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Can Biden do better than Trump in Africa?

After years of neglect by successive US presidents, Africans doubt Joe Biden’s globally celebrated electoral victory last week will bring miracles to the world’s poorest continent.

While South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) dubbed the defeat of incumbent President Donald Trump a “relief”, other responses were more guarded.

“We celebrate the fact that we won’t have to watch him undermining democratic institutions… for another four years,” said the Foundation, named after South Africa’s first black president.

“Now begins the daunting task for the US of undoing the Trump administration’s deepening of racism, xenophobia, Afrophobia,” it added.

Trump, still president until January, did not make a good impression on Africans during his term.

Less than a year after he took office, he infamously praised the healthcare system of “Nambia” — mispronouncing Namibia — during a speech at the United Nations.

Months later he referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” during a closed-door meeting at the White House, sparking global outrage.

Many were displeased by Trump’s “barely respectful attitude” and restrictive immigration policies, said Dakar-based analyst Ousmane Sene, head of the West African Research Centre.

“During these four years (Trump) fuelled disenchantment and indifference,” he told AFP. “It is evident from how little interest African media had for the US during that period.”

Biden has pledged to reverse many of the Trump administration’s immigration reforms that tightened restrictions on asylum seekers and refugees.

– Sahel security –

Under Trump, the US was mainly focused on its fight against terrorism as well as domestic aid programmes. Politics, diplomacy and economic reforms were sidelined.

“Four lost years,” said Senegalese political analyst Rene Lake, during which international relations were dominated by trade with China.

In Africa, Washington merely finalised pre-established security agreements with Ghana, Niger and Senegal.

US troops also provided “vital support” to French forces in the restive Sahel region, noted American studies professor Pape Malick Ba at Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop university.

According to Ba, Trump never established a “specific strategy” towards Africa, making him less popular than his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

“(Trump) never set foot on the continent,” he added, recalling that the president had even sacked former secretary of state Rex Tillerson during his first trip to Africa in 2018.

For economic powerhouse Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, US policy under Trump was “inert, ineffective, and lacking a moral compass”, wrote analysts Judd Devermont and Matthew Page in a joint column.

A “shambolic” example of this, said the American pair, was the US’s failure to speak out during widespread demonstrations against police brutality and bad governance last month.

Biden reacted before the State Department after security forces fired live bullets at a crowd of unarmed protesters in Nigeria’s megacity Lagos, killing 12 according to Amnesty International.

“This illustrates how Washington’s approach to Nigeria has become out of touch and unresponsive,” Page told AFP.

– Return to Obama politics –

A Biden administration is likely to put more pressure on the Nigerian government to address human rights violations, said Nigerian geopolitical think tank SBM Intelligence in a report.

But a former Nigerian ambassador to the US, George Obiozor, said major changes were unlikely.

Speaking on Nigerian news channel Arise TV, Obiozor noted that US-Africa ties did not even progress much under Obama — America’s first black president — on whom Africans had placed high hopes.

“Expectations of improved relations between Africa and the US following the victory of Joe Biden… will amount to disillusionment and disappointment,” Obiozor predicted.

Analyst Lake, however, said Biden was still likely to re-engage the US with the rest of the world.

“We can imagine it will be a kind of third Obama mandate,” Lake told Senegalese media.

Biden is widely expected to soothe diplomatic tensions, mend fences with the World Health Organization and re-join the Paris Climate Agreement — from which the US pulled out this year.

Trump is meanwhile refusing to concede and preparing to challenge the vote count in court.

His tantrums do not set the best example for Africa’s young democracies, noted some sarcastic commentators, evoking the US’s new “banana republic” status.

Trump’s attitude risks encouraging African leaders reluctant to “play by democracy’s rules”, worried Chadian human rights activist Jean Bosco Manga.

“As Nelson Mandela often used to say, a good leader knows when to step down,” said the NMF.

“It’s not too late for Trump to embrace dignity, for himself and for others.”