By John J Stremlau*
Africa’s stake in the outcome of the 3 November 2020 US presidential election spiked with the unexpected revival of former Vice-President Joe Biden’s campaign. Biden is now favoured to defeat Senator Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee in July. He is also regarded as the Democrat with the best chance of beating the Republican incumbent, Donald J Trump.
Biden won an overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primary thanks primarily to the fact that 60% of Democratic voters in the state are African-American. They turned out in record numbers. Black support has since been described as Biden’s “Rocket Fuel”.
White Democratic leaders quickly saw the imperative to join the black-led Biden bandwagon. Former Virginia governor and Democratic Party head, Terry McAuliffe, said bluntly that he’d decided to endorse Biden because he’d shown he could win black majorities.
Five other major candidates withdrew from the Democratic race after Biden’s sweep of 10 out of 14 state primaries three days after South Carolina. They all acknowledged that support from black voters was decisive.
Should Biden go on to win the presidency, his political debt to African Americans will be enormous. It’s a debt he will be pressed to honour. Governments, businesses and civil society throughout Africa should be putting their minds to how they could best put this to use.
Relations between Africans and the African diaspora have a long history that is extensive and complex. In addition to the descendants of slavery, African Americans now include millions of first-generation African citizens empowered to vote. And a recent outpouring of investigations by African-American and African scholars into their historic and ongoing ties to Africa – including Professor Nemata Blyden of George Washington University new book, African Americans and Africa – adds fresh richness and political relevance to this process of convergence.
Benefits for Africa?
Nevertheless, there has been the continuity of US programmes that are largely the work of professional civil servants. These are led by Assistant Secretary of State, Tibor Nagy, a former career diplomat with African experience that began in 1978.
Earlier this month Nagy delivered a public address on Africa policy. The lecture highlighted the continuation of practical programmes, welcomed in Africa, that were begun by previous administrations – Republicans and Democrats. Included in the list were partnerships in public health (HIV/AIDS), trade preferences, security cooperation, energy, agriculture and education. Nagy even had positive words for Obama’s ongoing initiative, Young African Leaders Initiative.
US policy on Africa is one the few areas that continue to enjoy bi-partisan support by Democrats and Republicans. It remains a key asset for Africans. It would be a good area for Biden to show his commitment to working with leaders of both parties to restore a greater sense of national unity and purpose. For Africa, this would mean a common commitment to meeting global challenges that affect the continent. The list includes climate change, famine, forced migrations and regional peace and security.
Should Biden take over the presidency he would adopt policies that would restore the cooperative links that prevailed under Obama. And he is much more likely to base his polices on scientific evidence, not political expediency. This has been dramatically shown by the contrast in Obama’s response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, and Trump’s shambolic handling of the current coronavirus.
There would also likely be a resumption of US support for multilateral initiatives such as the “Green Climate Fund” for African and other seriously affected developing countries. The lead funders of this important initiative for Africa were China and the US. This is an important reminder that these two major powers can cooperate in partnership with African governments in mutually beneficial ways.
Trump reneged on this agreement. He has also given notice that the US will withdraw from the global Paris Climate Accord. We may expect that one of Biden’s early acts would be to restore both commitments.
Finally, African governments should press for a quick termination of the confrontational posture outlined in the Trump administration’s National Security Policy toward Africa.
Biden, unlike Trump, regards democratic inclusiveness at home and multilateral cooperation abroad as complementary cornerstones for more effective and productive domestic and foreign relations. His broad strategy would be in sync with the fact based politics that Obama called for in his 2018 tribute to Nelson Mandela. It would contrast starkly with Trump’s dire inaugural address in 2017.
A Biden presidency should also reassure those in Africa and elsewhere who fear that democracy is in perilous decline.
It is a good bet he will try and reverse the damage done by Trump. He might even seek to implement long overdue political and economic reforms at home that could render America a more capable and reliable partner abroad.
African Americans are at the epicentre of this process and that could prove to be Africa’s most important stake in the 2020 US election.
*Honorary Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand