In the summer of 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Africa. He stopped in Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa, where he met with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh, spoke with Sudanese and Kenyan presidents and prime ministers in Nairobi, and celebrated the World Cup while linking up with leaders in South Africa.
This trip was a demonstration of America’s continued interest in Africa during a particularly tenuous time: an LGBTQ rights movement was sweeping East Africa despite consternation from some governments, Kenya was continuing to heal from violence following the 2007 presidential election, bombings in Uganda credited to al Shabaab killed 74 people that summer, and South Sudan was on the verge of independence from Sudan. Months later, the Arab Spring would begin in Tunisia and Egypt.
According to those present on the trip, Biden was tireless: The last to go to bed, the first to ask a question, the quickest to search for common ground. “It was a great window into his work ethic, which is unbelievable,” said Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former United States Ambassador to Botswana and senior director for Africa on the National Security Council.
At one formal meeting with the South Africa delegation, Biden was so absorbed in the conversation that he visibly leaned further and further across the table. “It was like a physical manifestation of his efforts to engage,” said Gavin, as he made the formal gathering more than a “check the box” meeting.
Unlike more recent American leaders, he was also humble. In a speech at a convention center in Nairobi, Biden immediately recognized that he was not necessarily the speaker that attendees wanted to meet. “Hello, my name is Joe Biden,” he said, smiling. “I work for Barack Obama.”
Later in the speech, though, Biden took on a big brother role, urging Kenyans to “reconcile communities” in light of post-election violence, and critiquing corruption. “True friendship demands honesty,” he said. “So if our words are sometimes blunt, it’s because our faith in the possibilities of Kenya are unlimited.”
That speech, and that trip, laid out for the better and the worse what experts and former colleagues say should be expected as the Biden administration begins its relationship with Africa, especially in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. While a Biden administration will vastly improve upon the Trump administration’s Africa policy, which has been virtually nonexistent, U.S. Africa policy prior to Trump was far from perfect. In fact, while not everything went wrong, the last hundred years of American intervention in Africa has been fairly consistent in its failures: From installing dictators in the Democratic Republic of Congo to exporting homophobic evangelical pastors in Uganda, Trump was bad, but the United States’s track record as a whole hasn’t been much better.
“It is important to note that while the Trump administration has taken its nationalistic 'America First' foreign policy to unprecedented levels, these trends were present in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations as well,” Adotei Akwei, deputy director for advocacy and government relations for Amnesty International, told VICE World News.
Even so, experts hope that the Biden administration will bring more thoughtful engagement to the diverse and expansive region, as they tackle a renewed commitment in East Africa and the Horn on health, climate change, security, aid, fair elections, and calls for democracy of a kind that have been far more muted over the last four years.
“The Trump years sort of threw into stark relief the missed opportunities, and the cost of failing to understand this part of the world as a piece of a broader strategic picture,” noted Gavin, who thinks Biden could turn this around. “I would certainly expect a [Biden administration] will be engaging in a respectful manner with states throughout the continent, and in a more focused manner.”
For some, it will also be a return to normalcy. “I know that our nation now will have a coherent foreign policy,” Karen Bass, a California congresswoman and chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, told VICE World News. “It has been so challenging over these last four years. When I talk to African leaders and they ask me about U.S. policy, I can only reference Congress, and our support for the African continent, but I cannot say anything regarding the [Trump] administration because no one knows, day to day, what is the administration’s policy.”
While Trump has made many disparaging comments about African partners, Trump’s derision of immigrants, including Africans, from “shithole countries” in 2018 was a particularly low moment. The president made similar remarks over the years, and recently referred to Somalia as a country with “No government, no safety, no police, no nothing, just anarchy” while sparring with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Trump was also the first U.S. president in almost 30 years to not visit the continent; his assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Tibor Nagy, only assumed the office more than a year into Trump’s presidency.
Now, with concerns about fair elections in Tanzania and Uganda, military activity in Somalia, a brewing war in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and more, the Biden administration will have a lot on its plate come January. Weeks before the presidential election, Trump appeared to endorse Egyptian military action against Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, warning that Egypt could “blow up” the dam. His most recent reckless outburst may have perfectly encapsulated Trumpian diplomacy, and Trump’s doctrine, on the continent.
