US President Donald Trump did not refer to Africa once in his first State of the Union Address. His predictable focus was on several highly contentious domestic issues Americans will have to resolve for themselves.
Africa has vital stakes in how Americans deal with three of these: climate change, foreign assistance, and immigration.
All are being contested in the US Congress, judiciary and the court of US public opinion. Each deserves sustained diplomatic attention and lobbying by African governments, the African Union, and in concert with other concerned nations.
Africans cannot ignore Trump. But in trying to meet the needs of their people, a more promising way of engaging America is to seek closer partnerships with those opposing the president and who can provide sustained support of Africa’s own democratic aspirations.
The threat of climate change
Although Trump did not mention climate change in his address, he boasted:
“We have ended the war on American Energy — and we have ended the war on clean coal.”
This poses a direct threat to Africa as America is the world’s largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, with the burning of oil and coal, the main cause of the cumulative effect.
Southern Africa is already warming at an alarming rate, twice the global mean. Cape Town, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, is suffering through its worst drought ever. It risks becoming the world’s first major city to run out of water.
Urban environmental activists in the US are likely to identify more with the plight of Cape Town than with climate-linked human suffering due to desertification, lack of potable water, and conflicts across other areas of sub-Sahara Africa, but both face a common enemy.
Africa’s immediate challenge is to secure greater support from US environmentalists and other political activists to limit the effects of Trump’s decision to terminate US funding and of the new Green Climate Fund. America and China had championed this fund to help African and other highly vulnerable countries adjust to climate change and ensure their support for the 197-nation Paris Climate Accord.
Trump opposes the Accord, but majorities in all 50 US states favour America’s continued participation, a cause for hope that his climate change polices can’t be sustained.
Regarding the future of US foreign assistance, Trump made only one comment, but with a twist certain to rankle African governments. He called on the Congress to pass legislation that would make future assistance conditional on recipients agreeing to support his administrations foreign policy decisions. These include such controversial decisions as US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Those African governments still dependent on foreign-assistance and may be reluctant to challenge Trump. Yet as his conditions become more onerous and his offers less attractive, saying no may be less risky.
African countries acting collectively and in partnerships with as broad a spectrum as possible among the growing resistance to Trump, can help ensure current programs important to Africa are sustained. This, while containing and countering Trump’s threats.
A third topic of special interest to Africa, US immigration policy, was also probably the issue of greatest concern to a majority of the estimated 45.6 million Americans who watched Trump’s address. Two aspects of Trump’s domestically divisive reform proposal would have widespread direct effects in Africa.
One is his call to end the lottery system that allows more equitable access to citizens from countries previously under-represented, many of them African. This has proven to be good for American diversity and the economy, while generating substantial remittances for low income sending countries.
African-Americans in Congress support the program. But public opinion is running against its continuation, while Trump condemns it using terms Africans regard as racist.
Trump’s other immigration reform proposal would also affect many Africans negatively and very personally. It would end an already limited provision for family unification. In his address, Trump falsely alleged that currently, “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives”.
That’s what he and his supporters call “chain migration”. The term certain to offend the millions of African-Americans whose ancestors were forcibly brought to America in chains, without regard to family ties. Trump’s demagoguery of this issue has sowed public confusion.
Finding common cause
Africans who are frustrated, even fearful, of Trump’s racist views and vindictive actions should listen to the Democratic Party’s response to the State of the Union Address, delivered by Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy III.
Kennedy is the grandson of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who sought renewed personal and political purpose by going to Apartheid South Africa in 1966 to appeal publicly for racial equality and justice. Faithful to the standard of his grandfather, in words similar to those of Barack Obama, Joe Kennedy called for a more inclusive America, a country that belongs to all who live there. This is the strategic position of the Democratic Party.
This is heartening given that, according to all reputable polls, Democrats lead Republicans ahead of November 2018 legislative elections and 2020 presidential vote.