How different is the Biden-Harris administration’s Africa policy going to be from Donald Trump’s, or even Barack Obama’s? Many African people, as well as the continent’s strongman leaders, are now gingerly asking – is Biden going to be Obama 2.0, or Trump-lite?
For the sake of black lives mattering everywhere in these turbulent times, I hope Biden will chart a bold new course, diametrically away from not only Trump but also Obama’s Africa policy.
I welcomed the Biden presidency with a deep sigh of relief. Yet I am still worried about his Africa strategy. Relations between president-elect Biden and African people will kick off with tensions and apprehensions – understandably so.
For the past 60 years, Democrat and Republican presidents have approached Africa primarily for access to, and control of, our extractive industries and, at certain points, for counter-terrorism operations. This approach, under the influence of the cold war, translated into the US supporting Africa’s strongmen, leaving vulnerable people struggling to survive their ruthlessness, while China cheered from the sidelines.
The most prominent of these strongmen, including but not limited to Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in power since 1979; Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, head of state since 1986; Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh, in post since 1999; Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, ruling since 1994, and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, in power since 1993. The human cost of US support for these men has been jarring for even the most cynical observers.
Africa’s strongmen have been responsible for millions of deaths on the continent since independence in 1960. Yet it seems no US president has found this troubling.
The bloodiest killing field has been the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where brutal US-backed strongmen killed more than 5.4 million Congolese people over access and control of minerals between 1998 and 2008, and sparked outbreaks of disease, famine and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
With Trump out of the picture, our biggest fear is a repeat of Obama’s Africa doctrine – and for many black people this is the single biggest concern about the Biden-Harris administration.
As we all know, President Obama promised Africa one thing in Ghana in 2009: to support strong institutions instead of strongmen. That simple pledge – repeated, in one form or another – felt very personal to many of us fighting for peace and change.
But Obama delivered almost nothing meaningful; not because of a Russian or Chinese veto at the UN security council but because in the first few years of his presidency some in his team sought to protect people such as Joseph Kabila, former president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose security forces were linked to killings and torture, and Paul Kagame, whose tight grip on the Rwanda presidency has earned him the tag of “benevolent dictator”.
The result? Tragic. During the Obama presidency, 11 African strongmen clung to power, killing thousands of their citizens and displacing millions more. Yet almost not a single one of them faced a serious tit-for-tat consequences from the US – and this has been a colossal disaster for democratic forces across the continent.
Trump, too, turned a blind eye to atrocities in Africa. During his presidency, President Biya’s troops in Cameroon have killed 4,000 civilians. In Ivory Coast, Allassane Ouattara “won” a third unconstitutional term with 94% of the vote. Many civilians were killed in election-linked violence. The list may very well go on.
For the sake of black lives mattering everywhere, will the Biden-Harris administration end the US’s longstanding but shortsighted and destructive support for Africa’s strongmen? How may President Biden respond to #EndSars, a movement against police brutality in Nigeria, or #CongoIsBleeding, a campaign against exploitation in the mines of the DRC? What will he do to de-escalate growing tensions inside Ethiopia or in Eritrea?
Many of us are wondering, too, whether or not Biden will refocus US policy and push for peace in Somalia, Libya, Cameroon or Mozambique? Will he support the creation of an international criminal tribunal for Congo to end the continuing killings and use of rape as a weapon of war and, simultaneously, jump-start development in Africa’s great lakes – a region that seems pitifully prone to strongmen and mass killing?
Answers to these questions are unclear. But I am hopeful about Biden. His career and some of his pitch-perfect public statements – think of his 1986 statement against apartheid South Africa or his commitment to black lives mattering during the campaign trail – reveal instincts, even a moral commitment, to supporting Africa and black people.