“I'm sure that a sigh of relief went out across the planet when the election was called,” said Bass.
Humility, however, will have to play a large part in Biden’s foreign policy, after the U.S.’s most recent presidential election and Trump’s refusal to accept the results. “It will require a tone that acknowledges our own imperfection,” Gavin said, “but that is also resolute in suggesting that it doesn’t mean you just throw up your hands and go for the most cynical, transactional approach to foreign policy that doesn’t get any of us where we want to go.”
“It is a question of respect and communicating that respect,” Bass told VICE World News. “I think it's very important when we engage foreign leaders that we acknowledge that we're not perfect here. That is an important step that gives us legitimacy, and I have no doubt that the Biden administration, and Biden for all of these years of experience in foreign policy, knows how to handle this situation and knows how to do a course correction.”
America’s relationship with Africa is fraught, to say the least, and littered with examples of destructive and neocolonial endeavors.
In one incident, almost 60 years ago, Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was murdered in a joint operation orchestrated by the United States and Belgium. Deemed by some “the most important assassination of the 20th century,” the killing was the latest in a series of struggles between foreign powers and a free-thinking independent Africa. Lumumba was everything the West feared: He was a nationalist, an anti-colonialist, a Pan-Africanist, and a leader. Lumumba was nobody’s pawn, and the United States, concerned with its economic stake in Congo’s natural resources and the assumption that Lumumba could be a possible communist threat, acted harshly.
Years prior, Congo had already proved to be a strategic economic ally for the United States, when a small mine in southern Congo provided the uranium needed to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to assassinate Lumumba, and the installation of Mobutu Sese Seko, the president and dictator of Congo from 1965 to 1997, highlighted the extractive elements of the relationship, and the top-down approach the United States had when it came to foreign relationships in the region. (To be certain, prior to the assassination the United States did not consider Congo an equal partner either, and the U.S. was actually the first country to recognize King Leopold of Belgium’s claim to Congo months before the Berlin Conference in 1884.)
But in many ways, this assassination of a political leader—one of many undertaken by the United States in foreign countries—set the tone for America’s relationship with Africa going forward, said Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a professor of African and global studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since then, inconsistencies in policy have marked U.S. presence in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, and throughout the continent. “One of the major problems for the United States has been double standards,” said Nzongola-Ntalaja, also the author of The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila: A People's History. “You speak one way, and act a different way. You say you support democracy, but how do you explain Mobutu? For 32 years?” The Biden administration, he said, has its work cut out, as it’s not just Trump that decimated American policy in Africa, but decades of mismanagement.
“Everyone believes they can control Africa,” said Nzongola-Ntalaja. “And I hope, for Mr. Biden, that era is over. We've got to accept that there are independent countries and independent leaders who have the right to their own agenda, and not an agenda set from abroad.”
Biden’s campaign rarely mentioned policy plans in Africa. Still, some experts think this doesn’t mean the president-elect won’t be committed to the continent, and say American policy in East Africa and the Horn of Africa will prove crucial in the coming years.
At a virtual fundraiser in August for the Biden campaign, speakers like former ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Senator Chris Coons, Biden advisor Brian McKeon, and Bass discussed policy priorities in Africa, and promised a renewed commitment to the continent. Coons said Biden would frequently travel to Africa, and send skilled ambassadors and senior officials as well; Rice noted that the United States needs “to recognize that we have a stake in Africa's success.”
“There are a lot of people around the president-elect who have a clear understanding that the African continent is not some kind of extra credit project when it comes to foreign policy,” said Gavin. “There's just, I think, a greater awareness of the centrality of Africa to the future of international relations, and a willingness to take a different approach.”
