What will Biden’s US win mean for Africa? Experts weigh in
Al Jazeera asked African experts from various fields – from art and finance to human rights and governance – to share their views about the US policies in the continent under Biden.
Leaders across Africa have congratulated Joe Biden for his election win, with many expressing hope that his presidency will boost ties between countries on the continent and the United States.
Donald Trump never visited a country in sub-Saharan Africa after assuming office in January 2017, and many observers agree that the president effectively ignored the continent, at best – and insulted it, at worst.
But what could a Biden presidency mean for the continent? Al Jazeera asked experts from various fields – from art and finance to human rights and governance – in countries across Africa to share their views.
In alphabetical order, here is what they had to say:
Abukar Arman – Former Somalia special envoy to the US, Somalia
As far as foreign policy towards Africa is concerned, I do not expect substantive change. Biden will be different than Trump, as Barack Obama was different than George W Bush.
He will speak softly and continue the knee-on-the-neck policy to secure zero-sum advantage to a few predatory capitalists that are already well-positioned in countries such as Somalia.
Biden is likely to bring Ambassador Susan Rice on board. She is a hawk whose record under Obama speaks for itself.
Sure, there is a sigh of relief in seeing Trump’s presidency coming to an end, but let us not forget that the domestic challenge will demand much of his attention. Africa is likely be set on autopilot.
Amy Niang – Professor of international relations, Senegal
The Obama-Biden administration held out the most tantalising prospects yet only delivered symbolic politics. It continued a trend, inherited from the Bush government, of normalisation of counterterrorism, the instrumentalisation of foreign aid for securitisation purposes and the militarisation of its foreign policy in Africa.
Biden’s promise to “reengage with world” is a welcome move. We are, however, neither naive nor complacent.
Africa needs investment and technology transfer to build infrastructure, to mechanise its agriculture and create jobs for its youth. We therefore expect him to engage Africa as a serious trade and investment partner and a pivotal actor in global politics. We urge him to take [a] cue from the African Union and to work closely with the continental institution to elaborate policies that are mutually beneficial.
Brian Tamuka Kagoro – Pan- Africanist, lawyer and development governance expert, Zimbabwe
Africa is way ahead of the US in many respects. We have had two female presidents, several female ministers of defence and finance as well as female vice presidents, while it took 243 years for the US to elect its first woman vice president. Africa is well-schooled in handling pre and post-election disputes. Because of our heterogeneity, we are accustomed to dealing with deeply divisive electoral processes and outcomes.
Historically, it has not mattered much for Africa whether Democrats or Republicans are in the White House. The US-Africa policy seems to oscillate around a narrow set of US national and global interests, including the war on terror, countering China and Russian influence, contests of conservative or liberal values around sexual and reproductive health and rights and human rights.
Overall, Africa has witnessed a marked reduction in US official development assistance and investment since the Obama presidency. The Biden-Harris campaign website contains a rather colourless set of policy cliches on the African Diaspora and Africa. In short, it does not seem as though Biden cares enough about or has given sufficient thought to US-Africa relations. This lack of nuanced policy – if not addressed – may mean a lot less resource investment in Africa or simply more of the same.
Whilst the Biden-Harris ticket owes African Americans and persons of colour a huge debt, it does not owe Africa anything at all. If anything, African leaders owe their citizens a much higher level of seriousness and unity. Without a structured engagement by the collective African leadership, it is safe to say hope lies in three things: who Biden appoints as secretary of state and secretary for Africa, respectively; how the Harris effect plays out in handling global affairs as well as issues pertaining to people of colour, human rights and migration; [and] where and how Biden and Harris choose their priorities and investments.
Chika Okeke-Agulu – Art historian, professor of African and African Diaspora Art at US-based Princeton University, Nigeria
It is hard to say whether the election of Biden will spur the process of healing of a dangerously divided and increasing fracturing nation. But I have no doubt that getting rid of Trump is good for the US and the world.
With Biden at the helm, the US can begin again to lead efforts to find solutions to the most important problems facing the country and the world: The pandemic, the environment, racial justice, the occupation of Palestine and more. Moreover, Trump’s personal character, his total lack of decency, made him a terrible model for political leadership anywhere.
While I am not sure that [the] US-Africa relationship will change dramatically for the better with Biden, we can do without Trump’s total disrespect and contempt for Africa, Africans and non-white peoples. His absence from the world stage will not be missed.
Daniel Bekele – Chief commissioner of Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Ethiopia
Biden’s victory is good news to all who kept faith in the process of democracy as they witnessed how America’s democracy was subjected to an unprecedented test in its recent history, yet it has prevailed.
For Africa, it demonstrates the power of checks and balances and the importance of governance that is anchored on rule of law and human rights. Millions in the continent have watched how great was the number of Americans who stood up and spoke in favour of racial justice, inclusion and human rights and turned that into an active and peaceful engagement in the political process of their country. Many will want to initiate or consolidate reforms in their own countries.
