What The Biden Presidency Could Mean For Africa

Many are anxiously waiting for new US diplomatic leadership – with the hope that transactional diplomacy will be a thing of the past. Nowhere more so than Africa. The outgoing administration used Africa as a prop, pitting nations against each other or tying them in a Gordian knot to deliver on the “deal of the century”. Sudan’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list was contingent on normalising its relations with Israel. Egypt’s frustration with Ethiopia’s contentious Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was boosted when President Trump threatened to withhold millions of aid dollars.  

Commentators could argue that the US has never pursued a coherent and constructive foreign policy towards the continent. However, under the new administration, a revival of steady diplomacy and a renewal of engagement, with Africa as a serious trade and investment partner, could for the first time deliver that coherent policy.

This re-engagement is urgent. With growing tensions in Ethiopia, protests in Uganda after the arrest of two opposition presidential candidates and continued repression in Tanzania after its fraudulent October election, East Africa, in particular, is crying out for attention.

One commentator recently described the international community’s response to the crisis in Ethiopia as “scandalously disengaged”. There is a real risk that the violence between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray region’s regional government escalates into a full-blown conflict. Thousands of refugees are already flooding into neighbouring Sudan. This could destabilise the whole region.

President-elect Biden might not have time to formulate a fully formed regional policy towards Africa. He may have to intervene sooner than he would like. But if his campaign trail promises are to be believed, we can expect a greater focus on the rule of law and democracy. We can also expect a return to multilateralism and a consensual approach to international relations.

There are three areas where US leadership could make an immediate difference: on African debt, trade and climate change. The next administration could help the continent out of its debt trap by using its clout with institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF to agree to longer debt moratoriums, more generous bailouts and greater flexibility for distressed economies.

There should also be serious American support for the African Continental Free Trade Area, which would be the largest free trade area in the world. The World Bank believes that this initiative could lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty and increase Africa’s income by $450 billion by 2035 (a gain of 7 percent) while adding $76 billion to the income of the rest of the world.

And on its re-entry to the Paris Climate Agreement, the US will cement a global consensus about tackling climate change. Energy companies around the world will welcome this. Already many are making the move to clean energy and are looking towards Africa. Without Africa’s natural resources, especially its battery minerals, a truly green economy will be out of reach. The continent’s current instability will worry them.  A new US approach to Africa cannot come soon enough. 

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