Africa's wish list for the Biden administration: Expectations vs reality

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Africa's wish list for the Biden administration: Expectations vs reality

Gilbert M. Khadiagala

30 Nov 2020

6min min read

ewly elected US President Joe Biden confronts enormous challenges in Africa with regard to reversing four years of the Donald Trump administration that was largely characterised by disdain, disinterest and derision toward the continent. The change of the guard in the White House come January 2021 is expected to herald a shift in tone and style toward the continent, which has always yearned for a prime spot on a crowded US foreign policy agenda. As I argued previously, there are high expectations of his presidency because most Africans regard democratic administrations to be more closely aligned to Africa's concerns and interests. This essay analyses growing perceptions in Africa about the Biden administration and the possibilities for it meeting some of the continent’s objectives.

The current celebrations in Africa of Trump’s loss are understandable because of his lack of interest in African issues. Although this view is somewhat exaggerated given the Trump administration’s overall reduction of the US’ role in global and multilateral affairs, many commentators have emphasised Trump’s denigration of the continent. Against this backdrop, most African publics are prepared for a US administration that treats Africa with civility, certainty, dignity and respect. Similarly, most African ruling elites are looking forward to invitations to Washington that resonate very well with domestic audiences. There are already calls for a high-level Africa-US summit along the lines of the one hosted by former president Barack Obama in 2014 to underscore the seriousness the new administration will devote to African affairs.

Because of the precipitous decline in democratic governance across Africa in the last few years, some observers have lauded Biden’s pledge to prioritise democratisation as a foreign policy objective. Guinea and Ivory Coast held elections in October after their leaders changed constitutions that enabled them to extend their presidential terms, sparking violence from opposition groups. In countries such as Tanzania and Uganda, authoritarian leaders seemed emboldened by Trump’s authoritarian style and contempt for democratic norms. A recent Afrobarometer survey of African public attitudes revealed that most people consider US abdication of leadership on democratisation and accountability to be one of the reasons for the continental drift toward autocratisation.

"Probably the most profound anticipation in Africa is the US’ return to multilateralism, an equally pivotal plank of the Biden administration."

Africa is looking to the Biden administration to ease multiple travel bans and restrictions imposed on Muslim countries, African students and the resettlement of refugees in the US. The Muslim ban was followed by Trump’s decree to curtail citizens from Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania from obtaining permanent residence status in the US, a move that many described as draconian and discriminatory. In September, Trump announced measures to prevent students from mostly African countries from studying in the US for more than two years. Even US analysts had decried the visa restrictions on students as self-defeating because they deprive universities of revenues and undercut US' soft power through education.

Probably the most profound anticipation in Africa is the US’ return to multilateralism, an equally pivotal plank of the Biden administration. Trump’s “America First” policy renounced US participation in vital international institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the repudiation of the Paris Agreement that governs the management of climate change. Biden has signalled the significance of multilateralism at the moment of the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming threats of climate change. With respect to the WHO, Africa expects that the return of the US will help inject the resources that are required in the fight against the pandemic and is keen to see US participation in constructing a new global architecture toward health pandemics.

Most African observers expect continued US engagement on African security issues, particularly anti-terrorism campaigns in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Trump had threatened substantive drawbacks of US troops in these two regions, but Congress has thwarted these moves. Although Biden has indicated US commitment to sustain its global anti-terrorism campaign, it is not clear how much resources he will devote to Africa’s security. Nonetheless, many African countries hope that Biden will maintain most of the bilateral defence agreements established over the years.

In the critical domain of trade and investment, African countries anticipate the start of negotiations for the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that permits a select group of countries to export commodities into the US, duty- and quota-free. The current AGOA arrangements are due to expire in 2025. While AGOA is one of the major trade programs that has consistently received bipartisan support, presidential support will be crucial to any renewal efforts. On investments, the Trump administration had established new institutions under its signature initiative, Prosper Africa, designed to help US companies invest in Africa. In addition, Congress, under Trump, enacted the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act that established the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to strengthen investments in Africa.

