Keep the 'Trump effect' out of Africa's burgeoning democracies
© Getty

“I don’t stay up at night worrying about what Donald Trump thinks about Africa,” Nigerian-born Professor Kingsley Moghalu, senior fellow at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria said to me during a recent phone call.

“What does keep me awake, is the state of democracy on the continent, the fragility of our institutions, and a political elite unwilling to relinquish power and permit true competitive elections.” He adds, “U.S. engagement is important here.”

I’ve heard this before. Many times.

In February, I spoke with one of Liberia’s most respected lawyers, Counselor Seward Cooper. He told me that, “Africa can withstand a U.S. presidency that turns inward to fix its problems, but what we cannot recover from is a withdrawal of America’s value-driven policy in support of democracy, human rights and good governance.”

Kingsley and Seward’s concerns are reflective of several Africans voices I have listened to over these first six months of the Trump presidency, as Africa’s 1.2 billion people await an indication of the new administration’s Africa policy, and watch, warily, as the U.S. president appears to give autocrats a boost in other parts of the world.

It’s been coined by the media and commentators the “Trump effect overseas,”  suggesting that some world leaders lose their authoritarian political inhibitions following a public embrace by the U.S. president. Recent examples cited include: Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party’s introduction of three draconian laws in the legislature to gut the independent judiciary, bringing protesters to the streets; Saudi Arabia’s isolation and boycott of neighboring Qatar; and Egypt’s crackdown on civil society groups.

Whether the “Trump effect” is fake news, correlation, or causation, remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain, we don’t want to test the theory in Africa, particularly when 30 million voters across three countries, including Kenya, Angola and Rwanda, are to hold presidential and legislative elections in August, each with varying degrees of true democratic competition.

“African democracy is at a tipping point,” notes Dr. Gyimah Boadi of Ghana, the head of Afrobarometer, and the 2017 recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. award for peace and social justice. Gyimah states that it is not clear whether leaders will be forced to make way for the next generation, or whether frustration with the governing authorities will diminish the belief of the African people in democratic institutions, opening the door for a return to authoritarianism.

Notwithstanding, Gyimah is an optimist, he points to the democratic coup in the Gambia, the historic defeat of an incumbent in Ghana, and the consolidation of democracy throughout West Africa, where every member-state of the 15 nation Economic Community of West Africa is now a constitutional democracy.

Geoffrey York, Africa correspondent for the Globe and Mail, concurs with Dr. Boadi’s observations, but is not so optimistic. He writes, “Tinkering with the constitution is just one of the creative methods that African rulers are exploiting to protect their power. Many of the autocrats are finding new ways to entrench their rule.” York notes that several of the continent’s presidents are among the longest-ruling in the world, and they don’t plan to loosen their iron-fisted grip.

Maybe nowhere in Africa is the battle for democracy more unmistakable than in South Africa, where the current president, Jacob Zuma, of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is facing a stream of allegations involving patronage, money laundering, racketeering, misuse of state resources, obstruction of justice, and the abuse of power. And in response, he has begun an assault on the country’s institutional checks on executive power.

Just ask Herman Manshaba, the entrepreneur, turned-opposition leader, turned mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa, the country’s largest city, who is on the front-line. He says that the ANC government “is doing everything that it can to collapse my government.”

Into this fray, at what is arguably a democratic inflection point for the African continent, walks the new U.S. president. And we are all holding our breath. What signal will the U.S. president send? Who will be the first African leader invited to the Oval Office? I am not talking about who gets a phone call, as there have been a few, or a handshake at a conference. But rather a real, solid, bilateral consultation.

“Symbolism matters,” says a colleague who works at a Washington, D.C.,-based NGO promoting democracy overseas, and worried about the proposed budget cuts in foreign assistance on his mission. “Autocrats cannot hold onto power without the aura of legitimacy. And a visit to the White House? Well that’s the ultimate affirmation.”

It is reported that two trained Africa hands are now on deck to serve in the Trump administration: Cyril Sarkor, African analyst at the CIA, to be assistant to the president for Africa Affairs at the National Security Council, and Dr. J. Peter Pham, of the Atlantic Council, soon to be nominated for assistant secretary of State for Africa Affairs. That’s great news.

As such, many former U.S. government officials, Republican and Democrat, are offering up thoughtful recommendations on Africa policy, on security, trade, development, health and power.

But for me, six months into this administration, and after President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE’s walkout of the G20 Africa session earlier this month in Germany, I have tapered down my wish list to a few priority items, one of which is that the Oval Office audience should be reserved exclusively for Africa’s democrats — to celebrate the new generation of emerging leaders. Maybe consider inviting all of the 15 ECOWAS heads of state?

At a minimum, let’s keep the “Trump Effect,” real or imaginary, out of Africa

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLCa D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016), Silver Medal winner Independent Book Publishers Award, Finalist, Foreword Reviews INDIES ‘Book of the Year’ Awards. Follow her on Twitter @RivaLevinson.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.