While President Trump's first annual "State of the Union" speech to Congress was devoted mainly to domestic economic and social issues, several of his statements could have serious implications for Africa.
US-Africa Trade Relations
President Trump's speech was consistent with statements he made during the 2016 campaign about America's international trade relations, calling for revised trade agreements that will be "fair and reciprocal." He claims the U.S. has not been treated fairly by its trading partners: that our trade relations have resulted mainly in American industries cutting jobs and closing down their U.S. operations in order to move abroad, where they have found lower-cost labor.
Watch for what Trump may do with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has allowed African exports to enter the United States duty-free since 2000. The intent of AGOA, which had been considered more of a foreign assistance tool than an aspect of trade policy, is to promote economic development in Africa through private sector investment. And for a variety of reasons, only a few African nations have been able to take advantage of it.
However, as a growing number of African countries start participating in AGOA, the Trump Administration may look at the Act and see it as providing too great a trade advantage for African nations. It could demand reciprocity for American exports to Africa to also enjoy duty-free status.
Changing the agreement would require Congressional approval, and while AGOA has had bipartisan support it is possible that Congress will reconsider its terms. African nations now taking advantage of AGOA may wish to start preparing for such an eventuality.
US Support for Counterterrorism and Other Security Aid
President Trump emphasized that the US will continue to support efforts to eradicate "jihadist" terrorist groups. He spoke mainly of such groups in the Middle East, but numerous African governments are also currently fighting terrorism in the Lake Chad basin, in the Sahel region, and in Somalia. African nations should rest assured that American military support will continue, and will most likely be enhanced.
Governments on the west coast of Africa may wish to consider requesting AFRICOM technical assistance against the never-ending problem of illegal fishing. African nations are losing considerable wealth and protein as a result of this massive thievery.
Potential Politicization of Foreign Aid
President Trump made one statement about foreign aid that should give African governments cause for concern. He said that he will request authorization from Congress to reduce US economic or military assistance to any government that votes against the United States on issues of great importance to Washington. This arose after President Trump announced that the US considers Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, and gave an order to transfer the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This announcement caused considerable controversy because the policy runs contrary to the peace process, which calls for the status of Jerusalem to be part of negotiations leading to a "two-state solution."
President Trump's statement on Jerusalem was overwhelmingly condemned in the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly. In both votes, all of the African delegations, except Togo, voted against the US position. In her statement, US Permanent Representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, said that she was "taking the names" of governments voting against the US on this very important issue.
I doubt that Congress will provide the authorization that President Trump is requesting, but African governments should think carefully about their votes on sensitive issues in the UN. On some occasions, it might be more prudent to abstain.
While military aid to African nations is important, other forms of foreign aid and development assistance are at least as crucial to protecting America's national security. The jihadist groups that threaten the US and our allies thrive among desperate conditions, and nonmilitary foreign aid is key to fighting the growth of violent extremism. I urge President Trump to set politics aside and continue the support to African nations which has enjoyed bipartisan approval for decades, and which protects Africans and Americans alike.
Fortunately, the outlook is favorable for overall US-Africa relations. The President sought to make up for his alleged insulting remarks about Africa two weeks ago in his message to the African Union summit meeting of January 26-28. President Trump said that he hopes for very productive US-Africa relations, and that he looks forward to welcoming African heads of state to the White House in the coming months and years. He is also sending Secretary of State Tillerson on a goodwill visit to Africa in March 2018. These moves indicate President Trump wants to follow the traditional bipartisan policy set by all of his predecessors. The US wants Africa to become wealthier and healthier, and will do the maximum to help achieve that result. I expect that most African governments will decide to put the President's unfortunate utterance behind them, and will continue to pursue fruitful relations with Washington.