Donald Trump’s campaign for the US presidency contained few specific foreign policy suggestions; Africa was hardly mentioned at all. Since taking office in January, Trump has been heavily embroiled in political scandal, and has had difficulty achieving his major goals as rapidly as he had hoped. Africa has been mentioned very little in these first hundred plus days, yet what we can infer of Trump’s outlook on the Continent is not especially encouraging.
For a decade, Trump has been politically notorious for leading the “birthers,” who claimed that then-president Obama had been born in Kenya. This is significant in that, under US law, no one born outside the country can hold the office of president. But the birther campaign was also widely perceived as a racial attack on America’s first black president. Trump would ultimately repudiate his “birther” claims, but they were alive and well in 2013, when Obama toured several African nations. Trump used this opportunity to excoriate Africa as corrupt and backwards, earning him a rebuke from Ugandan millionaire Asish Thakkar, among others.
Shortly before Trump took office, his aides circulated a four-page memo of questions about Africa. The memo was skeptical of US aid and development programs: “Why should we spend these funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the US?” Critiques of aid programs are nothing new, but Trump’s campaign has gone further than most in describing foreign aid recipients as undeserving. The issue has political resonance in the US, where most citizens grossly overestimate the scale of their government’s foreign aid. The average estimate among US citizens is that 31% of their federal budget goes to foreign aid; in fact the figure is about 1%.
One of Trump’s earliest executive orders has also impacted many regions in Africa: the policy of halting funding for international groups who provide abortions or pro-choice information. These organizations also tend to provide contraception and counselling; with fewer resources available, some African women in need of contraception may not be able to access important services.
Since taking office, by far the most important action the Trump administration has taken with regards to Africa is the suspension of the US refugee program and the ‘Muslim travel ban.’ This suspension, which was intended to last for four months initially, has itself been halted, pending the outcome of a legal battle. Meanwhile, refugee entry to the US has declined dramatically. This has far-reaching implications for Africa; currently, roughly one in four refugees hails from sub-saharan Africa.
It is too soon to know who the winners and losers will be in Trump’s Africa policy. Most of his proposals are not yet in effect. All that is certain is that he has increased our uncertainty.