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The US elections from an African vantage point

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The US elections from an African vantage point

Bob Wekesa

08 Oct 2020

6min min read
  • Elections
  • Political development

This article is published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University.

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n common parlance, the 2020 US elections are now just around the corner. Interest in both the process and the outcome is on the rise in Africa as it is elsewhere in the world, as highlighted by coverage of the first presidential debate by global media. African attention to US politics rests on a several factors, among them: the allure of the US as a superpower, the open, vibrant, and often dramatic nature of politicking and wide-ranging material expectations on the continent.

During a series of virtual townhall events hosted by the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) based at Wits University, speakers have reminded us that Africans will not vote in the US elections and therefore have no say in whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins. By extension therefore, Africans should not overindulge in discussions around the Biden versus Trump tickets.

While this line of argument is reasonable, it has at least one major flaw: the inevitability of huge interest in the goings-on in a global country by global citizens. Even though they have no direct vote in the matter, Africans will not only closely follow the matter but also comment and take positions.

This perspective in fact arises out of the US’ deliberate global outreach. Through numerous programs, the US promotes values such as respect for human rights, transparent and accountable leadership, popular democratic practices, and free market economics. This was for instance stated in May 2019 by Tibor Nagy, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, following numerous other resources-backed pronouncements.

Moreover, Africans from across the continent consume American culture daily not least because American conventional and digital media are the dominant sources of news and entertainment. African interest in the elections is thus a logical progression from America’s presence on the continent and an indication of the success of US soft power in Africa.

Put another way, arguments that Africans should not have a keen interest in US elections because they do not elect the US president should go the whole hog and dissuade the US from engaging Africa!

Due to the inevitability of interest in US elections in Africa, it is important for Africans from different stations of life to understand and appreciate the significance and implications of this democratic phenomenon. A germane approach is to unpack the elections from the perspective of multiple and intricate issues and factors cutting across the economic, political, and cultural dimensions.

This approach ensures that analyses and debates go beyond the electoral cycle-inspired fanfare to incisively comprehend the American political system. In other words, the US elections provide an opportunity to take a step back and look at the workings of that country’s political system. Doing so provides not only a pathway for assessing the validity of African perspectives but also affords comparative analyses. As one casts an eye on the US elections, one can see the state of play in African countries themselves.

As fate would have it, the 2020 US elections are particularly interesting to watch from an African vantage point.

As with just about anything else, the coronavirus pandemic has loomed large over this event. Such is the impact of the pandemic that, initially, the postponement of the elections was contemplated. However, a delay is now not feasible, with focus decidedly tending towards how the elections will be conducted, and crucially, the outcome.

Even in the intense and fractious political battles playing out, the US is essentially showcasing a tradition where elections are held notwithstanding difficult circumstances. Through the years, the US has never delayed elections even in the midst of civil war, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression and the so-called great wars. This tells us that the noisy and antagonistic nature of US politics is a sign of stability rather than weakness.

America's tenacious hold on the election dates as tradition provides a lesson for African nations. It might appear that some African countries – Malawi, Tanzania and Burundi – have also maintained tradition by going ahead with their elections even during the pandemic. The small East African country of Burundi is particularly an illustrative case of an African nation proceeding with presidential elections not as a demonstration of democratic maturity but for expediency.

Many pundits concluded that Burundi's elections went ahead not so much because its leaders were keen on upholding an electoral tradition but because former president, the late Pierre Nkrunzinza, was determined to hand over power to a chosen successor – current president Evariste Ndayishimiye. After all, Nkrunziza had forced a third term for himself in 2015 on self-serving eligibility grounds.

Burundi-style tinkering with presidential term limits is quite common on the continent. It has been termed “third termism” and has in recent years involved the leaders of Uganda, Rwanda, Guinea, Sudan, Egypt and Comoros. Thus, even though there is a rising tenor of criticism, unfairness, inequality and dysfunction in American politics, Trump could not manage to postpone an election, not even due to a pandemic. The bigger picture is that the apparent tranquility and consensus in many African countries belies the instability forged out of ‘big man’ politics.

As America's election day draws closer, focus will be more sharply directed towards the prospects of the so-called main tickets, Donald Trump and Mike Pence versus Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In Africa, two conflicting opinions have emerged on which of the two tickets portends the best interests for the continent. One strand of opinion is that there will be continuity in US policy towards Africa regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins. On the other hand, however, there is a strong sentiment that Biden and the Democratic party portends better prospects for the continent than Trump and the Republicans.

Who are Africans backing?

A scientific approach for gauging the levels of favourability between Trump and Biden in Africa would be to conduct an opinion poll, similar to the latest survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre which compared Trump against other world leaders, namely, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, the Unite Kingdom's Boris Johnson, Russia’s Vladmir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.

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In the absence of such a poll however, a loose assessment of the two contenders' popularity can be made from African media-based public sentiment.

The politics of identity and race relations provide one set of lenses through which an assessment of the candidates can be made. A sentiment that features prominently is the supposition that Biden is the candidate for African Americans who in turn have roots on the continent while Trump is seen as anti-African American. This perspective rose to prominence in this year’s elections after the murder of an African American man, George Floyd, in May 2020 by a police officer. The condemnation of this incident by the African Union among other voices was read as a criticism of the American regime currently in power.

From an American policy towards Africa perspective, Trump seems to lose out to Biden. Trump’s ostensible unilateralism versus a supposed multilateral inclination by Biden is a major point of consideration. Because of their economic and political weaknesses, Africans would be more in favour of an America that promotes multilateralism rather than an “America First” policy. Trump lost some favourability in Africa over his alleged denigration of Africans in 2018. In the case of South Africa, open differences between Trump and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 over land issues constitute a low moment in relations between these two countries.

The above analysis would clearly place Trump on the backfooting in terms of favourability on the continent. Yet, alternative viewpoints would suggest otherwise. For instance, from the perspective of foreign policy continuity, the Trump administration has continued the tradition of supporting Africa in various ways. A recent example is the donations to African countries during the COVID-19 pandemic even as the US withdrew from the World Health Organization.

More significantly, the initial euphoria in Africa about Biden's candidacy has in recent times been replaced by caution as it became clear that Trump could still win the election. It is probable that a greater number of Africans are beginning to understand the American election system and therefore are expecting a potential Trump win in November. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton but won the electoral college vote and therefore the presidency. Caution is warranted because the same could happen this time.

There are some Africans who maintain a sense of incredulity about the doubts surrounding the integrity of the upcoming US elections. Many on the continent, and indeed the world, had unquestioningly bought into the widely promulgated image of America as a bastion of democracy. Now, the upshot is that some critical systematic and systemic problems with the American political system have been exposed. Going forward, African scholars, leaders, activists and public intellectuals are bound to question the taken-for-granted notion that the American democracy serves as a role model for African states. For, how can that be when there are doubts on the legitimate transition from one regime to another? How can Africans emulate the US when there is ongoing talk about manipulation of the vote? How can America be a standard-bearer of democracy when widespread disinformation campaigns and reports/fears of violence have become major talking points around this election? More than anything, November 3 will be a test of the US' democratic processes while Africa, and the rest of the world, watches on and weighs in.

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

(Main image: A broadcast of the first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on 29 September 2020. - Mario Tama/Getty Images)