By Cilas Kemedjio (University of Rochester) and Cecelia Lynch (University of California, Irvine), Co-Editors of The CIHA Blog (Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa, www.cihablog.com)
Our panel on the impact of the impending Trump presidency on Africa at the 59th annual meeting of the ASA (African Studies Association) was lively and well-attended. We spent the first section of the panel presenting the questions we had outlined earlier and discussing issues that arose out of these questions, and the last part of the panel identifying ongoing steps people can take to try to limit the potential damage a Trump administration could have on various aspects of relations with African countries and societies.
Will a Trump administration really change much of anything regarding relations with Africa? This was one question posed. Regarding militarization of both the Sahel and East Africa, participants tended to agree that not much is likely to change. President Obama enhanced the programs initiated under the George W. Bush administration–especially through the creation of AFRICOM. The next administration will likely follow the same trajectory despite its (sometimes) stated goal of non-intervention.
However, the United States’ engagement with Africa may be geared toward a China-like approach, understood here as more business-minded, more opportunistic and blind to authoritarian regimes, poor governance, and human-rights violations.
Such a move, though, faces a huge obstacle: the United States, unlike China, has never accumulated a store of good will in Africa. China stood with African anticolonial and liberation movements. Without similar moral and political capital, it is very unlikely that the new administration can follow successfully on the footsteps of the so-called China approach. If anything, it could be argued that the United States has amassed negative moral and political capital in Africa.
Libya is a case in point. The “humanitarian fallacy” invoked to create the current chaos in Libya was the overwhelming reason some Africans and Africanists were suspicious of candidate Hillary Clinton. Thanks to Libya, the election emerged as a desperate choice. Instead of such humanitarian fallacies, for example, the core of Cuban interventions in Africa concerned the practice of internationalist solidarities. This, and the history of Chinese support for African independence movements, appear as potent—if passé—alternatives to the proclamations of false forms of humanitarianism.
But a Trump administration could well forego even this kind of proclamation, in favor of a return to even more blatant forms of exploitation of Africa’s resources and African labor. [NOTE: Since this panel took place, the nomination of the CEO of Exxon Mobile as Secretary of State confirms anxieties about such a path.] Such exploitation would be at a minimum ironic, given the primary role played by the place of the working class in the recent U.S. election. The election put front and center, even if implicitly, the deep crisis of capitalism, which appears unable to move forward or enact effective solutions to unemployment and hardship. How would the “failure of capitalism,” affect the conversation on employment and rights in African countries and societies? A Trump administration is likely to ignore labor—Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary has repeatedly opposed raising the minimum wage–(and other) rights and condone exploitation by former colonial powers. Further, given the explicitly racialized conduct and rhetoric of the Trump campaign, a likely scenario seems to be to heighten the racial divisions of the working classes not only in the U.S., but also between the U.S. and Africa.
Ratcheting up exploitative U.S. policies will worsen effects on African economies through a Trump administration’s disregard for environmental regulations and rejection of climate change. We noted, for example, the piece by Patrick Bond, which spelled out the dire consequences for African small farmers if the next administration pulls out of the Paris Climate Accords. In this regard, it is instructive for our readers to have in mind that Trump has nominated a climate change denier to run the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
We also discussed the relationship between money and media in the U.S. elections, the “Berlusconi” factor in terms of Trump’s involvement in a major media empire that will project his views, and the pressing need for NGOs that usually monitor media, elections and “democracy” in Africa to do so in the U.S.
Regarding the immediate concerns of professional organizations like the ASA, Title VI funding for exchange programs with African scholars and universities and the continuation of the Fulbright program could both be threatened. Under the Obama administration, the Fulbright program was threatened with dire cuts, and only a sustained lobbying effort saved it. Title VI presents its own opportunities and challenges. One of the challenges with the new administration would revolve about the impact of the Department of Defense’s funding of the critical languages. How would the new administration leverage this funding and what may the impact be on academic freedoms? Given the fact that this new administration seems to espouse the views of doubters of scientific research (i.e. climate change skeptics), what may the potential impact be on research on Africa?
As a result, concrete steps suggested for moving forward concerned commitment to both critique and policy endeavors, specifically the following:
- Advocacy – it works, some argued, citing meetings with congressional representatives organized by the ASA. Many found the trip to Capitol Hill (part of the conference offerings) fruitful, even vis-à-vis elected representatives and Senators who might otherwise be opposed to ASA goals. The informative and educational dimensions of such endeavors should not be underestimated;
- Joining organizations such as the Association of Concerned African Scholars (http://concernedafricascholars.org/) and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which have a wealth of experience in advocacy; and the new African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA, http://www.as-aa.org), which supports re-centering scholarship on the African continent;
- Subscribing to the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) Blog (cihablog.com; also on Facebook), contributing ideas, information and posts on initiatives, ongoing scholarship, etc., to expose problematic policies and representations that will likely be forthcoming;
- Using social media, especially Twitter, to counter the misinformation promoted by the incoming president and his administration, challenging misinformation at its sources
- Creating platforms that put all advocacy and scholarly groups concerned with Africa in touch to exchange information, connect to current events, and figure out the way forward
- Keeping informed of and participating in the advocacy efforts of the U.S. National Humanities Alliance (http://www.nhalliance.org/).
Both this Blog and the ASA are committed to furthering these initiatives. We thank all those who participated in the panel. Send us your ideas, analyses, and critiques, and we will work together over the next four years to advance productive scholarship and humane policies vis-à-vis the obstacles that likely lie ahead.
Cilas Kemedjio is Director of the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University of Rochester and co-editor of the CIHA Blog.
Cecelia Lynch is a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. She is also co-editor of the CIHA Blog.