As Donald Trump’s administration begins to sort out its foreign policy priorities, Africa has been notably absent from the conversation. Africa policy was a nonexistent issue during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, aside from occasional bromides criticizing U.S. foreign aid expenditures and urging that resources instead be focused on fixing problems at home. During the transition, the sole public mention of Africa came in the form of a leaked memo from the State Department’s landing team, which asked basic questions: What is the United States getting for its investments on the continent? Do terrorist groups like Boko Haram actually represent real threats to the United States? Is the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) becoming a massive entitlement program?

Steven Feldstein
Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where he focuses on issues of democracy and technology, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy.
More >

Security threats emanating from Africa may not be as strategically significant as those from the Middle East, Russia, and China. The U.S. trade and investment relationship with Africa is small compared to other regions in the world. Nonetheless, important U.S. interests are at stake in the region, and critical developments in numerous African countries will almost certainly put those interests to test in the next four years. The Trump administration can ignore Africa only at its peril.

Why Africa Matters

In the last two decades, spanning presidents from both political parties, the United States has increased its investment in and engagement with Africa. Signature programs, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (which has an overwhelming focus on Africa), Feed the Future, the African Growth and Opportunity Act legislation, and PEPFAR, have catalyzed major reforms, saved millions of lives, and transformed economies and infrastructure. These commitments reflect the range of economic interests and security priorities the United States has built in the region. But democracy remains a big question mark for Africa; if its countries fail to develop stable democracies and build legitimate political institutions, it raises doubts about whether the United States can accomplish its security and economic objectives.

On the security front, three engagements consume the bulk of U.S. time and attention: countering Boko Haram in Nigeria, confronting al-Shabab in Somalia, and fighting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali and the Sahel. All three insurgencies can be broadly characterized as extremist movements possessing a radical Islamist ideology that have led to widespread destabilization, destruction, and civilian deaths. There are specific lessons to be drawn from each, but the bottom line is that they are dangerous insurgencies with the potential to morph into direct threats to the United States.

Boko Haram provides a useful illustration. It started as a locally based, homegrown movement but rapidly transformed into a wide insurrection. Boko Haram brandishes violence of shocking intensity and brutality, and at one point controlled territory the size of Belgium. Last year, Nigerian and regional armed forces started to turn the tide against Boko Haram, but imagine if the group had continued its military success—the consequences would have been staggering. The group would have destabilized the most populous country in Africa—the seventh-most populous country in the world—and likely would have unleashed a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis in the region with implications for Europe and the United States. Boko Haram’s emergence serves as an important reminder of why keeping a close watch on nascent insurgencies in Africa’s often unstable politics is vital to U.S. security interests.

An equally alarming security trend has been the continued existence of large-scale conflicts, which have resulted in scores of civilian deaths and massive displacement. In 2016 alone, South Sudan continued its descent into civil war, Somalia remained bedeviled by the al-Shabab insurgency, and even while Boko Haram’s hold on Nigerian territory receded, it caused the displacement of 7 million Nigerians, many of whom reside in appalling conditions in IDP camps. The United States has a security interest, as well as a humanitarian interest, in preventing and mitigating these crises.

On the economic front, there is still a long way to go before the continent fulfills its “Africa rising” promise, but signs on the horizon are auspicious. Africa will likely double its population by 2050, with a population 3.5 times larger than Europe’s at that time. Africa’s rapid demographic growth could be a boon for international markets. The continent is projected to have a larger workforce than either China or India by 2034. Over time, more and more Africans will manufacture goods and provide services to aging populations in the West. In addition, the growth of Africa’s middle class will create a sizable new class of potential consumers with greater purchasing power. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that current spending by African consumers and businesses will grow from $4 trillion currently to $5.6 trillion by 2025. Interestingly, McKinsey projects that extractive resources will play a decreasingly significant role in Africa; since 2000, resources have only accounted for one-third of Africa’s economic growth.

