USA / Africa: What will the Trump VS Biden clash really change?
Four more years of Trump will deepen Africa's climate crisis, and give succour to autocrats. What would a Biden presidency change?
US President Donald Trump’s unpredictable and cavalier political style delights his supporters. Diplomatic allies can find it less bracing and more abrasive.
Ethiopia and the US are close now, with Addis Ababa having gone as far as to allow the “embedding senior US government officials at key Ethiopian economic ministries and operations for a sustained period of time” in 2019, according to US Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor.
READ OUR DOSSIER US-AFRICA RELATIONS
So for Ethiopian Premier Abiy Ahmed, Donald Trump’s casual pronouncement that Egypt “will end up blowing up the [GERD] dam” must have been a bitter blow.
“The idea that the United States can successfully bully Ethiopia into a deal is ahistorical nonsense—a misreading of the stakes for Addis Ababa and an insult noted throughout the continent”, writes Michelle Gavin. “But worse, the president is apparently completely oblivious to the United States’ own interests.”
From diplomacy, to democratic engagement, through support for the international architecture, debt relief and the warming climate, there are clear demarcations between the two candidates to be America’s next president.
With regards to economic engagement with the continent however, expect continuity.
Hotter planet, cheaper oil
Trump’s government will pull out of the Paris Agreement on fighting climate change on 4 November, a day after the elections.
For much of Africa this is not a future concern, the climate crisis is happening today. The Horn is struggling with huge locust invasions, flooding regularly strikes Nigeria and other countries in West Africa, while the South of the continent is getting drier and drier.
The exit of the US from the Paris Agreement will remove $3bn of funding from programmes to fight the effects of a heating planet: but the real damage is to limit the incentives for other global players to follow through with reform.
With large fossil fuel companies the major donors to the Republican party, and given Trump’s packing of the US court system with climate sceptic judges, another four years would likely entrench this position.
A city that wanted to sue oil companies for sea-level rises could find its claim arrive at the Supreme Court, where newly-arrived justice Amy Coney Barret – who believes climate change to be ‘controversial’ – ensures a conservative majority.
A Joe Biden administration would be jeopardy of another kind: for the continent’s oil producers.
Large public spending on renewable energy – as promised under the Green New Deal, a centrepiece of Democrat policy proposals – would accelerate the downward trend in solar prices. As would the removal of current subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
That would precipitate a fall in the price of oil and possibly gas, leading to the phenomena of widespread ‘stranded assets‘: oil deposits whose removal is not financially justified.
Blocking Africa’s global leaders
Under Trump, the institutions of the ‘globalists’ – a loosely-defined grouping of people who see benefit in political organisation beyond national boundaries on issues like trade, health, security and climate – have been under attack.
He took aim at the European Union for example: calling it an economic ‘enemy’.
But there is also a pattern of opposition to African leaders of international institutions.
The leaders of the African Development Bank (AfDB), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Criminal Court (ICC), and future leader of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have all found themselves the target of US pushback.
- Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom at the WHO has been criticised by Trump (incorrectly) for doing China’s bidding over the coronavirus.
- Nigeria’s Akinwumi Adesina found his re-election as president of the AfDB blocked by the US – with US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin signing a letter rejecting an internal investigation that cleared Adesina.
- The Gambian chief prosecutor of the ICC Fatou Bensouda found herself the target of US travel sanctions in September.
- Finally, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment to lead the WTO has been held up by the US.
It is not a foregone conclusion that a Biden administration would reverse this hostility. But it is probable.
Biden has already said he will reverse the US decision to exit the WHO.
Debt negotiation table
Biden may also be able to push a different agenda at the World Bank, currently run by David Malpass, former chief economist at Bear Stearns, the failed US bank.
Malpass famously told everyone ‘don’t panic’ about the subprime crisis in 2007 that destroyed his bank.
He also testified in Congress that the IMF and World Bank were corrupt and wasted public money, before taking a job with them.
Since then, he speaks with new zeal about the dangers of debt, lecturing the AfDB on its debt sustainability framework, saying it ‘lends too quickly’.
Speed, however, can be important. The World Bank has been accused of dragging its feet on distributing much needed COVID-19 related aid, reports the US Centre For Global Development.
“The next administration, regardless of who wins, needs to urgently address the debt crisis,” says Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. “The United States has been quick to blame Beijing for the region’s woes, but Washington could be more insistent on longer debt moratoriums and generous bailouts, as well as flexible on Special Drawing Rights at the IMF.”
My kind of autocrat
Autocratic regimes have been encouraged by the Trump administration – from Hungary’s Viktor Orban, to India’s Narendra Modi, to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
The same has happened across Africa. Trump has backed Egypt’s President El-Sisi, calling him ‘my favourite dictator’ at a G7 meeting.
When soldiers fired into an unarmed crowd in Lagos, there was international outcry. From the US, a more muted response.
For Matthew Page, a former US intelligence officer focused on Nigeria now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Biden administration would create clear disincentives to repression.
Page believes the tepid response by the US on the Lekki shooting is deliberate: “I am sure the Embassy or the Africa Bureau drafted a statement—even if it was quite anodyne—that was not released. That would be standard procedure in response to events like this.
“That is not to say that a Biden administration would see Nigeria as a pariah state, but that it would see soldiers killing peaceful protesters as utterly unacceptable and likely would take tangible diplomatic and policy actions to make that clear”, says Page.
Prosper, Africa, but ignore Beijing?
For some former US officials, Trump’s Africa policy is not as bad as it looks.
Former Nigerian Ambassador John Campbell for example, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, says: “His administration has carried on many of the constructive policies of its predecessors. This continuity is largely due to bipartisanship in Congress and the appointment of capable officials.”
The bipartisan Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act wants to help US companies do business in Africa.
The restart of the US Eximbank, and the launch of a new Development Finance Corporation with twice the budget of the institution it replaced can also be seen as net positive.
Some are concerned that the clearly stated anti-China agenda of both institutions will run into difficulties if they provoke a new cold war on the continent.
Others are more sanguine; instead, greater competition from the big powers is an opportunity for geopolitical arbitrage.
Given the bipartisan mood in Washington around China, a Biden presidency would mean smooth US-China relations. But it could stave off future fears around things like the ‘splinternet’, where the world would divide along technology adoption lines, with 5G first in line.