Now, the question for many is how to walk back the Trump administration’s policies in the region. “The president was often spontaneous in his decisions, rarely consulting with established experts who can boast years of experience in African diplomacy,” Abel Abate Demissie, associate fellow at Chatham House, an independent policy institute, told VICE World News. “The failure to remain in sync with a consistent stance had him claim to stand for democratic freedoms one day, while openly lauding North Korea the next. It emboldened African governments to deviate from upholding values normally enshrined by American leaderships.”
Not everyone agrees with this assessment: Ambassador Herman Cohen, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1989 to 1993, is of the belief that the Trump administration's policies did little to diverge from long enshrined American positions. “Despite rhetoric about 'great power competition,' and a misguided Pentagon initiative to withdraw troops, the Trump administration's overall policy toward Africa represented continuity,” Cohen told VICE World News.
Demissie, who describes Trump’s dealings in Africa as “disastrous,” believes the Biden administration will bring more coherence and consider Africa a key priority. “ Under Biden, one can expect a greater focus on the continent.”
At first, that focus will be expressed through policy changes. The global gag rule, for example: First ushered in by the Reagan presidency, it saw federal funding for organizations offering safe abortion services slashed. Rescinded by President Obama in 2009, it was brought to life again by the Trump administration. A Lancet Global Health study found that the re-implementation of the policy led to a spike in unwanted pregnancies, and a 40% increase in abortions across parts of subsaharan Africa. The Biden administration would likely reverse this policy again.
“Many are hoping Biden’s administration will repeal the second travel ban that included Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania among other states and resulted in the separation of many families,” said Abraham Zere, an exiled Eritrean journalist and critic of Eritrea’s dictator of 29 years, President Isaias Afewerki. “There is also hope that with regards to democracy, the Biden administration would hold leaders accountable, or at least set the moral bar higher in the cases of rogue states like Eritrea.”
In terms of immigration, and as it pertains to African immigrants, the president-elect made it clear on his campaign site where he stands: “Representing nearly 2 million first-generation Americans, [African immigrant communities are] one of the fastest growing immigrant groups. As president, Biden will immediately do away with the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies.”
Biden also faces an uphill battle with regards to climate policy. During his campaign, he said climate change was the “number one issue facing humanity,” and promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement. With countries in Africa likely the most susceptible to effects of climate change, Trump’s rolling back of a number of Obama-era policies regulating greenhouse gas emissions affected the continent.
Even with all of these urgent measures, there is hope for a more equitable relationship. “The COVID pandemic has shown us that Africa has a lot we can learn from, in their own experience with infectious disease control,” said Gavin. “From climate change to migration to these issues of disease, a recognition that these aren't issues to be discussed in northern capitals, or with Asia, and then Africa is supposed to sign on to the deal afterward, I do see a kind of fundamental assessment of U.S. interests and the global strategy, and Africa being a piece of that puzzle from the beginning, not an afterthought.” A re-evaluation of knowledge and expertise would go a long way in U.S. policy, and represent something of a role reversal from previous forms of saviorism that have marked American involvement and healthcare, as with the AIDS epidemic.
An interventionist attitude also might also not be the best way forward: “The policy of American entrepreneurs has always been about changing African customs, changing African policies and this condescending lecturing tone is unlikely to change even with the new presidency,” Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a Ugandan political scientist and researcher, told VICE World News. “They are going to have to change their attitudes.”
“This new approach must start with a frank discussion about the relationship between the United States and Africa, and this discussion must include both government and non-governmental voices,” said Akwei. “There will not be a single theme or issue that all 54 African countries will agree on, and there should not be. Africa is no less complicated than Europe.”
Despite assurances of stability and respect, not everyone will be excited about this transition of power. “I don’t think the dictators will be happy with Biden … they weren’t happy with Obama,” said Nzongola-Ntalaja. “They don't like governments that tell them that you are not democratic, you are violating human rights, and things like that.”
“President Isaias Afwerki sent a message of congratulations to the president-elect, but I highly doubt the Eritrean government is happy with the outcome,” Zere said. “The regime’s toadies have been campaigning for Donald Trump’s re-election on the grounds that Biden worked with President Obama who often found himself at odds with the Eritrean regime. As Trump emboldened authoritarian regimes, President Afwerki benefited greatly from these four years.”
