The Trump presidency has been unprecedented in many regards. The most unpopular American president in modern times , he also holds the singular distinction of being the only president to enjoy less than 5% unemployment , and a booming economy, and yet still have sub- 40% ratings.
So far, Donald Trump’s presidency has been one defined by scandals and vulgar outbursts. And yet he has enjoyed what can only be called a political invulnerability and a persistent ability to weather any form of backlash from political gaffes he has made, gaffes which would have ended most politicians careers. This mandate handed to him by a section of the American public to demean and shock without ever losing political points, has made him a unique political animal , one his political opponents have trouble attacking.
So when , a bit more than a week ago during a White House Meeting , on immigration , trump asked why he should accept people from ‘Shithole countries’, singling out Haiti and Africa in particular, despite the outraged sparked by the racially-tinged words even the most optimistic trump loather would be cautious to predict a turn in his political fortunes, and his impending political downfall, after a presidency capping a nomination path which had already weathered enough career ending political scandals to have sacked a whole senate.
But if the words did not signal the end of Trump politically, the comments shocked and drew swift condemnation both domestically and internationally.
Domestically , some saw the incident as the latest blow to a culture of political correctness already reeling from a year of Trump. Others saw it as another reminder of the gradual lowering of the standards of American political discourse initiated under trump. Others still saw is as another example of the ‘normalisation’ of hitherto fringe views, about immigration , society and what it means to be American, by a president increasingly willing to be an unapologetic mouthpiece for them. In this sense, Trump is a vessel for an old but still very much alive political current in American politics that is deeply, xenophobic , anti-globalisation and insular and which has been energised by fears of america’s stagnation and has taken over the republican party. He is the new normal: a political force that is here to stay and will spawn a host of political disciples who will seek to emulate his policies and rhetoric in order to improve their political futures.
Internationally, the sight leader of a western superpower articulating such opinions and holding so many countries in blatant disregard was a great shock.
And yet, if we take Trumps words as being racist, we must agree that he is nothing new: A racist American president is a political specimen we have already encountered many times before. Andrew Johnson was famously racist and vetoed a bill that would have given slaves citizenship. Richard Nixon, Abraham Lincoln, Woordrow Wilson ( and the list goes on …) all were attributed racist views at some point or other. This modern iteration of the racist president is perhaps more jarring because we see it in the age of the internet.
But Trumps words are only a more virulent form of what is a widespread benign condescension towards Africa instructed by a view of the continent as a hopeless, perpetually underachieving continent. Africa ,we must remember, is infantilised, and its poverty is romanticised and as such it is a magnet for the world’s pity, and theatre for the west to satisfy its messiah complex.
This view of Africa is everywhere, it underpins some of Mr. Trumps previous statements such as when, he ignorantly referred to an African country named ‘Nambia’, displaying both intellectual laziness as well as a flippant disdain towards a continent he deems unimportant, in the process. We find the same sentiments in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, who during his speech in 2007 at Antha Diop University in Senegal said that the ‘Sad thing about Africa is that the African man has not entered the pages of history enough.’ We find it also in the western countries dealings with Africa, as exemplified by the American Ambassador to the United Nations who, reacting to backlash after Trump’s ‘Shithole’ country remarks, chose to speak of strong American- African cooperation in terms of progress in the battle against HIV, rather than the strength and volume of trade between the America and Africa, or the resilience of our economies. This is not a coincidence. We are identified with our ills.
So where do we go from here?
First of all let us dismiss the fantasy that somehow, Africa will be able to prise an apology from the jaws of the trump administration.
Countries have tried: the American Ambassadors to number of African countries including Botswana, and Senegal have been summoned. The Permanent representative of the US to the UN Nikki Haley was asked by an African delegation to get trump to address members of the African union summit and protests have been organised in Haiti and other cities to try and get Trump to apologise. All these strategies ultimately will prove ineffectual, and will achieve little.
African countries could have protested more vehemently than these half-hearted efforts, but the very fact they did not is telling, and highlights two things.
The first is that If countries wish to take trump to task and force him to apologise they are many decades of economic stagnation and bad policy decisions too late.
Many bad policy decisions compounded over the years and a failure to coalesce as a strong political block have led our continent to being small players in the world economy. 60 years after our independence , Africa holds enormous promise but still faces significant challenges. By 2035 Africa will have a bigger labour pool than any individual country . Penetration of smart phones is expected to hit at least the 50% mark in 2020 from only 2% in 2010 (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/what-s-the-future-of-economic-growth-in-africa/).But 60 years on our economies are still overly dependent on the export of raw materials and the prices of commodities. There is still a lack of reliable power in many countries, poor infrastructure, over-indebted governments and a lack of jobs for the youth are all risks that will jeopardise Africa’s ability to reach its full potential.
