Tomorrow, Friday January 2017, Donald Trump will formally assume office as the 45th President of the United States. At 70, he will be the oldest person to be elected the President of the United States, beating the record set by Ronald Reagan who became President at 69. The billionaire businessman (worth $3.7bn according to Forbes) will also make history as the first person elected President of the USA with zero government or military experience.
But what will his presidency portend for Africa or Nigeria? True, Mr Trump said pretty awful things about Africans and about every other person who disagreed with his political options. But I think we need to come to terms with the reality of his election to the Presidency and the possibility that he may not turn out to be as bad as he was during the campaign period – and that even if he turns out to be as bad, there are still pretty good options available to us. And that is assuming that both the American and global institutions are unable to restrain him!
I have a number of grounds for this cautious optimism:
One, the late Mario Matthew Cuomo, the American Democratic politician who served as the 52nd Governor of New York State for three consecutive terms, famously said “you campaign in poetry. You govern in prose”. In essence, while you can get away with sound bites during campaigns, it will be a different ball game when it comes to actual governance. As President, Trump will need detailed explanation, costing and probably Congressional authorization to translate many of his sound bites into programmes and projects. In a democracy the wheels of governance turn rather slowly and cautiously so converting a sound bite into a government programme is unlikely to be smooth-selling, especially in a highly litigious country like the USA. I liken several of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric to what boxers would call ‘trash talks’ before a bout. The boxers will often boast of what they will do to each other in the ring – sometimes to psyche themselves up or intimidate their opponents or as a marketing gimmick.
Two, the legitimate angst in the country about Donald Trump’s presidency sometimes presupposes that a Hilary Clinton presidency would have been better for the continent. I am not sure about that. During the campaign, I was as much concerned about a Donald Trump presidency as I was about Clinton’s. For one, I see her as very hawkish. I am among those who believe that her obsession with regime in countries like Syria and Libya when she was Secretary of State helped to unleash forces that culminated in the emergence of the so-called Islamic State. The vacuum created through such regime changes (or efforts to do so in the case of Syria) also led to ready availability of weapons that helped to fuel insurgency in the Sahel region. In this sense, I do not believe that Clinton was good for Africa – just as there were legitimate concerns about Donald Trump’s outbursts
Three, American foreign policy- just like the foreign policy of most countries- could be interpreted using the Concentric Circles theory. Originally developed by sociologist Ernest Burgess in 1925 to explain urban social structures, Ibrahim Gambari, former Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs,helped to popularize its application in the analysis of Nigeria’s foreign policy. As applied to foreign policy, this theory tells us that every country has core national interests (innermost of the concentric circle) and peripheral interests (the outermost circle). America’s core foreign policy concerns have never really been Africa, explaining why most American Presidents visit Africa or formulate their Africa initiatives only at the twilight of their tenures. In this sense, it does not really matter who becomes America’s President because relations with Canada, Europe, South America and the Middle East will always be privileged over relations with Africa.
Four, our attitude to Donald Trump seems to be influenced by identity politics. Traditionally, the Democratic Party is regarded as a party of the Blacks – our ‘cousins’ in the USA while the Republican Party is supposedly dominated by racists. This means that most Africans and African Americans have intuitive angst about any Republican President and will instinctively root for a Democratic candidate – if there is no viable Black person in the race. This perhaps partly explains why, before the emergence of Obama, Bill Clinton was widely marketed as the ‘First Black’ President because he supposedly likes Blacks and his government had a number of African American-friendly policies. However, the underlying assumptions of identity politics quite often cannot withstand rigorous empirical interrogation. For instance, it took Bill Clinton, the first ‘Black President’ before Obama seven years after coming to power to formulate any major initiative on Africa – the African Growth Opportunity Act – which was signed into law in May 2000. Similarly it took our ‘brother’ Obama five good years after coming to office to formulate any major initiative on Africa – Power Africa, a five year initiative which he launched in Tanzania during his Africa tour in 2013. On the other hand, a Republican President, George W. Bush, formulated a major African initiative – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003 -only three years after coming to office. In terms of impact, while Bill Clinton’s AGOA certainly has helped some African countries like South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Kenya to export to America without paying custom duties, George Bush’s PEPFAR is regarded as the largest ever initiative in the world by one country to combat a disease. Before the initiative, people were dying in several African countries from HIV/AIDS like chickens because less than 50,000 people had access to life-saving anti-retroviral drugs. With PEPFAR, which guaranteed $15bn to be spent over five years, more than 7.7 million HIV positive people in poor countries became able to access life-saving drugs free of charge by 2014. PEPFAR also supported the testing and counselling of some 56.7 million HIV-infected people during the period. In July 2008, George W Bush renewed, revised and expanded the programme with a budget of $48bn through 2013.On the other hand, our ‘brother’ Obama’s Power Africa promised 30,000 megawatts of electricity for 60 million households (to be funded jointly by the African Development Bank, private sector partners, the United States and the governments of the affected countries) but delivered less than 400 megawatts by the end of 2016. In the same vein, his US-Africa Summit in 2014, which brought some 35 African Presidents and other leading Africans to Washington, turned out to be just another gesture politics that delivered little or nothing ‘on the ground’. In the USA, African Americans got more prominent positions in the cabinet of George W Bush than they did under either Clinton or Obama.
Five, even if Donald Trump chooses to rule the way he campaigned, it will not be a catastrophe for us. His provocative style means that he will be inaugurated as one of the most controversial presidents in American political history. He is already facing huge domestic pressures, including from lingering suspicions in some quarters that Russia might have influenced his election and angst that he was able to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Trump is also likely to have a major issue with China (which is the largest foreign holder of US debt) if he continues with his ‘two-China’ rhetoric. He is already having Cold War with Europe with his threat to review America’s involvement and funding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – an intergovernmental military alliance formed in 1949 with the primary aim of safeguarding the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.If Trump chooses to pursue isolationism as he indicated during the campaigns, European and other powers will retaliate and Africa may benefit from such – as it arguably did during the Cold War by playing one power against the other. Let us also not forget that even though the USA is the largest economy in the world, it is only Africa’s third largest trading partner behind China and the European Union. So, as we will say in Nigeria, ‘No shaking’, if Trump throws his worst at us.
The above is not to suggest that there are no legitimate concerns about Donald Trump’s presidency – especially given his caustic remarks about our country. The point is that in life sometimes real help comes from unexpected quarters.
Adapted from my presentation at a conference organized by the Centre for Democracy and Development on ‘Donald Trump Presidency and Nigeria’ held in Abuja, on January 17, 2017.