Africa Reacts to Biden’s First 100 Days in Office
(csis)–In our “Africa Reacts” series, the CSIS Africa Program asks prominent African journalists, civil society activists, and thought leaders to share their analysis on the U.S. political process. By flipping the script—featuring African analysts’ views on U.S. politics rather than U.S. analysts’ opinions on African developments—we are seeking to start a new conversation about the future of U.S.-African relations.
In our ninth installation, we asked top African experts to provide their reactions to President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office. What has changed, and what remains the same? What are African publics saying about the new U.S. president, and what does that portend for U.S.-Africa relations? Many analysts applauded the symbolic steps Biden has taken to mend ties with Africa, including his opening remarks at February’s African Union Summit and by making phone calls to numerous African heads of state. Others decried the Biden administration’s weak response to democratic backsliding and election irregularities across the region, including in Uganda, while others celebrated the conviction of Derek Chauvin as a positive development demonstrating a resilient U.S. democracy. Finally, some experts noted that a return to mutual respect and multilateralism is welcome, but that African governments and publics are still waiting for Biden to unveil his official Africa policy.
The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.
Ade Daramy, Co-Editor, The Journal of Sierra Leone Studies (@AdeD1955)
The United States has steadily walked away from Africa, which has left the field clear for China to make giant strides. Not only China: India and Russia have also been making inroads. President Vladimir Putin hosted a Russia-Africa Summit in 2019 in Sochi. Many Africans are wondering whether Biden will “do a JFK” and actively reach out to Africa to mend fences and form strategic alliances.
JFK famously invited to the White House every leader of independent African countries and/or their ambassadors in little over three years. He also hosted every African ambassador at an Africa Liberation Day reception. There was an element of realpolitik about such engagements; the Soviet Union also came calling.
Covid-19 has put a pause on such gatherings, but while realizing that Africa is probably not on page one of the president’s to-do list, there is nevertheless hope that there will be a sea change from the previous administration.
Biden has already earned points for lifting the sanctions on Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda and other International Criminal Court officials. The governments of Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, Libya, and Tanzania should be pleased that President Donald Trump’s travel ban has been lifted.
We are waiting to see whether Biden’s policies address the growing Islamist threat across the continent and whether he takes sides with coup-leader-turned-president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt, to whom the United States seems to give unconditional support. A big test will come in Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia over its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Both Egypt and Sudan are unhappy about the effect the dam will have on their access to the Nile River.
Given more pressing problems, we’ll wait for another 100 days before expecting to see tangible changes.
Chipo Dendere, Assistant Professor, Wellesley College (@drDendere)
The bar for the Biden administration is very low. Not just in Africa, but globally. After the Trump years, Biden only needs to show respect and commitment to working with other countries to be taken seriously. That said, there are some real challenges. It remains unclear what their plan is in Mozambique. It is not enough to send the military without a plan to aid in alleviating the social issues that have caused the crisis. The statements in Ethiopia are a welcome shift. A bigger test is yet to come with the handling of Covid-19 vaccinations now that India, one of the bigger suppliers to Africa, is in dire need themselves. The United States has a moral responsibility to assist in a global response to Covid-19. China is already ahead of Washington in terms of vaccine distribution. The U.S. economy can only thrive fully if the rest of the world is safely reopened.
Elsie Eyakuze, Writer and Freelance Consultant (@MikocheniReport)
In President Biden’s first 100 days two things have stood out to me. Dignity and a respect for professionalism has returned to the White House. From the first few briefings by White House press secretary Jen Psaki to subsequent press conferences with President Biden himself, I feel reassured as to the measured seriousness of the Biden presidency. I no longer have to fear Twitter; there are no strange middle-of-the-night pronouncements. Psychologically, this is very welcome.
And then there is the case of George Floyd’s murder. That his murderer whose name I refuse to speak out loud was convicted is deeply satisfying. I don’t know what it means going forward, and the uptick in mass shootings and in violence against Asian Americans is frightening. But at least one case went right. May Mr. Floyd rest in peace.
