Connect with us

Politics and Society

What Do Trump’s Phone Calls to African Leaders Mean for Trade and Security

U.S. President Donald Trump has been in the Oval office for a little over a month, and the early days have been quite eventful. The continent remains on tenterhooks, as it remains unclear what trajectory the Trump administration will take on Africa. While it has been argued that the Trump presidency is a golden moment for Africa to chart its own development path, it appears Trump is likely to adopt policies that deal with individual countries in the continent, unlike his predecessors who crafted policies which saw Africa as group.



Donald Trump.

About a month ago, it was reported in the New York Times that President Donald Trump’s transition team had been passing around a ‘‘four-page list of Africa related questions’’ in the Pentagon and State Department.

The Trump administration is yet to nominate people for over 500 positions, including the Assistant Secretary for African affairs, so the aforementioned questions, which expressed doubts on the success of previous United States policies towards Africa, were the only concrete means to speculate at Trump’s policy for the continent. On Friday 13 February, Trump called Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, providing more fodder for accurate conjectures.

Cordial Telephony

Statements from the press offices of both African presidents were keen to note that Trump had initiated the calls and that they were cordial. The latter point may appear trivial. However, considering media reports of feisty telephone conversations between the American President and a traditional ally like Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia or neighbour President Pena Nieto of Mexico, it is anything but.


President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari delivers his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 03 February 2016. Photo: ANP/EPA Patrick Seeger

The cordial, read routine, telephone conversations could mean that Trump’s administration would not radically alter United States policy towards Africa. Or that the continent isn’t a top priority, except when it aligns with Trump’s domestic policy of America First.

Read: Trump or not, Africa must change

America’s policy towards Africa is characterised by aid, trade and security. From the questions Trump’s transition team were asking in January, foreign aid isn’t consistent with putting the interests of America first.

Trump has now called four African presidents: Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia. Apart from South Africa, fighting terrorism was the main focus of the conversations.

Potential Bespoke Trade Deals

With regards to Zuma’s phone call, a statement on the White House webpage said, ‘‘President Trump highlighted the strong bilateral trade ties between the two countries and expressed interest in identifying new, mutually beneficial opportunities for trade’’.


File: US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari (L), as Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau (C) looks on. Photo: ANP/EPA. Michael Reynolds

America’s major trade policy with sub-Saharan Africa is AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act); it gives eligible countries duty free access to U.S. market. Also, it is nonreciprocal, because it does not require participating countries to give up market access to the U.S.

Under AGOA, due to the diverse nature of its exports, South Africa has arguably benefited the most.

Read: Trump, Buhari And The Crude Art Of Wobbling And Fumbling

In January the Trump’s transition team had asked, “Most of AGOA imports are petroleum products, with the benefits going to national oil companies, why do we support that massive benefit to corrupt regimes?’’

AGOA was recently extended to 2025, with bipartisan support from the U.S Congress. While it may be safe from a Trump executive order, it can be amended to make it reciprocal. Also, Trump’s telephone conversation with Zuma could mean that the United States may favour bespoke trade deals with specific countries.

Security without Kenyatta


In January the transition team had asked, ‘‘Why is the United States bothering to fight the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria? Why have all the [Chibok] school girls kidnapped by the group not been rescued?’’

Members of the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement, holding a banner showing photographs of some of the missing, march to press for the release of the schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 from their school in Chibok by Islamist group Boko Haram, during a rally in Abuja on January 14, 2016. Photo: ANP/AFP Stringer

Upon taking office however, Trump has seen that defeating Boko Haram, the deadliest terror group in the world, is in U.S interest. His perception of the Buhari led government has improved too.

The statement from the Nigerian government which reported the phone call between Trump and Buhari said: ‘‘President Trump encouraged President Buhari to keep up the good work he is doing, and also commended him for the efforts made in rescuing 24 of the Chibok Girls and the strides being taken by the Nigerian military. President Trump assured the Nigerian President of U.S readiness to cut a new deal in helping Nigeria in terms of military weapons to combat terrorism.’’

Trump is yet to call Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. The East African country has been strategic in U.S’ war with Somalia terrorist group, al-Shabab.

Also, the transition team had asked, “We’ve been fighting al-Shabaab for a decade, why haven’t we won?”

Firm relations: Kenya and China might be taking their relationship to the next level (Photo: Uhuru Kenyatta/Facebook)

Trump is yet to call Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. The East African country has been strategic in U.S’ war with Somalia terrorist group, al-Shabab. The country also houses the highest number of Somali refugees, in Dadaab, and about 146 of these refugees were to be resettled in the U.S prior to Trump’s travel ban on 7 Muslim countries, one of which is Somalia. Kenyatta’s government had decided to close Dadaab camp until early February, when a Kenyan court ruled that the move was unconstitutional. This mirrors a similar ruling by the U.S court on Trump’s travel ban.

So why hasn’t Trump called Kenyatta yet?  Has Trump decided that the war with al-Shabab is unwinnable, that the group is of no threat to the U.S and therefore better left alone?

A young boy leads the hard-line Islamist Al Shabab fighters as they conduct military exercise in northern Mogadishu’s Suqaholaha neighborhood, Somalia. Photo: AP

President Barack Obama’s administration cited allegations of human rights abuses by Nigerian Army as one of the reasons it refused to sell the country arms. Under Buhari, the army is yet to undergo any reforms, instead it has denied any wrongdoings, and demanded that others provide proof of human right abuses. By agreeing to sell arms to Nigeria Trump has indicated willingness to overlook allegations of human rights abuses.

Under Trump, the U.S is likely to adopt policies that deal with individual countries in the continent, unlike his predecessors who crafted policies which saw Africa as group.