Trump’s Plan for Africa is #MAGA on Steroids

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on December 26, 2017

About two weeks ago Trump released his national security strategy where, for the first time it seems, Africa was directly addressed. Trump made two intentions clear in the strategy in terms of his economic focus for Africa: the first is that he recognises Africa’s potential as a market for American goods and as a means of building wealth for Americans. Second, he wants a clearer shift from aid to economic partnership. What is not clear is how Africa will benefit from the plan beyond his support for economic integration and an improved business environment (both of which are already priorities for most African governments). His plan puts the USA’s interests first, as per Make America Great Again (MAGA), but it fails to articulate how expanded economic cooperation with the USA will benefit African nations and citizens. In short, Trump’s economic plan for Africa is MAGA on steroids. His obsessive focus with ‘America First’ will clearly extend beyond the borders of the USA, and Africa is a mere player in the larger plan to re-establish the global economic dominance of the USA. Whether Africa will benefit seems to be of little consequence.

President Donald Trump speaks on national security, Dec. 18, 2017, in Washington.


Another element that is clear in his plan is that he wants to kick China out of Africa and take back dominance on the continent; his distaste with China is clear. Through the plan, Trump seeks to make the USA an alternative to ‘China’s often extractive economic footprint on the continent’. What is not clear is how kicking out Chinese interests and replacing them with those of the USA will be of use to Africa. Will investments from the USA be more generous and attractive than China’s? Will goods from the USA be more competitive than those from China? Will investments from the USA create more jobs for Africans than is the case with China’s? Will credit lines from the USA be more affordable than what China offers? There are no answers to these basics question in the strategy.  Instead what we get is the argument that the USA is inherently better for Africa than China- just because.

As can be expected, the plan is already being criticised. China and Russia take issue with being labelled as competitors that challenge American interests. The language of ‘us versus them’, particularly with regards to China comes out clearly. A pessimist looking through Trump’s strategy would argue that he’s setting up for a proxy war with China over Africa.

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However, the most puzzling feature of the strategy, in terms of the economic focus on Africa, is the language. Aren’t we taught in Strategy 101 that one ought not announce plans for dominance as ‘plans for dominance’? One ought to use amicable language that highlights the benefits of mutual cooperation and economic partnership—which is what China does. Strategic language underplays true intentions of dominance and instead uses language that will put everyone at ease and welcome the player onto the field. However, rather than discretion, Trumps language boldly announces his plans to make the USA boss of Africa again and thus, transparently, makes his strategic objectives obvious to all.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


How Africa can leverage growing insularity in Europe and the USA

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 19, 2017

 It had been brewing for years, but was fully exposed last year when Brexit happened. It was bolstered by Donald Trump being elected as the President of the United States, growing popularity of Le Pen in France and now Geert Wilders, the Dutch right-wing politician who wanted to be Holland’s next Prime Minister. While celebrating Trump’s victory, Sarah Palin termed it a movement. What is it? The growing popularity of a specific strain of right wing politics in Europe and the United States.

Sitting in Africa there seem to be common threads that run through this ‘movement’; it’s anti-Islam and selectively anti-immigration with a specific strain of aggressive (white) nationalism. It also comes across as racist, self-involved and insular. Europe and the United States have grown weary of taking care of the world, the rhetoric argues, having sacrificed the welfare of ‘real’ Americans and Europeans at the altar of immigration, laissez faire economics (the Chinese are taking over!) and generous aid packages to under-developed (and corrupt) continents such as Africa.

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Naturally right wing populism is making some in African capitals jittery. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) heavily rely on Europe and North American organisations for financing, which, they argue, allows them to engage in activities that alleviate poverty, protect the vulnerable, and fight for human rights and good governance on the continent. Kenya was one of Africa’s top Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destinations in 2015 with key investors coming from the USA, UK and the Netherlands. Large companies from Europe and the United States have also set up shop across the continent buoyed by the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative (now somewhat battered) and the growing African middle class. And military and security support from Europe and the USA have been important for countries such as Kenya currently trying to fight Al-Shabaab.

Just as Africa was starting to be seen as more than a basket-case of poverty and poor governance by Europe and the USA, just as the continent was beginning to be perceived as a serious and attractive destination for investment, right wing populism stepped in and changed everything. Some Africans worry aid from the US and some of Europe will drop; in fact last week State Department staffers in the USA were instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent for funding UN programs. And the combination of the economic recovery of the USA coupled with right wing populism juxtaposed with slowing economic growth in Africa may relegate Africa to the periphery of investment once more. Right wing populism wants to Make America/Britain/the Netherlands/France great/ours again; and it seems continents such as Africa will be very low on the ‘to do’ list.

