When Donald Trump won the US Presidency in November 2016, a commentator writing in Quartz Africa warned Africa would “fall off the map.”
Before he hosted Nigerian and Kenyan leaders at the White House, Trump had been seen in the criticism of Barack Obama’s spending on aid in Africa and his campaigns focused on “America first”, and spending more on domestic programmes than international assistance.
That vagueness punctuated most of his early months in office.
And it was coupled with incidents that gave an impression he did not consider the continent important. He left a session on African Health at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, just as Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufu began addressing the gathering.
He also conflated Zambia and Namibia, bringing forth a new country called Nambia. And later, he mistook the Ebola scourge in Liberia to have occurred in Nigeria.
At a gathering with African leaders in New York last year, he spoke of the “tremendous potential in Africa” and emphasised on increasing trade and investments on the continent, listing some American firms as those who will be putting more dollars in African for investment.
“[Africa] has a tremendous business potential and representing huge amounts of different markets. And for American firms it’s really become a place that they (American investors) have to go, that they want to go,” he said during a luncheon.
But at the same venue, he had nearly ruined it when he suggested his wealthy American friends were going to Africa to get rich, something that could be misinterpreted to mean further exploitation.
In January this year, he capped it all with his ‘shithole’ comment to Africa, Haiti, El Salvador, which he derided as the biggest source of unhelpful immigrants.
Then he sent his senior most diplomat, Rex Tillerson to Africa for a week-long trip, before he fired him. Those incidents confused analysts.
“If the administration’s Africa strategy is unclear, it is because there is not one yet,” said Brahima Sangafowa Coulibaly, the Director of Africa Growth Initiative in a blogpost.
“It would need to address two issues in the formulation of its future Africa strategy: What to do about the Africa programmes of his predecessors, and what new Africa agenda, if any, to initiate for his own legacy?”
He argued that the Trump administration should not downplay the continent as a viable economic partner because nearly half of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in Africa where more than 65 percent of the economies are expected to grow above the global average.
Trump came into office where his predecessors had special programmes for Africa.
Bill Clinton had started the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa) in 2001, meant to allow privileged African nations like Kenya to export into US markets, in exchange for removing barriers to US goods.
Agoa was implemented by George W. Bush, and furthered by Barack Obama. It could run up to 2025, depending on what Trump sees.
President Bush also began the multibillion Emerging Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) meant to help provide affordable ARVs to infected people in Africa.
Obama was associated with the Young African Leadership Initiative to help entice young people into influential leaders, and launched the Power Africa programme, whose ambition was to help expand electricity connectivity to Africa’s rural homes.
Critics charge the latter did not pick up.
Trump indicated last year that the aid programmes by his predecessors would continue, but under reduced funding.
But in hosting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in April and President Uhuru Kenyatta in August, some see it as Trump’s developing view on Africa: a source of markets for American manufactured goods.
Despite Agoa, the US has stayed behind China and the EU in increasing exports to Africa.
In 2017, the total trade with sub-Saharan Africa was Sh3.9 trillion ($39 billion).
Washington sold about $14.1 billion to the region, a rise of about 4.6 percent from 2016.
Most of these goods, such as military equipment, aircraft, farm machinery, mineral fuels, and vehicles, went to Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Angola, Ethiopia and Angola, according to data from the US Trade Representative.
The US in turn bought goods worth $24.9 billion from sub-Saharan Africa.
These are lower than competitors.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, Beijing sold goods worth $94.74 billion (Sh9.474 trillion) to Africa in 2017, more than half of the trade volume of $170 billion.
The EU on the other hand bought goods worth $133.89 billion (Sh13.38 trillion) in 2016 and sold $165.18 (Sh16.5 trillion) billion as the bloc negotiated regional trade deals.
Ahead of the Uhuru-Trump meeting last week, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma met African ambassadors in Washington where she called for a continental thought on implementing the African trade agreement (AfCTA) which she argued would provide a better platform in drafting trade deals the outside world.
In July during discussions on the post-Agoa trade forum in the US, delegates were told Washington was “keen to enter into a more comprehensive and permanent trade and investment framework to guide trade and investment between the US and Africa.”
This was based on recognition of the continent as a viable investment destination, growing need for infrastructure, need to counter trade deals signed with China, EU and other global powers as well as desire to provide certainty in trade relations.