Reset or revamp: US-Africa policy under Biden administration

Weeks before Joe Biden assumed office as the President of the United States of America (USA), experts of US-Africa relations put forward their expectations and predictions of what his policy might look like under the new administration.

For many, the most memorable position of former President, Donald Trump was his derogatory outlooks and racist comments on Africa. During his tenure, Trump policy also included limiting trade, clamping down on immigration, and reducing his country’s international commitments. The “America First” foreign policy of his administration often meant disengaging itself from the commitments that does not serve the President’s version of patriotism.

To others, mostly former US officials, the Trump administration’s policy towards Africa was the same as the “historic, bipartisan U.S. policy toward Africa that emphasizes economic development and downplays big power politics”. This position is also in line with the speech made by the former Secretary Tillerson in March 2018, during his goodwill visit to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where his message was:

“Let’s work together to encourage investors, both international and African.”

Noticeably, there was a serious and sustained engagement between the US and Africa under the Clinton administration, which subsequently deepened with the essential bipartisan support. The administrations of Clinton, Bush and Obama also saw remarkable stability in the US agenda in Africa, both in Congress and in the White House.

According to experts, trade between US and Africa fell to roughly $41 billion in 2018, down from a peak of $100 billion in 2008. On the whole, natural resources, such as oil and metals, have continued to be exported to the US by African countries. The primary channel by which trade is conducted has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) since 2000, which enable 39 countries to export 6,900 goods with duty-free to the US. Although, AGOA itself has been criticized because of the perceived favourable position it gives to the US, and due to its effect on the African manufacturing sectors.

On the other hand, the “Muslim travel ban” by Trump refused entry to citizens of a number of Muslim-majority nations, including some countries in Africa. This, according to scholars had the effect of further strengthening the continent’s negative imagery as a place of instability and risk while they’re under the US security flag.

What to expect from Biden administration

The administration of Joe Biden is likely to continue the current discursive trend of rivalry for great strength. But, given the background of his strategy, the emphasis could change to revitalizing multilateralism and promoting the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA). Also, he has started projects that are capable of providing an opportunity to reflect on many common priorities for his administration, including the “advancement” of democracy, human rights, and “good governance” in Africa.

Moreover, the administration of Biden may adopt some shift in the US-Africa policy and some continuity. Official relations are likely to become more diplomatic and while it is expected to reverse other measures, like he had done on his first day in office on lifting the “Muslim travel ban“, which included Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.

While experts also speculate that Biden administration’s approach to Africa may depend on his foreign policy or who he appoints to his cabinet and senior positions, lessons from the past administrations showed that US-Africa policy should be shaped based on understanding, collaboration and common interest.

“America is back, diplomacy is back”

President Joe Biden recently sent a message to African leaders meeting digitally at the 2021 Summit of the African Union, hosted from Addis Ababa. He presented what he called a common vision of a better future, advancing peace and stability with increasing trade and investment. He said in the video address which is also his first speech as US president to an international forum:

“The United States stands ready now to be your partner in solidarity, support and mutual respect.”

Moussa Fakki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission cheered the news. He said in a tweet that the African Union looks forward to “resetting the strategic AU-USA partnership.”

According to a senior administration official, “President Biden wanted to signal the desire of the United States to rebuild a strong partnership with the continent, its people, the diaspora, as well as other AU stakeholders,” as his administration is committed to “reinvigorating relationships throughout Africa from a position of mutual respect and partnership.”

Biden has already lifted the Trump administration’s ban on travellers from Muslim-majority and African countries. While on the other hand, he has lent his support to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to head World Trade Organization (WTO). This also means that after the withdrawal of South Korean trade minister Yoo withdraws from the WTO chief race, Okonjo-Iweala was set to make history as the first woman and the first African to head the trade organization after being opposed by Trump administration before the emergency of Biden.

Biden’s remarks to the African Union may also marked a return to multilateral engagement, a message he underlined in his State Department speech, his first speech on foreign policy since taking office. His policy of “America is back, diplomacy is back” also signals an end to the Trump’s largely bilateral policy and “American First” agenda.

Educator, writer and legal researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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