ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — In Barack Obama’s landmark speech before the African Union in July 2015 – the first by a sitting U.S. president – he told the assembled heads of state and delegates that the United States was ready to be a development partner with the continent, while warning that would come along with American promotion of human rights, whether they liked it or not.
“You are kind of stuck with us – this is how we are. We believe in these things and we’re going to keep talking about them,” he said to applause and laughter from the delegates.
Now a year and a half later, the African Union is grappling with a new U.S. president that has said very little about Africa but looks set to step away from decades of bipartisan investment in Africa and has advocated using torture during interrogations.
At the African Union’s annual summit meeting in Addis Ababa, that concluded Tuesday, Africa’s leaders heatedly debated a number of issues, including who to elect as chairman, Morocco’s return to the group, and whether to walk out from the International Criminal Court. But beyond the official agenda was a sense of unease over what many see as a new era of nationalism ushered in by the election of President Trump.
Outgoing African Union chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma departed from her prepared remarks opening the summit to lash out at Trump over his executive order banning refugees.
“It is clear that globally, we are entering very turbulent times. For an example, the very country to whom many of our people were taken as slaves during the trans-Atlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries,” she said.
“What do we do about this? Indeed, this is one of the greatest challenges to our unity and solidarity,” she said.
Starting with the Clinton administration, the United States began to increasingly focus on Africa. Aid quadrupled under the George W. Bush administration, particularly with his PEPFAR program aimed at stamping out AIDS in the continent. (With each administration, a new acronym to promote trade, health, good government was born, including AGOA, giving countries with good human rights records better access to U.S. markets; YALI, the Young African Leadership Initiative of Obama; PEPFAR; and Power Africa, to increase electricity on the continent.)
Questions from Trump’s transition team to the State Department about Africa suggest a deep skepticism about many of these African programs which they contend are mired in corruption and don’t help the continent. Programs like PEPFAR and AGOA were specifically questioned as whether they were worth the funds and there was the point blank question of why we should be sending aid to Africa when there is poverty at home.
Many experts believe those programs will come to an end under the Trump, who has been skeptical about international aid and suggested that the money would be better spent on Americans.
“I must regretfully conclude that the future of all such partnership is in doubt,” said Reuben Brigety, a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union and now the dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Brigety held a number of positions in the Obama administration dealing with Africa.
“Because of the rapid-fire and unconventional methods by which Trump has upended vital relationship from Mexico and China in a matter of days, one cannot assume continuity in any of America’s initiatives in Africa,” he said in a lecture in the Ethiopian capital timed to coincide with the summit.
He added that Trump’s public backing of torture would also send the wrong message to the continent’s autocrats.
“It is outrageous, it is absolutely outrageous,” he said. “Of course, one can just see the thought process of any number of leaders of other places, ‘well if the president of United States says it’s OK,’ ” he said.
For years, the African Union, a fractious body of 54 members – 55 with Morocco’s joining – has struggled to put forward a united front. The body is divided by politics and especially language, with countries preferring English often squaring off against those that use French on a daily basis.
The divisions are also economic, with the continent’s trade primarily with other countries rather than internal. Many borders are also closed and there are high tariffs – not to mention a lack of roads and transportation infrastructure connecting the countries. Only 10 percent of Africa’s trade is inside the continent.
One of the long proposed solutions has been a continent-wide free trade agreement, which members said was now more urgent than ever.
“If you look at the world, if you look today at the United States and its policies, people are talking more about nationalism and bring back jobs to America,” said Fatima Haram Acyle, the commissioner for the trade and industry. “Africa also needs to focus on really its own priorities, its own markets, its own people.”
She was echoed by the outgoing deputy chairman of the union who admitted that with the election of Trump and his America first rhetoric, members states have had a new impetus to make this free trade agreement a reality.
“What we hear of the pronouncements from the U.S. president, it makes it even more urgent that we must move quickly,” said Erastus Mwencha.
The A.U. has promised to enact the free trade agreement by 2017, which may be a bit optimistic for a sweeping dismantling of non-tariff trade barriers across the continent, but at the very least, the countries will begin discussing this year a draft of the agreement.
“It will take a long time to establish these things, you can’t do them over night, but if there is one thing that will in the longer term lead to a more peaceful Africa it will be an Africa trading more freely with itself,” said Elissa Jobson, an expert on the African Union with the International Crisis Group consultancy.
“It makes sense with or without Trump,” she said.