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However, there is another side to the story. Gone are the days where African economies were dominated by western metropoles. We now live in a multipolar world where countries such as China and India have become important economic partners for Africa. Research from a French research institute indicates that the share of Europe in Africa’s total trade has steadily declined from around 68 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2016. Asia has surpassed Europe as Africa’s biggest trading partner, accounting for around 45 percent of the continent’s total trade. And while some of Kenya’s top FDI investors were from Europe and the USA, key investors also came from India, Japan and China.

And it must be stated, frankly, that some Africans are relieved by the growing insularity in Europe and the USA; perhaps now those countries will have less impetus to meddle in African affairs and focus on their own domestic issues. Older Africans have not forgotten how the UK and USA in particular took out post-colonial African leaders such as Lumumba and Sankara and many modern Africans are not ashamed of being Africans; in fact we revel in Africa’s culture and newfound economic dynamism.

So while the growing popularity of (extreme) right wing politics may negatively affect the continent in some ways, let Africans also leverage the reality of a multipolar world. As some retreat into self-involvement and insularity, let the continent intelligently engage the many who are still seated at the table.

 Anzetse Were is a development economist;

Interview on the China in Africa Podcast: How Trump will affect China’s interactions with Africa

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I joined Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden on the China in Africa Podcast to discuss my recent column on how Africa is bracing for a Trump-inspired shift towards to China in response to the new U.S. president’s apparent determination to shake up the international order.

Trump will push China deeper into Africa

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on February 5, 2017

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, made it clear during the campaign trail and his inauguration speech that from now on it is ‘America First’. He wants to build America, hire American, sell American and buy American. Many are bracing for protectionism from the Trump and even a trade war. In Africa, we’re looking at the developments in the USA with a mixture of amusement and concern. How will Trump’s administration affect AGOA? Will a Trump economy negatively affect remittances from the African Diaspora? To what extent will FDI from the USA into Africa be affected as investors scramble to adjust to policy action from Tump? Will Trump’s insularity be reflected in US support to Africa’s economy?

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China is cognisant of the global havoc being wrought by Trump and the lacuna in global leadership Trump is creating through the singularity of his ‘America First’ rhetoric. China is aware of the fact there will be economic implications that will affect it during the Trump era. China may lose out on investment that had targeted the country in the context of global value chains. The Harvard Business School makes the point that major global manufacturers worry that Trump’s new policies (such as the introduction of 20 percent border tax) could disrupt their global manufacturing plans, which have been carefully constructed to optimize the efficiency of their supply chains based on free trade policies. If the tax is effected, calculations may dim China’s prospects of continuing as the world’s factory. On the other hand, China may benefit from Trump’s insularity and take advantage of the weakened presence of the USA in the global economic arena. Perhaps this informed the speech made by the China’s leader Xi Jiping during the World Economic Forum where he stressed that pursuing protectionism is just like locking one’s self in a dark room; he supported continued globalisation.

So what does this all mean for Africa? Firstly, Africa should prepare for a China that seeks to take on the reins of being the world leader both economically and politically. Africa should expect China to more aggressively engage in consolidating its economic strength and influencing global trade rules and dynamics to its advantage. There is a sense that Trump does not really understand the continent and is still trying to figure out the best course of action for the USA in Africa.

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That said, Trump’s does have a Sino-phobic trade advisor, Peter Navarro, who is of the view that China dominates the continent and is locking out the USA. Time will tell whether such sentiments will translate to determined action from the Trump administration in Africa or not. What is clear is that China is likely to be willing to step up its activity in Africa as the USA figures out its strategy. And once a Trump strategy for Africa is developed, China will analyse the trade, investment and financial gaps in the plan and act to further consolidate its dominance on the continent. The truth is that Africa’s economy continues to grow (albeit more slowly) and Africans are slowly getting richer. China is aware of this and will tenaciously expand its presence in African markets. It will be very difficult for the Trump administration to reverse this momentum if its isolationist rhetoric is anything to go by.

Additionally, given Trump’s border tax threats, Africa should expect a more aggressive continuation of China’s entry into African manufacturing. The Washington Post makes that point that in terms of low-end manufacturing, what was ‘Made in China’ is now ‘Made in Africa’. Chinese factories are already moving to Africa and Trump may incentivise the relocation of labour intensive manufacturing from China to Africa where wages are cheaper. Thus, in trying to protect America, Trump’s policies may push China further into Africa.

Time will tell whether Trump is truly serious about China; and Africa will be at the centre of the action.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;