Doubt over Africa deals as ‘America first’ policy bites

US president’s approach poses threat to three aid and trade agreements, politicians warn.

Donald Trump’s “America first” pledge could threaten Washington’s three biggest health and trade initiatives in Africa, US and African experts and politicians warn.

Concern focuses on three bipartisan programmes, backed by successive presidents, designed to help African countries deal with health emergencies, develop stronger economies and deepen democratic institutions, Chester Crocker, a former US assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Reagan administration, says.

“If you’re transactional, you’re going to . . . say ‘what’s in it for us?’,” adds Mr Crocker, referring to the America first policy.

Washington’s focus on security means it could also allow concern about Islamist insurgencies in north-east Nigeria, the Sahel and Horn of Africa to eclipse longer-term nation building strategies, he adds.

The three programmes seen as most at risk from the Trump administration are considered the pillars of Washington’s Africa policy.

The first, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, enacted under former president Bill Clinton, provides non- reciprocal tariff-free access for African goods from countries deemed to be improving the rule of law and human rights. According to Mr Crocker, “there might be a reflex to revisit Agoa”, given that it allows African countries to access US markets without the US receiving anything obvious in return.

There are fears any move to refocus resources on Americans could threaten the anti-Aids programme introduced by the George W Bush administration. Formally known as the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, or Pepfar, it has provided billions of dollars for testing and treatment and is considered the biggest health programme mounted against a single disease.

The third pillar is Barack Obama’s $7bn Power Africa fund, launched in 2013 with the aim of doubling access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.

When it was announced, Mr Trump gave it anything but a ringing endorsement, tweeting: “Every penny of the $7bn going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen – corruption is rampant!” Its future could be jeopardised unless Mr Trump can be persuaded that it means contracts for US engineering and power companies, says Mr Crocker.

“The anxiety for us is that, if he carries through on his domestication policies, Africa could be adversely affected,” adds Mmusi Maimane, head of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance.

Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, also fears Mr Trump might revisit some programmes, including Agoa. But he says this would force the continent to stand on its own feet: “We should not allow things to fizzle out no matter what Trump does or doesn’t do.”

Witney Schneidman, deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa under Mr Clinton, is hopeful that Mr Trump can be persuaded that what is good for Africa is good for America.

Like Mr Trump, neither presidents Clinton nor Bush knew much about Africa before they took office, he says, but both became more engaged.

“The key question is how will Africa help America be great again? How does Africa fit into this?,” says Mr Schneidman, adding studies showed trade with the continent supported 120,000 US jobs. Even if Mr Trump remained unconvinced, he adds, “there is a legal architecture in place [underpinning the programmes] that’s been there for three administrations, which will not be easy to dismantle”.

Mr Trump’s early days in office are already sending ripples through the continent. His travel ban affects three African countries – Libya, Somalia and Sudan – prompting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, president of the African Union, to lash out at the US for once taking African slaves but now barring its refugees. Mr Trump’s election meant “very turbulent times” ahead, she says.

One of Mr Trump’s first acts was to reinstate a Reagan-era policy that bans overseas funding to any organisation that discusses abortion as a family planning option. As part of proposed cuts to UN contributions, he also threatened to sign an executive order curtailing funding to the United Nations Population Fund. This supports family planning in Africa, where fertility rates are high.

Some fear that Mr Trump’s inclination to question democratic processes, and his seeming tolerance for strongman leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, could undermine Washington’s moral authority. “African leaders may be less likely to look to American governance and human rights as something to be respected,” says Grant Harris, Mr Obama’s main adviser on Africa.

By David Pilling

Published on Feb 14,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 876]



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