electoral violence in the US.

READ MORE George Floyd: ‘It’s time to end racism in the US police’

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, the Crisis Group stated: “Since assuming office in 2017, Trump has made much of his desire to pull the US back from overseas wars.  He should take great pains not to act like he wants one at home.”

Global think tank assesses risk of US election violence

In deciding to focus on the risk of election violence in the US, Crisis Group President Robert Malley asked his colleagues to look at the traditional warning signs such as:

  • High-stakes elections seen as an existential choice
  • Deeply polarised electorate
  • Hate speech and disinformation relayed across social media
  • Ethno-sectarian and racial tensions
  • Both sides are convinced they will win the election unless the other cheats
  • Electoral institutions distrusted by one or both sides
  • Potential for narrow margins of victory and contested outcomes
  • Proliferation of weapons, armed non-state actors and militias
  • A political leadership that fuels divisions

Looking through that checklist, Malley’s colleagues found the case clear enough. “We would never predict civil war but isolated incidents of violence could be quite serious,” he told The New York Times.

He was referring to the far-right militias seen in states such as Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin. Last month analysts at the Department of Homeland Security warned of further plots against liberal politicians after the FBI thwarted plans a militia group to kidnap the Democratic governors of Michigan and Virginia.

Some of these heavily-armed militias, the Boogaloo Movement and the Proud Boys, say they will police the voting at the coming elections, to stop what they see as illegitimate electors casting ballots. At a rally, President Trump’s son Donald Trump Junior, urged on these armed groups: “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join the Army for Trump’s election. . . we need you to help us watch them.

Eric Bjornlund, President of Democracy International and an election monitor in 22 countries, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine: “Much like political competitors in undemocratic countries, President Trump has aggressively questioned the credibility of the election process. During the 29 September presidential debate, he claimed, without evidence, that there is ‘…going to be fraud like you’ve never seen before.’”

Such attacks, argues Bjornlund, are the “kind of problems that trigger international concern. They hurt public confidence in the election process and threaten to undermine the very legitimacy of the United States’ democracy.”

Stark choices for the US unless it reforms governance

Bjornlund’s warning is a message not just to Americans fighting for liberty and equality at home but for their counterparts in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Campaigners against police brutality in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, France and Britain have joined with supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, sharing tactics, raising resources and communing over social media.

READ MORE Nigeria’s bad governance is to blame for SARS police brutality

Some constitutional scholars in the US harbour deep forebodings about the outcome of next week’s elections, whichever side wins and if there is no far-reaching reform of governance.

Sanford Levinson at the University of Texas, quoted at length by Edward Luce in the Financial Times suggests the disjuncture between the US’s changing demographics and the dominance of old white men running its political and judicial system could lead to cataclysm. He describes the US Senate as: “An affirmative action programme for white, rural, Christian conservatives who have an increasingly powerful veto over America.”

Levinson’s forecasts range from secession by liberal, progressive states such as California (itself the 5th biggest economy in the world), civil war or a slow painful descent into political and economic dysfunction, the sick man of the West.

For friends or foes of the US, it could not get more consequential than that.

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