Biden’s election helps to restore confidence in democracy and democratic process at a time when the African political landscape is undergoing a seismic shift. In the past few years, we observed with concern as the US backslid in its international human rights obligations and its support to human rights work globally.
I would now expect the Biden presidency to honour its campaign promises in terms of restoring the spirit of multilateralism and upholding democratic values and human rights in its relations with Africa and the world. A return to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Agreement on climate could be the examples to start with. I also hope his presidency will usher in and demonstrate [a] renewed era of cooperation between the US and Africa based on principles of human rights and equality.
‘Fisayo Soyombo, freelance investigative journalist and ex-editor of TheCable, Nigeria
Donald Trump wasn’t even US president yet – just president-elect – when Africa’s Nobel laureate in literature Wole Soyinka had quite symbolically vowed to “tear” his ‘green card’.
Trump arguably led the most Africa-averse US administration in history, going on to erect walls that welled resentment in the foreign contingent of Black nations and drove many of the continent’s brightest farther away from US soil than they had ever been.
The Trump presidency undermined decades of US history as a bastion of democracy and protagonist of universal tolerance.
The coming of Biden potentially promises to restore all these. On a continent that sadly needs the West more than the other way round, never under-estimate the renewing powers of this prospect in the minds of those shouldering the loftiest individual and national aspirations everywhere in Africa.
Gatwal Gatkuoth – South Sudanese peacebuilder, executive director of Young Adult Empowerment Initiative in Uganda
This is a very turbulent election – and the fact that it is happening in the US today sends a timely reminder to the rest of the world and especially African countries that even established democracies such as the US can sometimes be affected by poor leadership.
Unlike in most African states, the American people benefit from strong institutions that give them the power to choose leaders who they believe will safeguard democratic values.
From an African perspective, I think the question should be: What does it take to build firm democracies and strong institutions in Africa that give people similar power to reject bad governance and leaders without having to shed blood?
While most African strongmen were emboldened by Trump to oppress people further, Biden’s win could send a different message altogether, provided that his foreign policies are sound and diverge from the current administration’s policy towards Africa.
Biden’s administration needs a great deal of time to undo Trump’s legacies at home given the growing mistrust exacerbated by racial justice and [the] pandemic. Globally, I expect his administration to forge new ties and strengthen alliances with the political leaders and civil society groups from Africa.
The US has never really had a coherent and constructive Africa policy, but it is not too late. A good place to start is to learn to know about Africa and Africans.
Gyude Moore – Senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, former minister of public works of Liberia
For countries in Africa and elsewhere, the end of the Trump presidency could not come sooner. In international affairs, the weaker states benefit significantly from multilateralism – where regardless of power, each country gets one vote.
In the last 75 years, no American president has done more to undermine international institutions and multilateralism. With Trump gone, the US will halt its withdrawal from the WHO. The Trump administration has consistently withheld funding contributions from UN [United Nations] agencies, many of which have large programmes in Africa. Trump also withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, again undermining the global fight against climate change. Africa is the most vulnerable to the changing climate and least resilient. Biden has promised to re-enter the agreement.
There are now two unfolding crises across the world – and for the first time since 1945, there is no real role for the US. The US has not joined COVAX, the global effort to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are available to the poorest countries. The pandemic has also triggered the continent’s first recession in 25 years on top of a debt crisis. The US has taken no substantive role because its government has focused on an “America First” strategy. Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders that targeted individual African countries will either be allowed to expire or be summarily rescinded. Finally, it was the Trump administration that held up Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala and prevented the first female and first African from taking over leadership at the World Trade Organization.
So for Africa, simply a reset of the world to Obama-administration levels will be a significant improvement on the last four years and it is clear that the Biden administration is headed in that direction.
Idayat Hassan – Director at Centre for Democracy and Development, Nigeria
The elections have been both ominous and amusing – it is almost like watching a comedy, but comes with huge implications.
The democratic backsliding in the US is a bad signal for democracy globally. The unfolding electoral crisis has a massive implication that a Biden win must acknowledge and apologise to the world to lessen the fallout.
Otherwise, I can imagine what it will look like for any US diplomat, development and non-government organisations issue a report to give their “usual fatwa” on how and why any African country must adhere to democratic ideals.
However, as a Nigerian, I am excited by a Biden win. I am aware that with a Biden win, the US will resume its traditional approach of US interest first, but of course be respectful of Africa and Africans. A Biden win will bring back again multilateralism as a cornerstone for democratic foreign relations. As a human rights defender, I can sleep for once with my two eyes closed, knowing the US will have the morality to rise to the defence when rights are breached.
What happened in the US recently has taught us that democracy is not a given but instead must be nurtured.
Landry Signe – Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Global Economy and Development Program, Cameroon
First and foremost, under a Biden presidency the tone when engaging with African leaders, or speaking about Africa, would most likely be more diplomatic and respectful compared to his predecessor. A friendlier tone contributes to better relationships while advancing mutual interests, and Harris will have a critical role to play.
