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Trump, Biden, and the Threat to African Democracy

Source: Flickr/ Embassy of Equatorial Guinea

Cassius Hynam

While the world tuned in to the United States election coverage, Ivory Coast’s current President Alassane Ouattara won an unconstitutional third term. It continues a worrying rise in Africa of the ‘constitutional coup’, incumbents who change the constitution to ease term-limits and establish themselves firmly as ‘leaders for life’. As a result, academics who study the varied history of democracy in Africa say the power and quality of democracy has broadly stagnated, if not minorly regressed, in the past year.

The US election, which has exacerbated President Donald Trump’s recklessness, is partly to blame for weakening African institutions and emboldening corrupt leadership. But even Joe Biden’s win may do little to change this. In one sense, Trump’s undermining of the US election diminishes the US’ ability to enforce democratic principles abroad, leaving African politics at the whim of strongman leaders rather than strong institutions. Adopting voter intimidation tactics, like threatening to send police to booths or refusing to accept a free exchange of power, are actions taken from the playbook of African despots. Even his consistent rally cries to lock up his political opponents ring truer to the behaviour of President Magufuli in Tanzania than a typical American President. As the pre-eminent voice in promoting democracy abroad, Trump’s delegitimisation of the election exacerbates a callous four years in office where he has led a drastic decline in the global perception of the US’ foreign policy and soft power.

Trump’s Presence in Africa

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, the US and Trump have approval ratings of greater than 50 per cent. This statistic is surprising given Trump’s seeming indifference to the continent. He did not release a foreign policy plan for Africa until almost two years into his presidency, a plan which did not even stress a desire for free and fair elections. He never visited Africa whilst President. His predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were both far more engaged with the continent. Bush’s major spending to prevent malaria and AIDS saved millions of lives, while Obama collaborated significantly on smaller projects aiming to promote youth leadership and fight hunger. Obama’s address to the African Union on his fourth visit to Sub-Saharan Africa stressed the importance of leaders stepping down. The comparison makes Trump’s disinterest even more apparent. His limited desire and weakened efficacy to promote democracy has certainly emboldened autocratic leaders on the continent. It has even led leaders to publicly express their love for Trump, including Uganda’s five term President, Yoweri Museveni.

Fittingly, just 24 hours after Trump’s administration released a statement condemning the election in the Ivory Coast, Trump sought to undermine the integrity of his own. For many Africans on Twitter, this double-standard was laughable. Yet it sets a dangerous and uncomfortable standard for those leading such African nations. While Trump may have insinuated that he will stay on as president for several unconstitutional terms, leaders such as Alpha Condé in Guinea and John Magufuli in Tanzania became the most recent African leaders to make constitutional amendments to do just that.

A Biden Presidency

The African Union should be applauded for its efforts in limiting military coups over the past decade. Yet when it comes to the ‘constitutional coup’ the Union has been silent, justifying itself by decrying notions of sovereignty and self-determination. If Trump had worked with the African Union throughout his presidency, he could have put pressure on leaders seeking illegitimate re-election to stand down or peacefully transfer power. This did not happen and many leaders are now firmly established to lead indefinitely, tenuously legitimised by the constitutional changes. Even a Biden presidency, which many hoped would signify a return to typical American foreign policy, may have little ability or desire to enforce major change.

Whilst Biden has committed to strengthening institutions, like the African Union, and will reinstate funding for the World Health Organisation, he has been mostly muted in his vision for the African continent. This has led numerous African academics to express doubt that a Biden presidency will bring change to the regions’ political structures. The rise of China likely means viewing Africa through the prism of national and economic security. Thoughts of promoting democracy, development or improving the lives of Africans will run secondary to this.

What This Means for Africa

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Africa in 2018, he urged countries to partner with US businesses rather than the Chinese government for funding on major infrastructure projects. It signified an important pivot in American attitudes to the continent. As an example, the influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has so far provided millions in funding throughout Africa, threatens US hegemony. When faced with a security dilemma, history suggests America will side with the powerful leading these countries rather than the people who live there. Even Obama’s administration was willing to overlook Ethiopia’s sketchy human rights record and attacks on the opposition because they were key in fighting militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. If there is the possibility of weakening a rising China, there’s little reason to expect America won't be willing to forego the issues of democracy and human rights again.

Thirteen African leaders since 2015 have actively sought to weaken term limit restrictions. Protests this year in Nigeria, Guinea, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Uganda, and Ghana demonstrate the willingness of Africans to fight for their democracy, but protesters need international support. Any hope that the US election would help to strengthen democracy in Africa now appears misguided.


Cassius Hynam is the Sub-Saharan Africa Correspondent for YDS and a recent University of Melbourne graduate in Politics & International Studies and Economics. He is currently completing an internship at the Grattan Institute.



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