Analysts anticipate a Biden-led US boosting trade ties and shifting from a stance in which US moves in Africa seemed mainly to counter China
Biden’s 1980s opposition to South African apartheid, and his appointment of long-time Africa hands demonstrate his commitment to the continent, they say
In 1986, Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from the state of Delaware, challenged the US government’s ambiguous policy towards the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Pressing for passage of anti-apartheid legislation, Biden described the suffering of black South Africans under the white supremacist regime and demanded that President Ronald Reagan’s administration articulate a clear policy on ending the discrimination.
“Our loyalty is not to South Africa, it’s to South Africans. And the South Africans are majority black. They are being excoriated,” Biden said. His leadership helped win congressional approval of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, imposing sanctions on South Africa.
That advocacy is well remembered in Pretoria. President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking in November with Biden, newly elected to the US presidency, said that Biden had long demonstrated his passion for human rights and dignity for all South Africans.
Biden’s past in multilateralism as well as his later experiences when he was vice-president in the Obama administration may shape his Africa policy, analysts said.
One early indication: among the first executive orders he signed after being sworn in on Wednesday, President Biden reversed the discriminatory travel bans instituted by the man he unseated, Donald Trump. Those targeted nationals from a number of predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, including Chad, Eritrea, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania. Biden termed the bans “a stain on our national conscience and inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths – and no faith at all”.
Analysts anticipate a Biden presidency that would re-engage with the continent, boosting trade ties and increasing its security cooperation with African nations – a shift from the “great power” competition that Trump seemed to favour, where US moves seemed mainly about countering China’s growing influence in Africa.
“Africa need not be a theatre for US-China ‘Cold War’ as I sensed John Bolton’s ‘national security doctrine’ under Trump seemed to envision,” said John Stremlau, a professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, referring to Trump’s national security adviser.
W. Gyude Moore, senior policy fellow at the Centre for Global Development and a former Liberian minister of public works, said a bipartisan consensus exists in Washington that China is a competitor of the US in Africa – “so that posture will not change because there are Democrats in power”.
The US approach might shift, though, Moore said, adding that “the message that China’s rise is an existential threat has limited resonance in Africa”.
Moore continued: “Across Africa, there are verifiable markers of prosperity and economic advances that are directly linked to China’s rise. US policy that only sees Africa through a ‘China’ narrative will fail.”
China is Africa’s largest trading partner, having surpassed the US in 2009. China-Africa trade in 2019 stood at US$208.7 billion, according to figures from Beijing, while US-Africa trade totalled just US$56.9 billion, based on official data.
Africa stands to gain from the move by the US to rejoin international accords and agencies Trump had withdrawn from, analysts noted. On Wednesday, fresh from being sworn in, Biden returned the US to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization (WHO), which has extensive programmes in Africa.
The US has traditionally been the WHO’s biggest financier, contributing about 15 per cent of the agency’s total budget, with much of that money goes to developing nations in Africa, where countries struggle with regular epidemics of measles, cholera, malaria, HIV, Ebola and other diseases.
Biden’s appointments to his administration also feature many who have worked in Africa.
Michael Chege, a political economy professor at the University of Nairobi, said the Africa experts around President Biden include “many old hands who held key positions” during the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Among them are Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the nominee for US ambassador to the United Nations; and Susan Rice, once Obama’s national security adviser and now a close Biden adviser.
“We should therefore expect to see a revival of many key Clinton and Obama policies towards Africa,” Chege said.
Chege said that the US might also reverse its opposition – announced by Trump – to the nomination of Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, a Nigerian-born economist, as secretary general of the World Trade Organization.
Stremlau called Biden’s rejoining WHO and the Paris accord “low-hanging fruits but vital”.
“I am especially pleased with his nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield for US Ambassador to the UN, with Cabinet ranking, as she is a true multilateralist steeped in African affairs”.
A few Trump trade initiatives do stand out, especially the establishment of the United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which aims to encourage US investment in Africa under the Prosper Africa Initiative, with US$60 billion in available financing.
“Hawks will see it as a response to the ‘China threat’ but I like to think it offers more options for African nations and I think Biden will be more interested in what’s good for Africa than in ‘countering China’,” Stremlau said.
He said the US is likely to continue trying to deter Chinese expansion in Asia and defend Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Even so, Stremlau said, Washington and Beijing could still “interact constructively” in Africa, which would be “good for Africa, and perhaps even as a confidence-building mechanism between the world’s two biggest and still extensively interdependent economies”.