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Why Donald Trump's leadership traits resonate negatively in Africa

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Why Donald Trump's leadership traits resonate negatively in Africa

John Stremlau

19 Jan 2018

6min min read
  • International relations

One year on, the contrasts between US President Donald Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama could not be starker, especially on attributes of character, judgement and personal demeanour, writes Professor John Stremlau. 


n deciding the United States would no longer support the Paris climate accord, President Donald Trump acted alone and decisively, without consulting allies or other parties to the agreement, in disregard for the international understandings reached by his predecessor, and with no evident familiarity with the details of the agreement or acknowledgement of the scientific evidence and years of negotiations that led to this global agreement. 

The decision no doubt pleased supporters and perhaps his financial backers with special interests in preserving revenue and jobs in the US’s traditional energy sector, but it ignored decades of credible scientific evidence and diligent multilateral diplomacy by prior Republican and Democratic administrations to reduce the US’ production of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The decision also ignored the advice of those government agencies charged with developing US climate change policies, as well as the US Congress and a host of civil society groups devoted to environmental protection and improvement. It was, in short, the act of a leader with autocratic ‘strongman’ tendencies.

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement will almost certainly hurt Africa and damage relations with the US. The leadership traits Trump showed here are also evident in the other ways that he operates as president, which may have important if subtle implications for US–Africa relations during the Trump era. Ironically, the man who now speaks for the world’s oldest democracy conducts himself in office in a manner that often appears more characteristic of Africa’s most notorious autocrats. 

Trump’s leadership style and personality may also shed light on why his presidency may discourage Africa’s democrats and encourage the region’s autocrats. 

Favouring strongmen over strong institutions 

Trump showed little interest in sub-Saharan Africa during his first three months in office. He made brief phone calls to the presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, which reportedly focused on countering terror and promoting US economic interests. The only African invited to Washington for a state visit during this period was Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This defiance of Obama’s policy of avoiding encounters with dictators will likely result in future visits by other African autocrats to the Trump White House. What was not mentioned but is much discussed in South African foreign affairs circles and, presumably, in other African cities, is Trump’s criticism of the previous US emphasis on good governance and strengthening democratic institutions, including limitations on executive powers. In South Africa, Professor William Gumede of the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance warns of ‘demagogue peers’, including Trump, Jacob Zuma, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte. 

Crony capitalism

Trump’s blurring of lines between government duties and his personal financial dealings and interests, which also benefit family members and a small number of business and political associates, reminds Africanists of the oligarchic behaviour, or neopatrimonialism, that still stymies democratic consolidation in too many African states, notably those rich in minerals and oil. The US’s political institutions are comparatively strong, but Trump’s conflicts of interests and disregard for institutional safeguards against such practices is bad nationally and a bad example for countries where such practices already predominate. Trump allegedly laundered vast sums of illicit financial flows (IFFs) from Russia’s oligarchs prior to becoming president. His rise to power may reassure those in Africa who are involved in such corruption that Trump will do nothing to stop Africa’s loss of revenue owing to IFFs. 

A high-level panel sponsored by the African Union and the United Nations and chaired by Thabo Mbeki estimates these to be over $50 billion annually.


For decades, US presidents have been pressing African governments to become more transparent for the benefit of their citizens and as a cornerstone of good governance. Trump’s persistent refusal to disclose his own financial dealings and taxes and the new restrictions on access to information at the White House and among his cabinet officials set another bad example for Africa. 

Attack on freedom of expression 

An all-too-familiar affliction of African autocrats now has many disturbing parallels in the Trump administration’s restrictions on press access to the White House, curtailment of press briefings and strict new limitations on members of the media allowed to accompany senior US officials, including the secretary of state, on foreign trips. 

The political art of lying

Trump’s frequent lies are well documented. The Washington Post’s non-partisan fact-checkers documented 623 false and misleading claims made by Trump during his first 137 days in office. His lying, which he often does when claiming others are lying about him, may even be strategic, what The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank calls ‘verbal jujitsu’, using his opponents’ strengths against them. 