Bulelani Jili, MPhil, Ph.D. Student, Harvard University (@JiliBulelani)
At the top of Biden’s foreign policy agenda are Covid-19 and climate change. On his first day as president, he issued orders for the United States to rejoin the World Health Organization and Paris Agreement on climate change. These significant policy priorities will benefit African countries, but a more coordinated initiative will scale its impact. Covid-19 poses a tremendous threat to Africa, not only in terms of public health, but also in regard to security and economic stability. The Biden administration should further engage with African leaders to seek ways to support access to critically needed vaccines. Concurrently, it is also up to African leaders and society to urge the United States to quickly offer access to suitable and affordable vaccines.
The fact that numerous long-standing U.S. policies toward Africa remain in place should inspire reexamination and not reassurance. Much of U.S. diplomacy with Africa is contingent on prioritizing engagement with state actors. U.S policy toward Africa should acknowledge that power has slipped away from the federal government to regional and local actors. Consequently, the United States should not only emphasize engagements with African governments. A focus on supporting civil society and institution building, like the rule of law, is paramount.
Tiseke Kasambala, Chief of Party, Advancing Rights in Southern Africa program, Freedom House (@tiseke)
At the virtual African Union Summit in February, President Biden restated his administration’s commitment to rebuilding partnerships with African governments and reengaging with international institutions such as the African Union. As the president marks 100 days in office, efforts at rebuilding alliances on the continent remain key in light of escalating conflicts in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and northern parts of Mozambique. Beyond reengagement with regional blocs and the continent’s leadership, the administration has a strong role to play in supporting African civil society and citizen movements. As the activism around Black Lives Matter has shown, a robust civil society and engaged citizenry can galvanize change.
Tsedale Lemma, Editor-in-chief, Addis Standard (@TsedaleLemma)
On November 4, Ethiopia sleepwalked into an armed conflict in Tigray disguised as a “law enforcement operation” just when the world’s attention was focused on the U.S. election. Many of us knew then and there that Ethiopia was quickly descending into a vicious civil war and any contribution from a U.S. administration was bound to come late or not at all (later if the Trump administration was to secure reelection). The election of Biden has therefore brought a collective sigh of relief among many of us who are vehemently opposed to this war, which is ravaging Tigray, because we are sure that the United States under President Biden will not sit idly by and watch war crimes of all forms being committed in Ethiopia, one of its strategic allies in the Horn of Africa.
True to expectation, the Biden administration took a firm and principled stand to bring the war to an end, including a call for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray, where evidence shows they are engaged in committing multiple war crimes. But the scale of the damage and the humanitarian crisis requires the Biden administration to take concrete steps and to move beyond mere statements and calls, which is what the administration has done in its first 100 days. It is pressing—especially because any meaningful intervention from the UN Security Council is unlikely to come anytime soon—as a potential famine is staring Tigray in the face.
Cliff Mboya, International Relations Practitioner (@C4Mboya)
Many Africans have found President Biden’s first 100 days in office quite refreshing. Many of his new policies on immigration, climate change, and racial inequality speak to African concerns and inspire hope for Afro-U.S. rapprochement. We’re seeing a break from the previous administration’s “America first” policy that featured unilateralism, detachment, and indifference, and which raised questions about American “exceptionalism” and global leadership as a beacon of democracy, human rights and economic development. Now, we are in an era of reengagement, a return to multilateralism, and a commitment to global leadership that is consistent with Biden’s slogan, “America is back.” The question is, will the United States regain its lost glory under the Trump administration? It is too early to tell, but Biden’s first 100 days in office has generated a lot of goodwill and support, with opportunities for cooperation. Africa expects leadership, not from a big brother perspective, but from an equal partner based on dialogue, equality, and mutual respect.
Cebelihle Mbuyisa, eSwatini writer and editor (@CebelihleM)
Under Trump, then-U.S. ambassador to eSwatini Lisa Peterson had the courage to criticize the leader of her host country, King Mswati III. The criticism was welcomed by many citizens. Ambassador Peterson took a decision to back democracy at the height of Donald Trump’s presidency, with its questionable attitude to democratic values and goodwill. This begs the question: are ambassadors an extension of their incumbent governments’ positions and values, or do ambassadors decide the policy?