Advancing stable, inclusive democracies is the key to ensuring that African countries can effectively confront extremist threats, address their security needs, and achieve their economic growth potential. Unfortunately, democratic advances on the continent have been halting in recent years. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index notes “scant democratic progress” for sub-Saharan Africa. While political participation and political culture have improved, these gains have been offset by declining scores for civil liberties and government function. In fact, the index deemed only one country in Africa—Mauritius—as a “full democracy.” Likewise, Freedom House observes that recent years have seen “backsliding” among top performers as well as more repressive states; it concludes that only 12 percent of Africa’s population lives in a country designated as “free.”

East Africa is one of several regions on the continent that is exhibiting alarming democratic regressions. Tanzania, for example, has been a high performer in recent years, but it is registering a sharp decline. New President John Magufuli has cracked down on free expression and civil society, annulled legitimate elections in Zanzibar, and even targeted the LGBT community. Ethiopia faces similar crosswinds. After massive demonstrations in the Oromo and Amhara regions roiled the country for most of 2015, the government declared a state of emergency in October 2016 and has imprisoned thousands of citizens, often without charge. In Uganda, longtime President Yoweri Museveni won another term in a disputed election and has proceeded to harshly crack down on the media and political opposition. The implications of these democratic setbacks are bleak—further repression empowers rebel-armed groups and increases the risk of instability.

Still, there are glimmers of hope. West Africa continues to set the pace for advancing democratic principles and upholding transitions of power. As the recent intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in The Gambia exemplifies, a new norm of respecting election results has taken hold in the region, building upon important democratic transfers of power in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal.

Six Priorities for Trump’s Administration

To advance U.S. interests in the region, the Trump administration should focus on six priority issues: safeguarding elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), engaging closely with Ethiopia to prevent further backsliding into violence and unrest, strongly supporting democratic transitions and term limits, protecting civil society, crafting a tailored counterterrorism approach that emphasizes preventing security force abuses, and tackling corruption.

Safeguarding Elections in the DRC

The DRC represented a partial end-of-term success story for Barack Obama’s administration. For nearly two years, President Joseph Kabila tried a variety of tactics, commonly known as “glissement” or “slippage,” to delay and obstruct constitutionally mandated term limits that dictated he step down in November 2016. He attempted to advance a constitutional referendum to get around term limits (widespread demonstrations in the streets put an end to that idea). He exiled his most credible rival, Moise Katumbi, under dubious corruption charges. He cracked down on civil society and opposition groups through selective imprisonment and sporadic killings and used the state machinery to slow the national electoral process to a halt.

As 2016 entered its final months, despite a massive diplomatic push and sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU, many expected widespread protests and bloodshed to result. At the last hour, when it appeared all sides were completely deadlocked, the Catholic Church, with tacit support from the diplomatic community, pulled together a New Year’s Eve deal that established a transitional power-sharing arrangement. This guaranteed that Kabila would step down once citizens voted in a successor and set December 2017 as the deadline for national elections. Now all that needs to happen is for this fragile arrangement to hold together for the next twelve months while the country organizes enormously complex elections. The untimely death of the main opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, on February 1 does not make the job any easier.

The Trump administration should make holding together the DRC’s elections process a diplomatic priority for 2017. The president should nominate a new U.S. ambassador to the country promptly to ensure senior U.S. leadership, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should consider naming a replacement for departed Great Lakes special envoy Tom Perriello, at least for the duration of 2017. If Tillerson can help ensure a peaceful transition in one of Africa’s most important and troubled countries, this will count as a big win early in his tenure.

Preventing Further Instability in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government is pretending that peace has returned to the country after a stormy and tumultuous 2016 that brought widespread protests and resulted in state security forces killing over 500 civilians. The government has instituted a state of emergency that has turned Ethiopia into a police state. Many worry that when Ethiopia’s security forces finally return to their barracks, larger and more intense demonstrations will occur and potentially induce an even more violent government response.

Ethiopia’s political tensions come despite the fact that its government has done a fairly effective job of building and advancing a developmental state that has reduced poverty, brought impressive rates of economic growth and foreign investment, and slowly modernized the economy (although many observers point out that the primary beneficiaries come from a small elite dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic group).

