Biden should build on Trump’s shaky initiatives in Africa

Trump's commercial push into the continent is a good starting point for Biden, analysts say.


Image : Jewel SAMAD/AFP

Joe Biden should build on the shaky foundations laid by four years of Trump administration Africa policy as the continent transitions towards a Continental Free Trade Area, analysts say.

While Trump’s African legacy is decidedly mixed – he did not visit the continent, insulted many Africans with offensive comments in 2018, and attempted to impose travel bans on some Muslim-majority African countries – his administration also attempted to boost commercial ties to counter China’s influence in the region.

Trump’s Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act of 2018 (BUILD Act), his 2018 Prosper Africa commercial initiative and his continued support for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) first introduced by President Bill Clinton, offer a solid starting point for the Biden administration, analysts say.

BUILD converted the former Overseas Private Investment Corporation into the US Development Finance Corporation, doubling its budget to $60bn in the process and setting a higher ceiling for US government private sector infrastructure projects in developing countries, according to analysis from the Institute of Security Studies, a South African thinktank.

While Trump was known for his contempt for multilateral trade agreements, he persisted with AGOA – a popular scheme that provides African manufacturers with tariff-free access to the American market. Prosper Africa, launched in December 2018, coordinates over 15 US government agencies to better connect US and African businesses with buyers, suppliers, and investment opportunities.

While such policies lay the groundwork for unlocking greater US private sector investment on the continent, they lacked the technical backing to be effective, says Ronak Gopaldas, director at risk advisory firm Signal Risk.

“From a commercial point of view the incoming administration should look to build on a lot of Trump’s initiatives. He [Biden] could build on these and give them the strategic direction and resources they need. A lot of these policies had the right idea – they just weren’t executed to full potential.”

Building on AfCFTA

A Biden administration committed to multilateralism could also play a more supportive role as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) takes shape, Gopaldas says.

“Whereas the US was quite isolationist before, a more global and outward looking US could definitely be to the benefit of the African continent especially as it [Africa] navigates its first recession in 25 years. The US throwing its weight behind the AfCFTA would be a welcome move, especially if this initiative starts to stimulate regional trade and stronger regional blocs, creating less dependency on external powers for assistance

Biden’s pick for Secretary of State will play a key role in determining the shape of foreign policy, Gopaldas says. With veteran Susan Rice – who served as ambassador to the United Nations and national security advisor under the Obama administration – tipped for the role, some commentators see a reversion to more orthodox US-Africa diplomacy. Obama visited seven African countries during four visits to the continent – more than any other president.

An end to contentious travel bans, Washington’s return to the Paris climate accords, and renewed support for the World Health Organisation would all endear Biden to the continent, analysts say. Washington could also reverse its resistance to the election of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the first African director-general of the World Trade Organisation.

While African leaders rushed to congratulate Biden on his victory – including Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa – others may miss Trump’s maverick tendencies.

“A lot of Trump’s policies resonated with African leaders, particularly those who had autocratic and protectionist tendencies,” says Gopaldas pointing to strong chemistry between Trump and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Abdel Fatteh el Sisi of Egypt. “However these sentiments were not shared by the broader citizenry.”

While African countries look forward to the new era, others believe little will change. A Biden presidency could mean little more than a change of tone, says Virág Fórizs, Africa economist at Capital Economics – and limited cheer for African oil exporters.

“The outcome of a divided Congress, which reduces the chances of a sweeping shift towards green policies that would have dampened US oil demand, will probably be welcomed by African oil producers such as Nigeria and Angola.”

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