Opinion: Trump’s Leadership Traits Are Bad News For Democracy In Africa

By Dana Sanchez Published: December 11, 2016, 2:47 pm
Trump’s leadership traitsDonald Trump, Dec. 1, 2016. Photo: Getty

Many Africans have asked if U.S. president elect Donald Trump cares about Africa at all, and some welcome a lack of interest from Washington, experts say.

Trump’s victory may give autocratic African rulers freedom to make more money, change their constitutions to stay in power, harass voices of opposition, and gag the media, The Guardian reported.

“This is a really bad moment for the continent, to have somebody take over in Washington who is not necessarily going to be so sharp on supporting democratic values abroad,” said Nic Cheeseman, an expert on democracy in Africa at Oxford University.

Joseph Kabila, who has ruled DRC since 2001, sent an effusive letter to Trump congratulating him on his “brilliant election.” The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Kabila’s close associates after protesters were violently repressed, and relations deteriorated to the point where government supporters attacked the U.S. special envoy to the region.

Another African ruler who welcomed Trump’s election is Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, DRC’s tiny neighbor. Nkurunziza won a disputed election in 2015 and has been accused of human rights abuses by the U.N. His associates have also faced U.S. sanctions.

Nkurunziza told Trump his “victory is the victory of all Americans,” and officials said they expect relations to improve.

“Rulers in DRC and Burundi will assume, perhaps correctly, that Trump’s world will be restricted to direct U.S. interests with a view that human rights in far-off places do not concern (him),” said Prof. Filip Reyntjens, a central Africa specialist at Antwerp University, according to The Guardian.

Will Trump’s leadership be good, bad or indifferent for democracy in Africa? Here’s one opinion.

From The Conversation. Opinion by John J. Stremlau, professor of international relations, University of the Witwatersrand.

African governments are understandably concerned about how Donald Trump’s surprise election as the 45th president of the United States might affect their interests.

Thus far Trump has given no sign that he will accord Africa any higher priority than his predecessors. His promises to expand and escalate America’s so-called war on terror, however, are raising fears of U.S. military intervention in Africa. Beyond that he has offered no policy views on Africa and his campaign had only a tiny team of foreign policy advisers.

Unlike his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and all previous U.S. presidents Trump has had no previous government or military service. His temperament and personal behavior, however, have been on public display for most of his 70 years.

These too mark a sharp departure from past standards of presidential behavior. At this stage, Africans might benefit more from an assessment of Trump the man we already know. His most distinctive personal attributes are not so foreign.

Consider the following leadership traits evident during Trump’s contentious campaign and current transition to his presidency.

Traits that will give demagogues comfort

Favoring strongmen over strong institutions

His accusations questioning the integrity of the U.S. electoral process and governing institutions were unprecedented in modern U.S. presidential politics. And promises that he alone could save the nation sounded more autocratic than democratic. This will surely reassure the strongman in the Kremlin (Russian President Vladimir Putin) as well as those who still rule many African states and chafed at U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for institutional reforms to limit executive powers.

Crony capitalism

The bane of many African countries, this risks becoming endemic to the new administration. Trump has demonstrated a disregard for conflicts of interest. In fact, he claims that he is legally exempt from such constraints. If America’s president can profit from public service, why should Africa’s strongmen not seize such opportunities?

Transparency

Trump’s refusal to disclose his U.S. tax returns is unprecedented among modern major party presidential candidates. It is also a warning that his administration will lack transparency. Trump, no less than Africa’s strongmen, said whatever he felt served his selfish interests with little regard for the public good.

Trump is tribal

His campaign to “Make America Great” became a motto primarily for a return to an America dominated by white, Christian men. This appeal to ethnic rather than civic nationalism has a long history in Africa’s failed democratic experiments. Trump’s appeal to white nationalism may not spur a renewal of African tribalism but it is definitely an example Africa’s democrats will not welcome.

Dignity and equality for women

Trump’s disregard for dignity and equality of women rivals the most orthodox behavior of traditional African leaders. His glamorizing of male dominance with a modern gloss is likely to resonate perniciously in Africa’s media and society.

Infallibility

This is another self-righteous trait Trump shares with African autocrats such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. It means never accepting responsibility and always blaming others. His so far successful conjuring of conspiracies and excuses for his self-inflicted shortcomings may reassure his like-minded peers in Africa.

Freedom of expression

One of America’s most revered constitutional principles, this was repeatedly challenged by Trump’s extreme campaign rhetoric. And his recent call to make flag-burning a criminal offense suggests he is either ignorant of the constitution he will soon swear to uphold, or considers himself above the law. This is an all too familiar affliction of African autocrats, and even some duly elected.

Repression

Trump doesn’t accept criticism, whether in the media or from human rights and other civil society organisations. Repression of both has a long history in Africa. Trump’s example should alarm those in Africa who advocate for greater government transparency and accountability.

Fact-free world

Trump’s “fact-free” emotional appeals during his campaign contained hundreds of easily verifiable falsehoods that appeared not to trouble his supporters. This new “post-truth” politics has continued with wrongful post-election claims of voter fraud. Such practices are not unknown in Africa.

Climate change denial

Trump’s disregard for facts and scientific evidence could undermine African governments and harm millions of their citizens imperiled by the effects of climate change. His likely failure to honor America’s commitments will deny badly needed relief to African countries, exacerbating local conflicts, imposition of emergency powers and suppression of dissent.

This may be a timely reminder that no democracy is ever secure, including the country that was until recently the continent’s democratic champion, South Africa.

Read more at The Conversation.

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