Is Africa’s wish list realistic? Can the Biden administration meet these expectations? A change in style toward Africa from the Biden administration will certainly be a good start, but the challenge is whether style can translate into substantive policies. In forging an African policy, Biden will face two vital obstacles. First, the economic reverberations from COVID-19 are going to severely limit the administration’s ability to embark on bold or new initiatives in Africa. Second, the US electoral cycles have increasingly shrunk over the last few years: four years used to be a long time, but is not any more. Unless Biden decides to run for second term and win in 2024, he will need to squeeze his African priorities into a four-year time frame. This, in effect, means that the policies will be fewer and may not break any new ground because Africa has never effectively competed with the US' other global priorities. It is probably in anticipation of these obstacles that Biden barely mentioned Africa during his election campaign. Although he is recruiting a competent team knowledgeable about the continent, the thinness of the resource envelope and the need to prioritise will curtail his policy options.

Because of this, the Biden administration will seek to consolidate the gains from previous Africa policies, particularly the flagship programs that have been popular in the past. Thus Biden is likely to reinvigorate programs such as Obama’s Power Africa and Young Africa’s Leaders Initiative (YALI), Trump’s Prosper Africa and George Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). The continuation of most of these programs may be accomplished primarily by re-injecting resources in the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an institution that was facing budget cutbacks under Trump. The strong symbolism of AGOA in US-Africa trade relations will propel the new administration as it seeks renegotiations in the lead up to the 2025 expiry date. However, African countries should be prepared for pressure from the US for reciprocal bilateral trade agreements that will replace the current non-reciprocal ones.

On the envisaged adherence to democratisation as a pillar of US-Africa policy, there is a possibility that more consistent leadership from Washington on this question will embolden democratic forces that are currently under siege in countries such as Egypt, Tanzania and Uganda. The substantive change for Africa will probably be Biden’s contribution to multilateral institutions because Africa is one of the major beneficiaries of multilateralism. In peace and security, American contributions to the United Nations peacekeeping efforts are vital for stabilisation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central Africa Republic (CAR), Mali and the Horn of Africa. In the same vein, Biden’s re-engagement with the WHO will be important for Africa as the world grapples with resources to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. During the Biden presidency, the WHO will be at the forefront of global efforts to guarantee equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Since April 2020, the WHO has worked with a wide range of multilateral actors on the COVAX programme, which aims to ensure universal access to any COVID-19 vaccine. Equally, having the US rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change will be important to Africa because it will put the US in a critical position to lead on an urgent global public good.

Tempering African expectations about the Biden administration needs to proceed alongside the articulation of African positions for dealing with future US administrations. Some African commentators have called for collective and cohesive African voices on the US in areas such as trade, investment and security. On AGOA, for instance, there have been suggestions that the US needs to negotiate regional trade agreements instead of the existing bilateral agreements. However, it is too late for Africa to advance a meaningful agenda that would decisively shift the new administration’s policies on the continent. For the most part, African countries prefer bilateral relations with the US because they can derive unilateral advantages, sometimes at the expense of their neighbours. In early July 2020, Kenya launched bilateral negotiations for a Free Trade Area with the US to the chagrin of its neighbours. In the short to medium term, the US, like most major powers in Africa, benefits from dealing with 55 African states individually rather than collectively.

Galvanising unified African positions on the US will increasingly hinge on the solidity and sturdiness of African regional institutions. Thus far, riddled with competitive impulses, the absence of common political values and excessive dependence on external actors, the African Union and the multiple Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have not demonstrated their capacity to be effective vehicles for Africa’s engagement with the US and other global players. Africa’s long-term economic prosperity and security lies in strengthening these institutions, but this may not occur until Africa transcends the culture of negative sovereignty and narrow nationalisms. The recently inaugurated African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is in its teething stages and has yet to be tested as a credible mechanism to push African positions on trade. Only once African counties are demonstrably serious about integration can they start to construct common approaches toward the US.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: Then-US Vice President Joe Biden at the US-Africa Business Forum on the sideline of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, on August 5, 2014. – Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)