Africa, World

Op-Ed: Beyond Nambia, a non-existent US-African policy

By David Reiersgord 29 September 2017

At last week’s United Nations General Assembly, US President Donald Trump made a gaffe about an African country. In reference to Namibia or, maybe, Gambia or Zambia, Trump stated he was proud to be joined by officials from “Nambia”, and other African countries. For all of the humour it generated, this gaffe and its reaction is indicative of the Trump administration’s lack of a formal policy platform for Africa, and why it’s still not seemingly a priority. By DAVID REIERSGORD.

Donald Trump has a tendency to make asinine statements, so this kind of event is a familiar one by now. The sillier memes that followed this most recent gaffe read something along the lines of: Trump invented a country called Nambia, which exports covfefe.

In an effort to make sense of it all, J. Brooks Spector wrote about the fictional country of Nambia, imagining, among other scenarios, how the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, is set to become ambassador. While there’s a satirical swiftness to Spector’s piece, it’s nevertheless reflective of the broader tendency to engage with what Trump says, particularly in relation to foreign policy, rather than what he does.

The wider reaction to this gaffe demonstrates how one of the real shortcomings of the Trump administration – its lack of any kind of policy platform for Africa – has largely not been discussed. At a time when democratic institutions are being tested in places like Kenya and South Africa, along with security concerns in Cameroon and South Sudan, the US can’t afford to neglect the African continent any longer.

That this Nambia gaffe received more attention than the fact that his administration still has provided little to no indication of what its US-African policies are – along with leaving key positions in the State Department related to Africa unfilled – reflects a lack of awareness in the US and in Africa about the shifting economic as well as geopolitical significance of the continent on a global scale.

It’s admittedly fun and feels good to piggyback on the humour attached to Trump’s Nambia gaffe, though doing so fails to recognise that the lack of an incentive for formulating a US-African policy platform is directly linked to the broader focus on Trump’s words rather than his actions.

And while former President Barack Obama didn’t do as much to realign US interests to the betterment of the continent as people initially expected or would have liked, there were nevertheless real gains made by his administration that are worth taking note of.

One of these was the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, in 2015. Since it was introduced in 2000 under Bill Clinton, this legislation has helped assist African economies looking to trade with the US, by expanding market access and reducing trade tariffs. In addition, it has empowered the United States to formally set up trade centres in various regions on the continent, such as its West African branch in Accra, Ghana.

This work, however, is threatened to be undone through the Trump administration’s evident disinterest in a continent that will in the decades ahead flourish. Earlier this year, every single African hoping to attending an African business conference in California was denied the opportunity to participate due to visa issues. The enduring significance of this carelessness matters, especially when Trump praises Africa for its capacity to make outsiders rich.

In addition, the African wing of the US State Department isn’t functioning at full capacity. The Trump administration has left a number of key ambassadorships unfilled. In Sudan, Cameroon, Senegal, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and in Ethiopia, where the African Union is located, the US doesn’t have an ambassador, and thus has a limited capacity to continue to forge sustainable partnerships and trade agreements, as well as actively promote its interests in the continent.

Coupled with the lack of a fully functioning African Affairs Bureau in the US State Department, the Trump administration is forced to rely primarily on military intelligence to assess and reassess shifting local and regional contexts.

For all of the hysteria that follows Trump’s every word on foreign policy in the Middle East and in North Korea – even though he’s merely reiterating, although crudely, the basis of what US foreign policy has been for some time – the expansion of security apparatuses in Africa has raised little concern.

It’s worth pointing out that the African Strategic Command (Africom) does important work, like training security forces and local police departments. Moreover, Africom allows for more cohesion among actors working to secure the continent’s future. However, if we expect the mindset of Americans and the US government to change in a way that positively enhances African growth and development, we cannot expect to do so through a militarised or security framework.

It’s unsurprising that Americans would be more worked up over the mispronunciation of a country in Africa, and not the lack of any formal policy, because Africa hardly features at all in American society. It’s a blank spot in the minds of many, still shrouded in the colonial haze of Joseph Conrad’s “dark continent”. When Africa features so little in American consciousness, people have no incentive to hold their representatives accountable for promoting effective policies on Africa.

Whether or not we believe in the capacity for the United States to contribute to Africa’s future growth and development, the reaction to Trump’s Nambia gaffe demonstrates how we’re more concerned with how this engagement is formulated than how it is facilitated and implemented as policy. DM

Photo: (L-R) Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Guinea’s President Alpha Conde, US President Donald J. Trump, President of the African Development Bank Akinwumi Adesina and Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo pose for a group photo on the second day of the G7 Summit at the Hotel San Domenico in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, 27 May 2017. Photo: EPA/ANGELO CARCONI


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