Barack Obama’s ‘Trade not Aid’ policy direction in Africa had its detractors, but at the very least, his view of the continent was charitable. Through two US-Africa Business Forum (USABF) meetings, the first black president seemed to actively pursue improved trade relations with countries on the continent. But for President Trump, his posture to the continent has been hostile. And the latest trade war with Rwanda typifies how the current US administration views African countries.
This trade war has been long coming. First came the “shithole” comments directed at countries like Nigeria caught in US’s immigration fracas. President Trump is given to misstatements, like how he infamously tweeted about the African country “Nambia”, so his people continue to admonish supporters that what he does matters, not what he says. The man himself has gone full Animal Farm, saying “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” In Africa, however, the words match the actions.
In 2018, beyond the aforementioned shithole comments, the U.S. has tangled with South Africa over the vote to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In that instance, aid was used as bait to seduce South Africa into submission. Perhaps if President Jacob Zuma was still in charge of the country, things would have changed. But President Ramaphosa has other ideas of sovereignty. His country stuck with the decision to oppose, and their relations with the US have remained terrible. 20 months after his mission was terminated, no one has replaced the last US Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard. President Cyril Ramaphosa also opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, and it’s been reported that he is pursuing stronger economic ties to Iran. The two countries aren’t done battling.
Taken in context of his relationship with the continent, Trump’s trade war with Rwanda isn’t shocking. In the trade war with China, he desires fairness and wants China to reduce the trade deficit between the two countries. “The increase in the possible rate of the additional duty is intended to provide the administration with additional options to encourage China to change its harmful policies and behaviour and adopt policies that will lead to fairer markets and prosperity for all of our citizens,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said recently in a statement. But African countries like Rwanda already have trade surpluses with the US, so the hypocrisy of asking for prosperity for all of his own citizens while actively pursuing the converse in other places is glaring. But contrary to popular belief, this has always been the American posture to countries in the global south. The difference is that what used to be covert is now overt.
It, however, isn’t all gloom for African countries. With the principled stance of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and South Africa’s Ramaphosa—Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari can’t be counted in this crusade since he has already gone for his photoshoot in Washington DC—perhaps African countries will begin to redefine their relationship with countries keen on imperialist policies. President Kagame already made news for receiving the presidents of China and India on the same day. And in hosting the BRICS summit, with China’s President Xi Jinping in attendance, the South African government reinforced its message of improving relations with the rest of the world. Kenya, too, is already seeking improved trade relations with China, with hopes that it can increase agricultural exports to the country.
Of course, China can’t be trusted. Their desire for world domination is well documented, too. Their war of attrition with the U.S., however, presents opportunities for leverage. When two elephants fight, the grass doesn’t have to suffer; the smart ones will thrive. If all that is derived from this romance with China is to show that rather than cower in the face of American threats, African countries are ready to play the game of international relations with some savvy, then the war with Trump might just be a win for the continent.