But for all the economic benefits, Ethiopia’s politics have been defined by intimidation, coercion, and one-party rule. National elections held in 2015 resulted in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition winning 100 percent of all parliamentary seats, a number that would have made even Fidel Castro blush. At one point last year, Ethiopia competed with Eritrea for the highest number of imprisoned journalists in Africa (although Eritrea narrowly edged Ethiopia). Thanks to its support for Western counterterrorism interests in Somalia and its developmental successes, Ethiopia has largely received a pass from the international community for its troubling human rights record, escaping even minor censure from the UN Human Rights Council. The year 2017 will be a crucial test for whether the Ethiopian government can continue to keep a lid on simmering discontent, or whether an increasingly alienated population will turn to violence for their voices to be heard.

The Trump administration should engage with the Ethiopian government early on, as well as reach out to key opposition, civil society, and diaspora voices. It should urge the government to take meaningful steps to alleviate tension: release key dissidents from prison, demonstrate a good-faith commitment to tackle real reforms, lift the state of emergency, and end associated human rights violations. It should emphasize that repression not only undermines Ethiopia’s long-term stability but jeopardizes the bilateral relationship.

Supporting Democratic Transitions and Term Limits

The norms of democratic transitions, legitimate elections, and term limits are slowly taking hold in Africa, although strongmen still hold sway in many countries on the continent. Some of the big players remain at the pinnacle of power, despite ages that are rapidly approaching triple digits. José Eduardo dos Santos (Angola), Paul Biya (Cameroon), Idriss Déby (Chad), Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea), Omar al-Bashir (Sudan), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) continue to rule their countries, all after more than a quarter century in power.

In addition, a new generation of authoritarians is using creative means to consolidate its power. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame has adeptly sold his country’s economic performance on the international stage, while quietly constructing one of the most repressive states on the continent. Late in 2015, he called a snap constitutional referendum that sets aside term limits and allows him to stay in power until 2034. In Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba won a disputed election in 2016 that was racked by irregularities and even involved Bongo sending in the army to attack opposition headquarters.

These leaders stay in power by brutally suppressing demonstrations and ruthlessly jailing opposition members who dare challenge their mandates. This matters to the United States, not only because it is morally perilous to gun down innocent citizens who are exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression but also because, over time, repressive authoritarian states become increasingly unstable and susceptible to violent overthrow. Research shows that countries that experience coups witness heightened levels of repression than what existed before the coup, and that coups broadly tend to initiate new dictatorships and greater human rights violations.

But there are cracks in their ranks. In addition to the ECOWAS intervention in The Gambia that drove Yahya Jammeh into exile this year, in 2014, demonstrators forced Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso to flee after twenty-seven years of one-man rule. Even dos Santos, who has presided over Angola for thirty-eight years, has announced he will step down, although the smart money is on his daughter Isabel, recently appointed as head of the state oil company, Sonangol, eventually replacing him.

A key variable will be the outcomes of several contested elections scheduled for 2017. Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are running national elections that could potentially turn violent, and will be important harbingers of whether African leaders will respect legitimate results or continue stealing votes and overturning unfavorable outcomes. Rwanda and Angola will also hold national elections, although few believe Kagame will permit genuine competition, or that Angola’s ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), will tolerate a real challenge.

The Trump administration should prioritize advancing democratic transitions and legitimate elections. This means several things. First, the administration should continue supporting the existing policy on term limits, which holds that heads of state should not change constitutions or modify term limits for personal gain. Africans widely support this approach—a 2015 Afrobarometer poll taken across a broad range of countries showed 75 percent supported a two-term limit on presidencies. Africans want governments that are less corrupt and more accountable in how they spend their resources, and when leaders block those aspirations, this often leads to conflict. Continuing the term-limits policy not only reduces the probability of conflict but helps promote accountability and good governance for how resources are used.

Second, the administration should promote free, fair, and legitimate elections, and not tolerate leaders who rig elections to their liking. As demonstrated in places like Kenya and Ethiopia, election irregularities can quickly devolve into chaos and violence. Heads of state will be carefully watching for U.S. policy signals. If the United States shows hesitancy or reluctance to strongly back democratic transitions, term limits, and legitimate elections, then the likelihood of democratic regression is real.

