After November: Can US-Africa Ties Be Rebuilt?

Donald Trump has shown little interest in the continent.

Nairobi Kenya
Nairobi, Kenya at night, July 29 (Unsplash.
Mustafa Omar)

Donald Trump has never been to Africa. At least not as president. Not for six decades, since John F. Kennedy, has an American president even met with fewer African leaders than Trump. During JFK’s time, of course, most African states were still colonial territories. His attitude toward the continent appears to be mired in either indifference or outright hostility, as his “shithole countries” comment and repeated (but unsuccessful) efforts to cut foreign aid demonstrate.

The feeling is mutual. As with the rest of the world, Africa’s view of the United States has declined under Trump’s leadership.

Yet, as more astute observers than the president recognize, this is exactly the moment to care about Africa. According to the UN, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only global region expected to sustain rapid population growth over the course of this century. By 2050, Nigeria will overtake the US as the third most populous country in the world.

The spillover effects of recent crises — such as piracy in the Gulf of Aden or the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean — demonstrate that Africa is an important geopolitical theater with growing clout. America’s rivals, particularly China and increasingly Russia, recognize this and have seized the initiative, exposing US policy as shallow and out of touch.

With the prospect of a new administration on the horizon, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) conducted a series of debates with expert contributors from both the US and Africa. The key critiques and recommendations are summarized in a proposed New US Policy Framework for the African Century.

The framework is built on three key pillars: real partnerships, new partners and revitalizing public diplomacy. The key elements of these pillars are presented below.

Real partnerships

The report argues that US policymakers do not give Africa the same careful strategic consideration as other conglomerated regions around the world, such as Latin America and the Middle East. The US needs to take its relationships on the continent more seriously.

That begins with undoing Henry Kissinger’s 1974 division of the continent into two separately imagined subregions — North and Sub-Saharan — and approaching Africa as a united whole. By standardizing the scope of African affairs across all its foreign policy organisms, from the State Department to USAID, the Pentagon and beyond, the US could consolidate the actual number of policymakers and potentially achieve greater focus in its policymaking.

Indeed, more voices rarely add greater clarity to a discussion.

With a reimagined African continent, the US president and his top officials should engage more directly to influence policy outcomes. Instead of waiting at the finish line to shake the hands of pliant leaders, the president should be more of an active “problem solver” on the continent. This engagement should be supported with more meaningful policy tools — “real carrots and sticks” — to sway these outcomes.

New partners

Africa’s transformation will require a new paradigm of relationships — both within the continent and externally — to help the US achieve its strategic aims.

According to the UN, by 2050, Africa will be home to fourteen megacities spread right across the continent: including in Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa. These cities will be engines of economic growth and centers of political power which the US should leverage to diversify its existing partnerships and increase economic ties.

And with the growing global trend of regionalism, the US needs to boost its engagement with Africa’s plethora of regional bodies, including SADC, COMESA, ECOWAS and ECCAS. This could include deploying personnel to work with these institutions and providing financial assistance.

In terms of external partners, the US should look beyond France and the UK when engaging international partners to help fulfill its aims on the continent. And at home, US companies require more hand-holding and strategic direction to increase foreign direct investment into Africa, particularly in the agribusiness, energy, entertainment, finance, services and technology sectors.


African popular culture is vibrant, politically engaged and growing in global influence. From the Afrocentric iconography of international blockbusters like Black Panther and The Lion King to the Afrobeat superstars topping charts around the world.

Yet the US persists with old-school communication strategies and public diplomacy initiatives, like the “Jazz Ambassadors” program first established in the 1950s, when Louis Armstrong was sent on a tour through the continent.

Now, as then, the US needs to leverage its most popular African American stars to rebuild its positive image on the continent.

However, that also requires an honest dialogue about American society’s persistent challenge with racism. These issues matter to Africans and the US needs to do more to understand and influence these sentiments through programs like the Young African Leaders Initiative, established by President Barack Obama in 2010.


CSIS’ framework presents an optimistic and progressive agenda for future US-Africa relations. An agenda which, frankly, seems unobtainable with the ideology and tendencies of the current administration. Trump has never demonstrated the intellectual sophistication to suggest he might grasp Africa’s growing strategic importance and involve himself more directly in its affairs, as he does with China, for example.

The administration’s open disavowal of multilateralism suggests that it would be unlikely to build new coalitions to address the challenges facing Africa.

Furthermore, its antagonistic relationship with its own (predominantly Democrat-controlled) megacities, and the steady hollowing out of State Department capacity, provide little hope for innovative approaches to engagement on the continent. Never mind Trump’s unprecedented racial divisiveness.

The prospect of a Joe Biden presidency looms ever more likely and with greater promise for a revitalized American foreign policy.

Yet it would be naive to imagine that Africa would be among his priorities. The relationship with China requires a serious strategic reset; America will need to reingratiate itself with multilateral platforms, such as NATO and the Paris agreement; and Russian interference in the Middle East and Europe will persist.

However, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Susan Rice as a potential secretary of state, the Biden Administration would be well-placed to rebuild goodwill and engage its most senior representatives with African affairs.

Similarly, high-profile African Americans would likely be more inclined to represent their country under Biden’s leadership.

The US presidential election is never a parochial affair. Africa’s leaders, like those around the world, will be watching closely in November.

This story originally appeared in New Africa Daily, August 20, 2020.