What US election outcome means for East Africa

Saturday November 07 2020
Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and US President Donald Trump. Whoever wins the White House will impact the lives of East Africans and affect policies in the East African Community member states. PHOTOS | ANGELA WEISS and MANDEL NGAN | AFP


As The EastAfrican went to press on Friday night, the sun was setting on US President Donald Trump’s hopes of a second term in the oval office, as officials across the Great Lakes began taking stock of what a change of guard in Washington D.C. means for the region. 

After a stronger-than-expected showing on Election Day put President Trump on course for re-election, a flood of mail-in ballots in key states allowed Joseph R. Biden Jr. to reel in the incumbent.

Whoever wins the White House will impact the lives of East Africans and affect policies in the East African Community member states. First to be affected are East Africans living in the United States or wishing to travel there.

A win for President Trump could see an extension of restrictions on asylum seekers and tougher rules on visa applications, reducing the number of East Africans joining the U.S. diaspora, or the billions of dollars they remit back home every year. A Biden administration wouldn’t necessarily remove all the restrictions imposed by Trump, but it is unlikely to extend or tighten them.

Policymakers in East Africa will be closely watching for changes in trade, security and democracy. Earlier this year the United States and Kenya launched negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which are likely to continue regardless of the outcome of the White House race.

“We don’t want to lose this momentum with the FTA. It has this capacity to take this relationship between Kenya and the US from what has been previously been dominated by aid to trade,” said Kyle McCarter, U.S. ambassador to Kenya said in a media interview in Nairobi last week. “There are people who are looking at $16 billion of investment based on the FTA agreement. This is good for the country. I can’t predict what Biden will do.”


While Trump prefers bilateral negotiations in which the U.S. leverages its might to get better terms, a Biden administration might prefer a more multilateral approach, which could see the trade negotiations pivot back into the East African Community.

Like Obama before, the Trump administration maintained the Bush-era African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which allows duty- and quota-free exports from eligible countries into the U.S. But in 2018 Trump suspended Rwanda from Agoa in a dispute over the East African country’s ban on the import of second-hand clothes.

The suspension affected only about three per cent of Rwanda’s exports to the U.S., but it signalled a tougher negotiating stance from Washington that is likely to continue should he somehow bounce back into office. The EAC agreed to ban the import of second-hand clothes by 2019, although other countries are yet to follow Rwanda’s lead in implementing the decision.

Notably, a Biden administration is expected to promote “conflict mineral” regulations that President Trump suspended by executive order claiming they hurt the growth of industrial and tech companies.

The Dodd-Frank Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, requires all listed companies to report annually on whether they are using tin, tantalum and tantalite minerals from the DRC or its adjacent neighbours. The law aimed to prevent the illegal sale of minerals from the Great Lakes region, which fuel violence and exploitation.

Governments in the region will be watching for signals on shifts in Washington’s foreign policy towards the region. Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya have benefitted from military alliances with the U.S. Department of Defence in exchange for helping fight the Shabaab extremist group in Somalia.

Yet U.S. policy has been erratic under Trump. He recently called for a withdraw of U.S. troops from Somalia where they support the fight against the Shabaab but has also pulled off an unlikely rapprochement between Sudan and Israel, removing the former from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for paying reparations.

With American voters weary of unending wars abroad, none of the two candidates would be eager to deploy more troops although Biden would be less likely to arbitrarily close the Somalia mission as Trump has threatened to. U.S. policy on Somalia and terrorism in the region would probably continue to be shaped by the Pentagon, rather than the State Department, and largely maintain the status quo.

What remains unclear is whether a Biden administration would be more outspoken on democracy in the region.

After four dramatic years of the Make America Great Again era, many across East Africa and elsewhere would see Trump’s departure as the end of an error.