Defending Civil Society

One of the big stories in Africa has been an unprecedented assault by authoritarian governments against civil society organizations. This is troublesome to U.S. interests because it removes a natural outlet for dissent and disagreement, and instead bottles up anger and frustration. The result, as evidenced in Ethiopia, is a vicious cycle of violent protests followed by an equally brutal crackdown. Civil society also plays an important watchdog role when it comes to exposing corruption and graft. When governments engage in rent-seeking behavior and solicit bribes with impunity, this sets the stage for decreased legitimacy and heightened political volatility.

A favorite approach by governments is to enact sweeping and repressive NGO registration and funding laws. Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Proclamation is a foremost example of the chilling effect this type of legislation can have on NGOs. Since the proclamation was established in 2009, most human rights and advocacy organizations in the country have either ceased formal operations or gone underground. In fact, the law’s success has inspired many other countries to study and emulate it; governments in Burundi, Chad, the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have all drafted and imposed similar restrictions.

Another common tactic employed by African governments is to pass so-called cyber crime statutes, which impose penalties for different types of online activity, such as posting blogs that are deemed unfavorable to the government and organizing demonstrations via social media. Legislation on cyber issues provides governments the authority to cut off citizens’ Internet access based on very flimsy criteria, such as determining that online activity generally threatens a country’s security. For example, over the past year, both Ethiopia and Cameroon have curtailed Internet access to quell rising discontent and subdue unrest.

Paradoxically, the rising state assault on civil society is an implicit recognition of the increased abilities of both traditional NGOs and Internet activists to harness youth discontent and challenge the legitimacy of long-standing regimes. Almost every African leader is aware of Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen—the Citizen’s Broom movement—that galvanized people to resist and topple Compaoré. Likewise, other grassroots movements, often bound together by social media, have emerged as potent threats: #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe, LUCHA in the DRC, and Citizen Whistle in Chad. The struggle between African governments attempting to suppress citizen voices and organizations seeking creative means to bring people together is a core part of the fight to advance democracy on the continent.

The Trump administration should build on the Obama administration’s Stand With Civil Society initiative and visibly support civil society organizations overseas, with a major focus on Africa. One way to improve Stand With Civil Society’s impact and reach would be to channel dedicated funds in support of organizations most in need, or to focus civil society resources on countries that are at greatest risk for democratic regression.

On the diplomatic front, the United States should continue challenging and calling out governments that enact NGO registration laws, cyber restrictions, or any other measure designed to silence civil society. The administration should also find creative ways to continue providing cutting-edge technology to help grassroots democracy groups circumvent these constraints. For example, when a leader like Museveni or Bongo decides to steal an election, their first move is to cut off mobile phone and Internet access. In response, the United States and its partner countries could more aggressively provide civil society groups with VPN or satellite phone technology to allow citizens to continue communicating and organizing.

Finally, the new administration should follow the Obama administration and continue organizing highly visible, senior-level interactions with civil society. It was symbolically powerful during the Obama administration to make sure senior U.S. officials regularly and visibly met with leaders of civil society organizations while on travel. Those meetings sent a clear signal to host governments that the United States prioritizes civil society, and that stifling this sector would negatively impact bilateral relations.

Addressing Counterterrorism Priorities and Reducing Security Force Abuses

One of the quickest ways to turn citizens against their government and mobilize terrorist recruitment is for leaders to turn a blind eye when state security forces commit human rights abuses and terrify civilians. As the Trump administration considers how it will ramp up its counterterrorism programming, it should be careful not to prioritize building partner capacity at the expense of confronting rampant security force abuses. If the United States fails to emphasize the latter, this will undermine its counterterrorism objectives and deal a heavy blow to U.S. legitimacy.

Frustratingly, Africa is rife with reports of human rights violations committed by security forces. This not only undermines counterterrorism efforts but also has legal implications: the Leahy Law specifically prevents the United States from training and assisting foreign military units that have been credibly found to have committed gross violations of human rights. In recent years, human rights groups have documented the Nigerian army’s scorched earth tactics in its campaign against Boko Haram, sexual assaults committed by African Union troops in the fight against al-Shabab, mass detentions and torture by Cameroonian troops fighting insurgents in the country’s north, and extrajudicial killings undertaken by Kenyan police against suspected terrorists.