And not all Trump policies will likely be overturned: The Trump administration did introduce the Prosper Africa initiative, through which the United States sought to enhance commercial and trade ties with Africa and counter the growing influence of regional powers. “I believe that the concept behind 'Prosper Africa' makes sense,” said Ambassador Cohen. “The U.S. government should seek to marry U.S. investors with investment opportunities in Africa, and U.S. embassies will identify African entrepreneurs with good ideas who need investment partners. This is a great idea in principle, although the program was underfunded.” The Trump administration also continued supporting the African Growth and Opportunity Act, known as AGOA, a law enacted in 2000 to expand trade and investment in Africa by allowing marketable goods from eligible countries to enter the United States duty-free.
However, critics say that most of Trump’s policies on Africa have been driven by a rivalry with China. “For the most part, the Americans have been offering little in comparison with the Chinese, besides aid and propping up failing health and education systems,” said Golooba-Mutebi.
While this push and pull with China has long been a reality of engagement on the continent, there is a concern that the focus on trade and competition from the United States has been simplistic, and pushed human rights and other issues to the wayside. The Africa section of Trump’s National Security Strategy outlines the challenge to American economic interests posed by China. Human rights and democracy are not mentioned (though they are mentioned in Obama’s former strategy).
“A Biden administration must change this, and put human rights at the center of its Africa policy,” said Akwei. Additionally, he noted that an immediate way the Biden administration could actually prove a renewed and burgeoning relationship with the region would be to increase the monetary pledge from Congress to assist the African Union and other international organizations with their COVID-19 response and support debt relief measures for African countries during the pandemic, while also investing in sustainable health infrastructure and early warning systems as part of a bold climate strategy. “The United States needs to engage and support multinational action plans that are responsive to the vision and aspirations of the African people and are not restricted to the 'What does this do for the U.S.'-only approach of the Trump administration,” he said.
While human rights may become a renewed priority, the State Department, Bass said, will have its work cut out as it tries to rebuild expertise on Africa. “We know that the State Department has had a lot of staff departures and instability over the last four years,” Bass said, while noting that one of the first things the Trump administration did was cut foreign aid. While Congress rejected the cuts, “It's not always clear whether or not the Trump administration actually allocated the funding,” said Bass. “One of the things a Biden administration is going to have to do, is to go into each of the federal agencies and do an assessment as to their status.”
This aid, and a stable State Department, could be vitally important to the political situation in the Horn of Africa in the coming months. Ethiopia, long renowned as a bastion of political stability in the region, has been plunged into a civil war that threatens to reel in neighboring Eritrea as well, and has already sent tens of thousands of refugees to Sudan.
There are limits to what international interference in the region can do, though. In Uganda, for example, Nzongola-Ntalaja said that the United States won’t be able to do much. “The United States has let that situation deteriorate for years,” he noted, referencing the fact that Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986. Museveni was just nominated for another presidential term, and opposition candidate Bobi Wine was recently arrested. The European Union announced last week that it would not send an observer for the election in January.
In a 2016 article, then-Vice President Biden laid out his thoughts on America’s foreign policy for the next administration. He mentioned Africa several times, and focused on the ways in which the United States could strengthen capacity in healthcare and continue encouraging African leadership through the Young African Leaders Initiative. He also recognized the need for local buy-in militarily, writing that “We’ve learned in no uncertain terms that success on the battlefield will not endure if U.S. military involvement outpaces political developments on the ground or the ability of local partners to control their own territory.” (Last year, the Trump administration conducted 63 declared air attacks in Somalia, more than any year prior, though the president recently announced plans to withdraw American troops from the country.)
Regardless of his track record and campaign promises, Biden’s virtual silence on Africa policy has still indicated to some that the continent may not be a priority, and could lead to more of the same from the Obama administration.
Even so, the election of Biden will make, according to Nzongola-Ntalaja, a big difference. “The main difference between Biden and Trump is that Biden is not racist,” he said. Going forward, he added, “We will hopefully be able to see the United States as a country with whom we can collaborate.”