On September 20, US President Donald Trump hosted African leaders to a working lunch on the sidelines of the 72nd UN General Assembly in New York. In attendance were leaders from Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Namibia, Senegal, Uganda, South Africa and the head of the African Union.
The meeting came at a time that relations between Africa and the US have been punctuated by the “America First” policy under the Trump administration.
During his presidential campaign, Trump did not give any hints about his policy priorities on Africa. While he focused heavily on US relations with Russia and China and the ever-growing threat of ISIL, the few comments on Africa were often seen as condescending.
Since Trump took office on January 20, he has nominated only a handful of envoys to African countries despite having recalled all Obama-era envoys before he was inaugurated.
Further, he is yet to nominate and appoint a new assistant secretary of state for Africa while the senior director for African Affairs on the National Security Council staff was denied security clearance. All these are positions that are critical for enhancing cordial and strong ties with many countries on the continent.
Similarly, the travel ban currently in force has capped the number of refugees from Africa entering the US at 50,000. Church World Service, which is contracted by the State Department to run the only resettlement support centre in sub-Saharan Africa, notes that its refugee resettlement operations in Africa have virtually ground to a halt.
While the intention of the luncheon was to assuage the growing fears of US isolationism by buttressing hopes of greater FDI flows between the US and Africa, the meeting is being interpreted as nothing more than an attempt to lull African countries into a false sense of economic security by the Trump administration.
Since the inauguration, where Trump outlined how America has been bedevilled by “the ravages” of economic dislocation and foreign exploitation, he vowed to shatter the established order of liberal capitalism that has robbed America of its greatness.
“This American carnage,” he declared “stops right here and stops right now.”
Part of his strategy of draining the American swamp of economic exploitation entails diluting many multilateral agreements with Africa and the rest of the world.
These agreements include the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has been a critical programme for US-African relations since the era of Bill Clinton. It aimed at improving trade relations between Africa and the US by allowing eligible African countries to export to the US market on preferential terms.
But with President Trump’s executive decision to abrogate the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the stroke of a pen on January 23, it is the bellwether of change with regards to deals like Agoa.
For one, few countries have benefited from Agoa. According to Kenya’s Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohammed, the problem with Agoa lies in its many structural uncertainties and limitations.
Agoa has not created any new markets in the US for African food markets. On the contrary, entering the US agricultural market under this agreement is an arduous process thanks to stringent quality control standards in the US.
Moreover, the US is determined to protect its farmers through subsidies. These reasons coupled with Trump’s predilection for bilateral trade agreements casts a dark shadow on its future.
Other affected programmes are the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, Power Africa and the Young Africans Leadership Initiative.
It was evident from his campaign commentaries that bilateral agreements will take precedence over multilateral ones. Many American firms will find it difficult to benefit from the increasing integration of African markets as the continent moves to create the Continental Africa Free Trade Area in the coming years, if the Trump administration continues on the current policy trajectory under the America First agenda.
As such, there is the growing realisation in US and Africa economic forums that he will endeavour to renegotiate these and other US foreign trade deals.
The America First budget blueprint proposed cuts to the State Department and USAid budgets by close to 30 per cent. While doing this, it aims to eliminate several executive agencies, including the US African Development Foundation, which funds grassroots development projects in 30 African countries such as South Sudan where conflict, disease and famine are rampant.
The cuts are supposed to partially offset a $54 billion increase in defence spending.
Beyond this, it also aims to reduce funding for the UN and affiliated agencies.
The ramifications of these austerity measures or economic recidivism will affect African countries greatly. Africa gets more US foreign aid than any other continent, the largest share of US global health and disaster relief spending, and it hosts nine out of the world’s 16 UN peacekeeping operations — and four out of the five most expensive ones.
USAid and the State Department collectively spent more than $8 billion on foreign assistance to sub-Saharan Africa countries in 2015 of which more than $1.13 billion went to disaster relief and $717 million on Ebola response and hundreds of millions towards feeding and securing people in conflict zones like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and northern Mali.
Another area likely to endure further budget cuts are Blue Helmet operations which are not in zones suffering from the scourge of violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIL or Al Shabaab.
This thematic area is not as important as counterterrorism missions that are close to the heart of the Trump administration. The focus of his foreign policy is on defeating the Islamic State and rebuilding the US military. In light of this, the budget blueprint proposal is to cap American funding at 25 per cent of the peacekeeping budget.
In 2016, the US funded these operations to the tune of $7.9 billion but this year their contributions were barely 30 per cent. As it stands, the UN general Assembly voted in June, to decrease the overall peacekeeping budget by $600 million. The US had aimed for a $1 billion reduction.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, indicated that her office will undertake a mission-by-mission review of all UN peacekeeping missions particularly in Africa.
For example, the UN mission in Congo, at $1.2 billion, is the largest and most expensive such operation despite not dealing with any terrorist-linked insurgency. It also had the highest number of human rights abuse cases by peacekeepers in 2016. As such, it will be among the first to come up for review by Haley’s office.
Although the America First budget blueprint is unlikely to pass without amendments, it already portends the new foreign policy direction in US engagement with Africa and the rest of the world.
The measures under an America First policy come at a time Africa is being ravaged by an inordinate number of humanitarian and security crises.
Prof Peter Kagwanja is the chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute, and visiting scholar at the University of Nairobi. Anthony Kinyanjui is a research fellow at the Africa Policy Institute.