On the more positive side, African militaries are beginning to show a heightened awareness of international norms of conduct and civilian protection, even if adherence remains spotty. African police forces, however, maintain a shoddy record, with polling regularly identifying the police as the most corrupt institution in Africa. This represents a huge problem. Effectively countering terrorism in Africa is much more complicated than simply focusing on international links to groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State and al-Qaeda and undertaking capture or kill missions. Homegrown movements like Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and AQIM have complex domestic roots and are significantly motivated by perceptions of marginalization and corruption. U.S. counterterrorism efforts will fail if due consideration is not given to specific, local drivers of conflict, or if the United States opts not to push security forces to be more accountable to their communities.

The United States has played an integral role incentivizing reform and advancing a rights-respecting security agenda; much of this progress will be lost without continued U.S. leadership. The Trump administration should make security force accountability and civilian protection a top priority for U.S. diplomats in Africa. Professional, rights-respecting militaries are much more effective at combating terrorist threats and insurgencies, and they represent a key front in protecting U.S. interests.

Tackling Corruption

Corruption remains endemic in Africa. Since Transparency International first started conducting its Corruption Perceptions Index in 1995, it has scored countries in Africa at or near the bottom of the survey. In the 2016 edition, the region continues to score poorly, with key countries, such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania, failing to make any progress at all. Despite intermittent rhetoric from African governments about the need to provide greater transparency and reduce graft, reforms across the continent are continually disappointing.

A big part of the problem is structural: political leaders deliberately ensure that institutional checks remain weak and under capacity. Strong political institutions do not serve the self-interest of dictators and autocrats. Impartial judiciaries and courts, independent legislatures, and uncompromising media outlets enable political competition and operate as critical points of accountability. They diminish the impunity, power, and discretion of the strongman and his inner circle. When rulers successfully muzzle and suppress these institutions, they create a set of perverse incentives, where access to valuable contracts, well-paying jobs, nice houses, and luxury cars is contingent upon loyalty to the president and the ruling party.

The correlation between weak institutions, token political competition, and systemic corruption is all too obvious and helps explain why genuinely tackling corruption is such a tough proposition—it is completely interwoven into the fabric of most political systems in Africa. Every stolen election, every unjustified firing of an honest bureaucrat, every imprisonment of a political dissident or a journalist asking too many uncomfortable questions, and every military abuse that continues unchecked all contribute to and reinforce the decay of the underlying system. As such, really fighting corruption requires a dramatic overhaul of how politicians pursue power, and how they oversee resource allocation and distribution. It is paramount that U.S. diplomats and aid workers can use all the tools at their disposal to support reformers, empower grassroots activists, and encourage new ways of thinking and new ways of governing.

The Trump administration should make fighting corruption a major priority, both in Africa and globally. Secretary Tillerson should streamline the State Department’s bureaucracy to allow for better coordination and information sharing on anticorruption approaches and programming. The administration should encourage aggressive implementation of the Global Magnitsky Act, which provides extensive powers to prosecute corrupt foreign actors. The administration should not focus solely on political leaders who engage in corruption but should equally scrutinize the shadowy financial enablers who have created elaborate money-laundering networks that allow government officials to disappear millions of dollars without a trace.


Africa often brings policy surprises. Two of the most significant political moments in Africa—the street demonstrations that toppled Compaoré in Burkina Faso, and the surprisingly free and fair elections in The Gambia that ended Jammeh’s rule—were wholly unanticipated. Smart and capable diplomats on the ground made all the difference in preventing either situation from barreling into a full-blown crisis. The right support and resources from Washington helped U.S. diplomats reinforce these unexpected democratic opportunities and facilitate peaceful transitions.

U.S. efforts have made a crucial difference in Africa during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. They saved lives, prevented mass atrocities, brokered peaceful solutions, and helped create the conditions for more prosperous futures. The new administration should continue this engagement.

The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States government.