G20 summit presents moment of truth for Trump's Africa policy

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US President Donald Trump (centre) with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta at the G7 summit of Heads of State and of Government, on May 27, 2017 in Taormina, Sicily. FILE PHOTO | AFP

Donald Trump may find it impossible to maintain his inattention to Africa at a meeting on Friday and Saturday of the world's richest countries.

A proposed Compact with Africa is one of the top agenda items at the Group of 20 summit in Germany, which is expected to include an address by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Germany, this year's coordinator of the G20, has fashioned the compact as an opportunity for African nations to attract more private investment by carrying out governance reforms in partnership with wealthy nations and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.

As the leader of what remains the world's sole superpower, Mr Trump can potentially help ensure the success of the Compact with Africa.

But the US president has so far exhibited little interest in Africa.

The president has given almost no indication of his Africa policy, and key Africa-focused posts in his administration remain vacant six months after he took office.

READ: US image has plunged under Trump, survey shows

Oil interests

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, host of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, is expressing pessimism about Mr Trump's engagement with Africa, both at the upcoming summit and in the longer term.

“The US will probably not engage in Africa to the extent that would be necessary, particularly since they barely have oil interests any more in Africa and the Arab world,” Mrs Merkel said on Wednesday.

Sub-Saharan countries' oil exports to the United States have fallen sharply during the past decade as new technology has enabled the US to boost domestic production of fossil fuels.

In 2015, the US imported only 247,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Nigeria, Angola and other sub-Saharan sources, compared to 1.8 million barrels in 2005.

One high-ranking figure in the Trump administration has, however, expressed at least rhetorical support for the view of Africa as a land of opportunity for outside investors.

“We cannot ignore such a large, dynamic and vital part of the world,” US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declared in an address last month to the US-Africa Business Summit in Washington.

Countries that implement economic and governance reforms in keeping with the eligibility requirements of the Agoa trade-preference programme “will include the continent’s major success stories in the future,” Mr Ross predicted.

READ: Kenya won't lose Agoa status, but EAC partners at risk

His remarks suggest that the Trump administration may actually look favourably upon the German-sponsored compact, which puts emphasis on lowering risks for private investors in African countries by strengthening the rule of law and adherence to international financial norms.

US principles

The Compact with Africa's tenets also appear congruent with a set of principles for US policy laid out last year by a scholar considered the likeliest choice to head the State Department's Africa Bureau.

J Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council think tank, urged the Trump administration to give priority to facilitating private investment in African countries seen as worthy of US involvement.

Mr Pham suggested in a paper titled “A Measured US Strategy for the New Africa” that more emphasis be placed on US business interests in Africa and less on US government aid initiatives.

The Trump administration should engage with those African countries that “prove themselves to be good bets by their effectiveness and, consequently, the legitimacy they are accorded by their own people,” Mr Pham wrote.

Conversely, Washington should essentially ignore African states that fail to exercise “effective sovereignty,” he argued.

These perceived non-reformers could expect the US to care about their situations only insofar as terrorist activities within their boundaries pose a threat to US interests.

The G20 summit may reveal whether the Trump-led United States intends to approach Africa with the “more realistic expectations” outlined by Mr Pham.