Second, a Biden presidency is more likely to be engaged in multilateralism, and support African continental initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, the African Union Development Agency, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, although bilateral and reciprocal trade agreements may not be totally out. We will need to watch the post-AGOA [US African Growth and Opportunity Act] configuration.
Third, Biden will most likely further focus on principles and common values, such as advancing democracy and the rule of law in Africa, more than his predecessor, and will most likely react against abuses. African citizens highly value democracy and accountable governance, per the Afrobarometer survey.
Fourth, Biden will actually accelerate the support to trade, investment, and development to create mutual prosperity between Africa and the US, also generating most needed employments on both sides, continuing to a certain extent the work started by Clinton, Bush, Obama, going further than Trump’s Prosper Africa. Firth, Biden will most likely give more serious consideration to the “sixth region” of Africa, the African Diaspora, especially the one based in the US, as illustrated during the campaign.
In other words, although the Trump administration had adopted an African policy that seemed great in principle, they have not succeeded in implementing it fast and effectively enough. A Biden administration will most likely be able to advance US-Africa mutual interests in areas of security, stability, prosperity, and democratic governance more than Trump’s administration, and this despite divergence which will evolve along the way, and which may sometime create frictions between partners, as it is always the case in foreign policies.
Martin Mavenjina – Constitutional and human rights lawyer working with the Kenyan Human Rights Commission as Transitional Justice adviser, Kenya
Biden’s victory is a clear demonstration of the power of democracy and the will of the people. His presidency will greatly strengthen US-Africa trade relations through the creation of long-term, sustainable growth that will not only stimulate the private sector through creating jobs in regions where many African countries are battling high unemployment.
The other impact of a Biden’s presidency is that it may be a chance for the US to enhance its strategy on the continent’s security challenges. Many African countries have and continue to face numerous security challenges from terrorism, violent extremism and political instability.
The other significant impact would be around cooperation and donor funding from the US government. Many African countries expect this presidency to boost cooperation and provide funds for infrastructural development, including lifting a fund freeze that was imposed on the WHO by Trump.
Lastly, it is hoped his presidency will promote and enhance the rule of law, democracy, good governance and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms, as well as address critical issues like the shrinking civic space and internet shutdowns that have now become normalised in Africa.
Ronak Gopaldas – Director at Signal Risk, South Africa/United Kingdom
First, I think financial markets will be enthused by the prospect of a major fiscal stimulus, which alongside accommodative monetary policy, could act as a tailwind for risk assets – including African currencies and bonds. Second, perception towards the US from Africa will improve significantly under Biden. Trump made his sentiments towards the continent clear with a series of derogatory remarks, and a more respectful, conciliatory and dignified approach under Biden will certainly boost the US strategic objectives.
Third, whereas the Trump administration repudiated multilateralism wholeheartedly, pulling out of the Paris [climate] accord and WHO, Biden is likely to reverse these decisions and pursue a more conventional diplomatic approach. Improved stability, certainty and cooperation in the international order will be a welcome boost to Africa’s prospects, especially given the extent of its current economic challenges. Fourth, in terms of trade and investment, relations with China are likely to be less hostile, boosting global growth and demand.
Further, the threat posed to the African Growth and Opportunity Act’s (AGOA) extension in 2025 will probably subside, as protectionist impulses wane. Moreover, the recent trend of the US brokering bilateral trade deals with countries (eg Kenya) may also be replaced in favour of a more collective approach under the Continental Free Trade Agreement. Finally, US foreign policy is less likely to be shaped through the “America first” doctrine. Biden’s Africa policy will assume a more holistic focus, although this agenda will remain driven by competition with China and expanding US commercial activity on the continent.
Suliman Baldo – Senior policy adviser at The Sentry, a non-profit organisation focused on preventing genocide and atrocities in East and Central Africa and exposing corruption, Sudan
US policy towards Africa has focused in recent years without major disruptions on aid, governance reforms, investments and security policies to counter violent extremism. Congress has also maintained funding during the Trump administration to such programmes as the president’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief and AGOA that proved beneficial in the continent.
The Sentry’s investigations have identified the core governing challenge that creates conflict in countries of East and Central Africa and determined that the goal must be the dismantling of the violent kleptocracy plaguing these nations. This approach has seen bipartisan support in Congress and from officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations. We will therefore encourage the next administration to continue the use of appropriate tools of financial pressures in order to strengthen the leverage of diplomatic goals in containing violent kleptocracy in the continent. To this end, there is promise in the Biden campaign’s commitment to make combating corruption a core national security interest and to lead international efforts to bring transparency to the global financial system in order to “go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people”.
The next administration should finalise the process started in recent months for removing Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and restoring its sovereign immunity while affirming commitment to a civilian-led democratic transition in the country. With ominous signs of military escalation in the conflict between the federal government of Ethiopia and the regional government in Tigray region, the next administration should expand the recent US mediation of the Nile water disputes among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in order to contain this internal conflict that could destabilise the entire region and trigger a massive humanitarian disaster.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy. Some of the comments have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.