Africa is unlikely to be a top priority for Joe Biden when he enters the White House next week. Indeed, it’s rarely a priority for any U.S. president. But the continent will certainly be more prominent on Mr. Biden’s radar than it ever was for Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump never bothered to visit Africa. He famously referred to its countries in crude and disparaging terms and he banned some of them from sending visitors to the United States. Among his few African interests were Somalia, where he drastically increased U.S. missile strikes on suspected insurgents, and South Africa, where he tweeted his sympathies for white farmers.
Mr. Biden will almost certainly take a broader and more nuanced approach. In his campaign platform, he spoke of his “commitment” to Africa. He promised a more “respectful” and “reinvigorated” engagement with African countries.
Two of his early appointments signalled that these promises are more than just rhetoric. He has chosen Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a long-time Africa specialist, to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And he named Samantha Power, who has lengthy Africa experience, to be the head of the U.S. development agency, USAID.
Both will be influential. Mr. Biden announced that Ms. Thomas-Greenfield will be a full member of his cabinet. She spent years as a diplomat in Liberia, Kenya, Nigeria and Gambia, and later held the top Africa post in the State Department, travelling across the continent from 2013 to 2017.
As for Ms. Power, she will also hold membership in Mr. Biden’s National Security Council (NSC) – a sign of her senior role. As a journalist, she worked in Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Sudan, and she later spent time in a number of African countries when she was an NSC member in the Obama administration and then the UN ambassador.
She has long emphasized the importance of human rights, democracy promotion and refugee issues – although she is often criticized for supporting the Western military intervention in Libya in 2011, sparking a decade of chaos in the North African country.
While Mr. Trump seemed indifferent to human-rights issues in Africa, this could change in the Biden administration. Ms. Power has been outspoken in support of causes such as the recent Nigerian protests against police brutality.
Mr. Biden, unlike Mr. Trump, is unlikely to see Africa primarily as a place for military and counterterrorism activity. He has promised to bring the United States back into the Paris climate treaty and the World Health Organization – two key priorities in Africa, where many countries have suffered badly from climate change and health crises.
He has also pledged to get rid of the “global gag rule” – a policy routinely instituted by Republican presidents to ban U.S. funding to health groups that mention abortion as an option. The policy has forced many health centres in Africa to close or reduce their programs.
But analysts do not expect Mr. Biden to make any radical policy changes. “Hopes of a more Africa-centric foreign policy are misplaced,” said a recent report by NKC African Economics, a consultancy.
“The relationship will remain a distant one, which means China and increasingly Russia will still have ample opportunity to expand their footprints on the continent.”
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