Our economic condition is a liability and Trump reminds us of this. Trump is a novelty in so far as he represents a new breed of western leaders who demand that Africa’s ( and all other states recipient of aid) show an attitude towards western countries that is in line with their debt towards them. That is what he told us when he threatened countries that would vote for the resolution condemning the vote of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, of cutting their funding.
The second reason is that the Economic dependency of African states vis a vis America and other western states does not give them the luxury of being able complain.
You can’t strong arm anybody when you depend on them for your economic stability.
The US and the European union are home to the international financial institutions and private investment banks on which African states depend on to raise finance ( Eurobonds, government loans, foreign aid, etc…) that can energise their economies or Export Banks that will give the concessional loans that will prop up their development banks.
Today foreign aid flows have reached astronomical levels in absolute terms. In 2016 foreign aid , by OECD countries represented USD 142.6 Billion. This is without any of the OECD countries earmarking more than about 0.7 % of their countries’ GDP. Scraps, therefore, for these OECD countries and yet this money has an outsized influence on the welfare of African governments. In some cases they represent a significant percentage of their annual budgets.
Today, 60 years from independence that many of our basic services and our national budgets for health and education are in large part funded by the generosity of European taxpayers is wrong , as the president of Ghana eloquently said in his speech during the visit of the French president (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmR2n6ryQvg).
With this flow of money, comes an incidental infantilization of the African continent, and as long as Africa is dependant on this aid flow, we will not be able to consistently steer the discussion away from issues of diseases and emergency assistance to ‘teach the fisher to fish,’ subjects such as wealth creation , transferring technology and creating jobs.
After all, who in their right minds would let their own child die of malaria or hunger? Wealth, dignity and decent jobs allow people to rise and stay clear of many of the diseases and the afflictions which much of this assistance seeks to eradicate.
So why is cooperation with African states about HIV prevention, terrorism and disease prevention and not about wealth creation and economic exchanges as partners? And Why does Africa perpetually see itself as a necessitous victim of terrible circumstance?
We need to reposess the narrative.
I will suggest that the blowback from Mr. Trumps words should not come from governments, but from its people.
Because, even today , no one contributes more to Africa’s development than African’s themselves. Remittances today stand at about $450 billion-more than three times all foreign development aid.
Repossessing the narrative will mean, creating a vibrant civil society which can protect and shepherd democracy, like in Congo where members of the catholic church have stood up to a corrupt president who has refused to step down after staying beyond his mandate. It will mean, creating blocs of conscious consumers that will nurture an African manufacturing base. It will mean authors and story tellers, like Nnedi Okorafor , the author of ‘Akata warrior,’ who can repaint the disused walls of Africa’s cultural heritage and provide new voices and new afro-centric criterias of beauty. It will involve creating a new class of entrepreneurs , entrepreneurs like Jules Minsob LOGOU, a Togolese inventor, and the ,creator of the Foufoumix that will solve african problems, but also one day build the next Samsung, Microsoft or Google, multinationals that will create jobs , growth , wealth, lead to a transfer of technology and be a source of pride for young Africans everywhere.
In short, we all have a part to play in transforming our continent.
We cannot wait for our leaders, leaders whose vision is obfuscated by the spoils of power and the perks of their high-ranking positions. Leaders who forget that their legacy and their stature on the world stage, is dependent on the success of their people. They forget that it is not the day that all African presidents will be billionaires, that the perceptions of African countries as poor, ‘shitholes’ will change; Rather, it will be when everyone single one of its people is armed with dignity, a voice and when they have enough purchasing power to form a powerful block of consumers, that we will finally break from our image as serial underachievers. In this endeavour, the onus is on Africans- young and old- to succeed on a global scale, and if we do this, then our reward will be that, many years from now, when another ignorant, scandal prone, and belligerent leader, fascinated by powerful men and nations, will come to govern a western country, the day he will seek to single out countries to demean, he will omit the African countries. And when that will happen, we Africans will understand what went on in his mind and be proud because of it, for we will understand that for a moment Africa popped into his mind, but he judged its nations so far removed from the examples of failure and poverty which he was seeking that he decided it was inappropriate to mention them. That is what we are fighting for.