In mid-May, at the Africa Finance Corporation’s 10th year anniversary infrastructure summit (“AFC Live 2017”) held in Abuja, I asked Jay Ireland, the president and chief executive of GE Africa – the subsidiary of the American industrial giant on the continent – about his thoughts on whether Donald Trump, the American president, would be good or bad for Africa. Specifically, I wanted to know if President Trump would be worth the trouble of winning over. As Mr Trump does not know much about Africa, if the little mention the continent got during his election campaign is anything to go by, engaging with him early on might spring pleasant surprises, some pundits argue. Despite such assurances, I remained a little sceptical. So the opportunity to ask Mr Ireland, who incidentally is also the chair of former President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa and co-chair of the US Africa Business Centre, which leads the American business community’s engagement activities on the continent, was huge. In a sign of the times and the peculiar style of the current American president, Mr Ireland demurred, humorously wondering if his answer might not become the “subject of a tweet.”More importantly, he said a strong case was being made to the Trump administration to continue ongoing initiatives. I was particularly interested in the “Power Africa” programme initiated during the Obama administration; especially since even during Mr Obama’s tenure, it was floundering, talk less that of Mr Trump. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is not as vulnerable to a Trump rethink, albeit the administration could still exercise certain prerogatives over the choice of beneficiary countries and so on. My interpretation of Mr Ireland’s comments are as follows: Should Africa indeed not be a priority for Mr Trump, ongoing African initiatives may simply continue under the aegis of able and experienced technocrats at the American State department. And in the event Mr Trump suddenly develops a keen interest on African issues, proactive engagement with the administration like his and the business people he represents may be hugely differential. It has also been argued that African heads of state should do likewise.
Focus on first-order issues
In light of the recent exit from the Paris climate accord by Mr Trump, however, some are now beginning to think whether there is a need to even try. I would not be too quick to give up. True, with African countries already beginning to see the negative effects of climate change via droughts and so on, the recent American action is a setback. And of course, African countries initially had their own reservations about the accord. Not a few wondered why they should have to be environment-friendly at the expense of their development; especially as currently developed countries were not similarly cautious. But with research showing a nexus between climate change and increasing incidents of conflict in a number of African countries, there is a growing consensus about the need to be more caring of the earth we live in. Still, to do this, African countries would require financial and technological support. To this end, the Paris agreement makes substantial provisions. With the American exit, however, also goes its financial commitment. It is also evidence that a Trump presidency would (at least for now) have second-order negative effects for Africa when the issues relate to broader international and multilateral arrangements that Mr Trump is averse to. So it is on the more specific African initiatives that African leaders should hope to influence him on.
At the recent G7 summit in Italy, it was all too clear Mr Trump was not enjoying himself. He was particularly irritated by Emmanuel Macron’s (the French president) “macho-diplomacy”:Mr Macron’s overly firm and lingering handshake with Mr Trump at their very first meeting since the former’s inauguration was well-reported. As if determined to rattle the American president or put him to size, Mr Macron also made sure to refer to the incident afterwards as deliberate. That and another, where Mr Macron seem to be moving towards Mr Trump to shake hands, as the G7 leaders and invited guests did their traditional group-walk in front of the press, but at almost the last minute swerved to shake that of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, must have been a little unnerving for a man known for his fragile ego. Thus, it is very likely that unpleasant experience was at least a secondary motivation for his action on the Paris accord. In his speech announcing the decision, Mr Trump was almost certainly taking aim at Mr Macron when he said: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”(The Washington Post did a very insightful article on the dynamics leading to Mr Trump’s decision.) At the G7 summit it turns out, one of few instances where Mr Trump seemed to be enjoying himself was when he ran into some of the African delegates: Yemi Osinbajo (Nigeria), Alpha Conde (Guinea), Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Hailemariam Desalegn (Ethiopia) and Akinwumi Adesina (African Development Bank). With deft handling, Mr Trump could become an ally.