Biden is in power now, and his administration has sent a new ambassador to eSwatini. Will the new ambassador’s office operations be in line with the Biden administration’s policies? Or, perhaps, in the hierarchy of the U.S. strategic influence, is a standard engagement protocol for smaller countries, never changing and not influenced by transitions in U.S. administrations?
eSwatini receives a lot of aid from the United States, particularly in the field of health. HIV/AIDS programs and nongovernmental organizations of all sorts run on funding pumped in by the U.S. government. This in turn unburdens the eSwatini government so it focuses on other concerns. Indirectly, this support strengthens the incumbent regime, even as it remains a textbook example of a dictatorship. Will this contradiction matter to the United States or the Biden administration? Will Peterson’s calls for democracy be picked up by the new ambassador at the behest of the Biden administration?
Michael Mutyaba, Journalist, African Arguments (@michael_mutyaba)
Secretary Antony Blinken’s recent announcement of visa restrictions targeting Ugandan government officials involved in election-related violence has been widely seen as a turning point in U.S.-Uganda relations. It apparently signals a deterioration in relations between the two countries as, on the one hand, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s state descends along a path of authoritarianism, and, on the other hand, the Biden administration strengthens the United States’ commitment to promoting human rights globally.
However, to many Ugandans, the United States’ continued financial and military support to Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian government overshadows the significance of the visa bans. Moreover, the statement’s recognition that the recent polls were fraudulent, followed immediately by a call for restraint rather than for an audit of the results, communicates that the prioritization of stability over political reform is likely to continue defining U.S. policy toward Uganda even during President Biden’s era, despite the renewed rhetoric of prioritizing human rights.
Coming amid the ongoing spate of state-orchestrated abductions in the country, the travel restrictions signal that, contrary to diplomatic rhetoric, undermining democratic rights carries no more serious consequence than a visa ban.
Finally, Washington’s response has overlooked the fact that the Museveni regime now arguably poses the biggest threat to security in East Africa. The decadent state built upon violent authoritarianism, and facing increasing pressure from a surging youthful population, is unlikely to remain a beacon of stability for long. Its likely implosion will have repercussions not just for Uganda and its neighbors, but also for U.S. interests in the region unless more serious policy measures—not merely visa restrictions—are put in place because supporting democratic change as the bedrock for sustainable peace and security.
Tolu Olasoji, Nigerian Journalist (@Tollexrism)
When compared to those of his predecessor President Trump, President Biden’s first 100 days have been boring, or rightly put, without drama. He has, however, made significant impacts across the board, from nullifying policies that were emblematic of the past administration’s malady to impressive Covid-19 responses. There was also the trial and guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin which took place within Biden’s first 100 days in office.
Also, relating to Africa as a partner that deserves respect is laudable. This was, again, displayed with the thoughtful and strategic inclusion of five African leaders at Biden’s recent Leaders Summit on Climate to extract nuanced conversation on the continent’s climate crisis. This should serve as a foundation for U.S. advocacy for a green Africa.
In addition to resolving a ton of other issues, including migrant control at the southern border, which has stayed a gray area in his 100 days, the United States must address its complicated counterterrorism approach toward the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and other regions—which sometimes ignores local complexities—and a continent-spread rot in democracy.
Dr. Bob Wekesa, Acting Director, African Centre for the Study of the US, Wits University, South Africa (@BobWekesa)
From an African viewpoint, the Biden-Harris administration has returned Africa-U.S. relations to normalcy. Biden has had several consultations with African leaders, a development that has been welcome given the disengagement and neglect by the previous administration. There is, however, the risk of stopping at the point of normalization of relations. Both the Biden administration and African leadership should develop and enact clear policies to take the relations to a higher level across economics, politics, and culture. The question therefore is: when is the Biden administration going to release its Africa policy? When are African leaders at national and continental levels going to launch their policies toward the United States?