Africa: What U.S. Vote Means for Kenya and Africa

Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission officials get ready for the day at Municipal Park in Naivasha (file photo).
31 October 2020

On November 3, the United States will hold its much anticipated presidential election, with gubernatorial and legislative polls also being held in some states.

Voters will either decide to re-elect President Donald Trump and vice-president Mike Pence (Republican Party), or former vice-president Democrat Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris.

With Americans expected to vote in the most divisive election in living memory amidst a pandemic, the stakes couldn't be higher.

Trump's presidency has profoundly shaken the faith of the world in America's global leadership.

Under President Trump's inward looking "America first" stance, the US has lost much of its lustre and moral standing due to his mishandling of foreign policy, blatant violation of global norms and failure to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, a September survey from the Pew Research Centre showed that approval of the US among many nations has dropped to its lowest-ever level in decades.

The president has jeopardised America's relations with the rest of the world by undermining multilateral agencies like the World Health Organisation and World Trade Organisation, which the US helped to build.

The Trump administration has employed trade wars as legitimate policy tools to advance national objectives, and withdrawn the US from multilateral agreements such as the Paris Climate Treaty and Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Free trade

Having been part of the Obama administration that was known for supporting free trade and respect for international norms, a Biden government could portend the return to a US that is a more constructive world participant operating within multilateral rules, institutions and partnerships.

The subject of future US-Africa relations under a Biden administration is, therefore, what many countries on the continent view favourably.

Being the pre-eminent global power, the outcome of the US election will shape geopolitical events and affect Africa, especially when considering the policy proposals of the two candidates.

Africa has been conspicuously absent from speeches of Biden and Trump and US foreign policy towards Africa has not featured in the presidential race.

While analysts are trying to deduce how Africa will fare if Trump is re-elected, it is still not clear what will happen under a Biden presidency.

That Trump has few friends in Africa is not surprising, having caused outrage early in his term by referring to African countries in unflattering terms.

He also imposed travel restrictions and barred refugee resettlement from some Muslim-majority countries in Africa.

Under a Trump administration, the US has been less engaged in Africa compared to his three immediate predecessors.

Trump has yet to pay Africa a visit, and has had minimal contact with its leaders.

Early in his term, top US diplomats attempted to calm fears that Africa will not be a priority for Trump, saying his administration would uphold the US-Africa policy whose pillars are peace and security, counter-terrorism, economic trade, investment and development and democracy and good governance.

This is yet to materialise. President Trump instead has shown no interest in understanding the complex African geopolitics.

Foreign policy

His policy proposals have been relatively modest.

Trump's incoherent foreign policy has alienated traditional allies like Ethiopia.

His provocative comments suggesting that Egypt might "blow up" the $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam alarmed Addis Ababa.

The US president has been unusually silent on the rule of law and democratic governance on the continent.

Past US leaders have openly expressed their support and commitment to democracy in Africa.

President Trump has shown a preference for strongmen such as Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Africans hope a Biden presidency will give unequivocal support to efforts aimed at strengthening reforms and democratic institutions on the continent.

What the Trump administration has been keen to do is try and counter China's commercial, security and political influence in Africa.

The US-China rivalry is playing out openly, with the President Trump adnistration labelling China a "predatory" lender that is ensnaring African states in a debt trap.

The US-Africa Strategy signifies the intention to counter China's influence across the continent.

If he is re-elected, Trump is expected to put more efforts in assisting US companies do business as envisaged in the "Prosper Africa" plan, his signature initiative that seeks to double US-Africa trade.

This seems to be the reason behind the Trump administration's special interest in Kenya.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has visited the White House on two occasions and the bilateral relationship has been elevated to a strategic partnership with a corresponding annual strategic dialogue.

The US and Kenya have started negotiations for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, the first in Sub-Sahara, which Washington hopes will be a model for bilateral deals with other countries on the continent.

Experts have, however, cautioned that a bilateral approach is detrimental to Africa's interests, arguing that a US-Kenya deal could undermine attempts to build a regionwide economic bloc - the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Moreover, there is no guarantee that Trump will be in office come January, leaving the future of the talks in question.

The US and Kenya have a strategic interest in the region's security and stability.

Kenya has been a guarantor of the peace process in South Sudan and is crucial player in the war on terrorism.

The two countries have a strategic partnership on regional and global security issues, particularly on counterterrorism.

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