To reassure and reiterate America’s commitments to a positive Africa agenda of cooperation US President Donald Trump sent his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to the continent in early March. But four hours after he arrived back in Washington after a whistle-stop tour of five African countries, Tillerson learned in a Trump tweet that he had been fired.
Africans had reasons to be sceptical about the Tillerson trip even before it began, as I argued before he set off. But I had not anticipated that Tillerson and his mission would also be dramatically and precipitately diminished.
It is unlikely that Africa-US relations will improve as long as Trump remains president. The president has appointed Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, as his new secretary of state. Before joining the administration, Pompeo served as a conservative Republican congressman from rural Kansas. He has no notable foreign policy experience, much less interest in or knowledge of, African affairs.
But that doesn’t mean that African leaders should throw up their hands in despair. The Trump era, if approached with wisdom, offers opportunities for new ways of examining issues, new alliances and new areas of cooperation. This is because Trump has triggered concerns that are shared by democrats on both sides of the Atlantic, such as the need to fight racism and the need for strong democratic institutions.
Africans, of course, have other important relationships to pursue with other non-African partners. Planning for the next Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, is well underway, and most African leaders are expected to attend the September gathering in Beijing.
Africa was also high on the agenda of last June’s G-20 summit in Germany, despite Trump’s indifference to the gathering.
But the US is too important for African countries to ignore. Preparing and promoting a more active and constructive African strategy for engaging America, whoever is in power, was discussed at a diverse gathering of scholars and officials at Wits University, on March 8 to 10. This also marked the official launch of a new African Centre for the Study of the United States.
Three aspirations of the new centre are noteworthy. One is that its agenda will be demand driven. This means it will be set by what Africans from around the continent most need – and want to know – to manage their relations with America.
Another is that the agenda will be much broader and deeper than conventional international relations and the foreign police agendas of sovereign states.
Thirdly, a multi-disciplinary approach to research and training will be adopted. The aim will be twofold. Firstly to achieve short-term political and policy relevance for Africa. Secondly, to illuminate longer term trends of integration regionally and globally that can accelerate as Africans and Americans learn and teach each other.
One potentially positive, if unintentional, effect of Trump’s actions thus far, has been to stir up resistance and fresh soul-searching among Americans about basic issues and values that are shared with Africa. Several examples stand out: gender, race, economic inclusion, the freedom and integrity of the press, the judiciary and elections. All are complex yet crucial for sustainable democracy and constitutional order in African countries as well as the US.
Since Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, new political pressure has been unleashed for gender justice and equality. Campaigns such as the #MeToo movement, for example, have quickly spread globally. If, as current US polling suggests, this influences voting patterns in upcoming Congressional and Presidential elections, there will likely be secondary foreign relations effects across Africa as well.
Trump has also been the catalyst for new degrees of both racial awareness as well as injustice. One of America’s leading black writers, Ta-Neshi Coats, aptly describes Trump as America’s “first white president’ in his book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. This is because Trump, unlike any of his predecessors, campaigns and rules as a white-ethnic-nationalist.
Africans need to critically assess whether, in reaction, a coalition of diverse identities predominates in upcoming elections. Either way, the outcome will have an impact on Africa-US relations.
Three key elements essential to protecting and defending democracy – on the continent and elsewhere in the world – are now crucial in containing Trump’s threats to democracy.
One is maintaining the integrity of free and factual reporting by the media. The others are a strong and resilient independent judiciary, and credible elections. The world is living through a period of ill-liberalism. This is being marked by the triumph of strongmen over constitutional orders which has become a global scourge.
Trump will continue to dominate world headlines in 2018. But on July 18, South Africans and the world will pause to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela. No one better exemplifies the democratic ideals that Trump defiles. Africans and Americans must rededicate themselves to strive for the standards Mandela revered. Perhaps then we will be touched again by what America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, knew were “the better angels of our nature”.