Lying may also reflect The East African editor and journalist Charles Onyango Obbo’s warning that "[t]he genius of Trump is that he understands what adept guerrilla leaders figured out ages ago – do that which the opponent thinks is impossible or so unthinkable, that they have not planned how to defend it." Lying in emotionally appealing ways to delude citizens and to discredit opponents and keep them off balance is a familiar strategy of demagogues and African autocrats. 

Opinion over fact

Trump’s denigration of responsible reporting and his dismissal of scientific evidence, most notably regarding climate change, have seriously undermined his administration’s credibility both at home and abroad, much like the ‘fact-free’ tendencies of African strongmen. William Gumede references Trump when criticising Zuma. He cites the lack of any factual basis for Zuma’s anti-African immigrant rants, imagining South Africa’s president calling ‘in Donald Trump style – for a wall to be built alongside the Limpopo River to keep out those northerly neighbours’. Gumede compares Zuma’s ‘layered lies’ in stirring up popular support for ‘radical economic transformation’ to those that Trump uses to promote his demagogic slogan, ‘Make America Great Again!’. Zuma and Trump both benefit from uncritical dissemination of their unfounded claims and promises by favoured broadcasters financed by their enablers: ANN7 (and the New Age newspaper) in South Africa and Fox News, among others, in the US. 


This is another self-righteous trait Trump shares with African autocrats. It means never accepting responsibility and always blaming others. He cites various unproven conspiracies, alleging they are preventing him from delivering on his irresponsible campaign promises.  Such tactics are also used by like-minded peers in Africa. 

Even the most democratic leaders in Africa, however, must contend with realities of poverty and legacies of colonial exploitation, balkanisation and institutional weaknesses, which Trump doesn’t know or care about.   


Trump does not accept criticism, whether from the media, the opposition, human rights groups or other civil society organisations. Repression of these groups has a long and troubling history in Africa and recent clampdowns on internet access in 11 African countries point to a possible resurgence. Domestic legal institutions have thus far restrained Trump, as they have Zuma in South Africa, but these leaders’ willingness to test and even supress efforts to hold them accountable rightly alarms democrats domestically and elsewhere. 

Male dominance

 Trump’s disregard for women’s rights – both in his personal behaviour and in his early executive actions to restrict their right to access family planning support, safe abortions and anti-discrimination protections – rivals the most orthodox behaviour of traditional African leaders. His glamourising of male dominance with a modern gloss, including in nearly all of his cabinet and other senior appointments, is likely to continue to resonate perniciously in a still overwhelmingly patriarchal Africa. 


The campaign to ‘Make America Great Again’ raises the question, ‘for whom?’. One of Trump’s few core beliefs appears to be the need to reassert the primacy of white, Christian men. Ethnic nationalism has a long and conflict-ridden history in Africa. In recent years, ethnic nationalism has been moderated by constitutional provisions requiring political parties and electoral victories to satisfy various minimal standards of diversity. As referenced in the first section, norms supporting civic nationalism are now embedded in the AU and subregional organisations. These norms are also linked to the AU’s aspirations for greater national and regional peace and security, and for regional integration.

Trump’s latest diplomatic blunder –  reportedly referring to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” during a White House meeting last week –  has sparked outrage and will place further strain on US-Africa relations.  It also reinforces initial impressions of his character, temperament and prior experiences that helped shape his early behavior in office and that seemed woefully inadequate for a position of such political complexity, pressures and power.  One year on, contrasts with his predecessor, Barack Obama, could not be starker, especially on attributes of character, judgement and personal demeanour. 

This is an edited excerpt from ‘An early diagnosis of Trump’s impact on US-Africa Relations and on Sustainable Democracy in the US and Africa’, produced by our partner, the South African Institute of International Affairs. Read the full policy brief here

 (Main image: Kenyan artist Evans Yegon with his paintings of Donald Trump and Barack Obama at his workshop in Nairobi in December 2016. – By Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

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