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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 16th January 2017

AFRICA/UNITED STATES: Tussling for influence in Trumplandia

Patrick Smith

This week we have two presidential inaugurations to follow, both idiosyncratic in their own way: that of Adama Barrow in Banjul and of Donald J. Trump in Washington DC. United States policy is also under scrutiny on relations with Sudan, as is Nigeria's policy towards China and the further downgrading of ties with Taiwan. Finally, South African President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, have taken their differences over the succession into the open.

AFRICA/UNITED STATES: Tussling for influence in Trumplandia
Although Egypt's President, Abdel Fatah el Sisi, was the first foreign leader to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the US elections, Africa was hardly mentioned in the election campaign. Authoritarian leaders such as El Sisi are betting that the Trump presidency, starting after the inauguration on Friday (20 January), will be good for them.

There are also suggestions that Trump's government will join forces with Egypt and Russia in backing the secular nationalists in Libya, led by General Khalifa Haftar against sundry Islamist factions. A US diplomat in Southern Africa pointed out discreetly that Trump's warmth towards President Vladimir Putin could prove helpful to South Africa's beleaguered President Zuma. But a former insider in Washington cautioned: 'As for policy matters, this is Trump. No one knows and anyone who says they do is lying.'

There is a little more clarity on personnel. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, is strongly tipped as the new Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. An Associate Professor at James Madison University, Virginia, Pham specialises in regional geopolitics and security policy.

A former Marine and National Intelligence agent, Rob Townley, has been confirmed as the new Director for Africa at the National Security Council. Said to have a 'strong personality', Townley has served in combat operations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and his last job was Chief Strategy Officer at Doc-to-Dock, which provides medical support and conflict management services across Africa.

Tipped for a senior Africa role at the Department of Defense is Kate Almquist Knopf, Director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies since 2014. And Jeffrey R. Krilla, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy and Human Rights at the State Department, might move across to the African Affairs Department. Some Washington-watchers are also suggesting the return of Charles Snyder, the veteran intelligence officer and State Department official who played a key behind-the-scenes role in US policy under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush.

SUDAN/UNITED STATES: Sanctions deal and President Omer el Beshir's heart
The outgoing administration of President Barack Obama, having cleared the decision with President-elect Donald Trump's team, has ended sanctions on US companies investing in and trading with Sudan in what it calls 'an acknowledgement of progress by the government' in Khartoum.
The move follows over six months of secret negotiations between officials in Washington and Khartoum. However, Sudan remains on the US list of countries accused of sponsoring terrorism. Human rights campaigners in Africa and beyond have lambasted the decision.

Sudan's Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ahmed Ghandour says his government wants to intensify the dialogue with the USA and get the tougher security sanctions lifted. On the day before Washington made the announcement, President El Beshir had an exploratory cardiac catheterisation at the Royal Care Hospital in Cairo.

Choosing a hospital in neighbouring Egypt for this sensitive procedure suggests relations have improved between the two countries' presidents. Or perhaps that was what the detailed announcement released by the President's office in Khartoum was meant to convey.

THE GAMBIA: Jammeh digs in against Barrow's inauguration
After the failure of talks between regional leaders and President Yahya Jammeh to allow the inauguration of declared election-winner Adama Barrow to go ahead on 19 January, the stage is set for confrontation. Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari and Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led a last-ditch mission to Banjul on 14 January to persuade Jammeh to stand down. He refused.

Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the United Nations Special Representative for West Africa, says regional leaders are likely to confirm their willingness to send troops into Gambia to uphold Barrow's electoral mandate. Yesterday (15 January), Barrow was reported to have arrived in Senegal, where he is likely to remain until just before Thursday (19 January), when his inauguration should take place. Regional leaders have said they will attend the ceremony but no details have emerged on how this will be organised. Reports from Banjul speak of heightening tension and say that Jammeh's allies have been recruiting mercenaries to shore up his regime against any regional intervention.

NIGERIA: Chinese cash but more devaluation talk
Latest forecasts from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for this year suggest Nigeria's economy will return to modest growth of 1.7% this year after it sank into recession last year. The government's ambitious Keynesian public investment plans will require massive financing. One estimate refers to US$30 billion in new loans.

There is much talk of a mega-loan from Qatar but the latest report comes from Chinese officials who speak of a plan to invest $40 bn. in Nigerian infrastructure. This has not come without a diplomatic price.

Following a visit to Abuja by China's Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama has restated his government's 'One China' policy. And on 12 January, he ordered Taiwan to downgrade its trade office by moving it from Abuja, the political capital, to the commercial capital, Lagos.

Despite slightly higher oil prices and multiple promises of new money for Nigeria, the naira remains vulnerable to market pressure. It has lost more than 40% of its value since the Central Bank removed its peg to the US dollar last June. Many bankers insist that the authorities will have to end their attempts to manage the exchange rate and let the naira float.

SOUTH AFRICA: Zuma disses deputy
Factional disputes at the top of the African National Congress have resurfaced in the new year with President Jacob Zuma dismissing the political ambitions of his Deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa. Zuma rejected the idea that it was an ANC tradition for the Deputy President to succeed the President and suggested that the trades unions' endorsement of Ramaphosa would not be a significant factor in leadership elections at the end of the year.

The usually painfully cautious Ramaphosa is stepping up his campaign. In a not-so-oblique reference to Zuma's links to the wealthy Gupta family, currently the subject of legal action, Ramaphosa said on 15 January: 'There have been instances where internal processes have been infiltrated by individuals and companies seeking preferential access to state business.'

Until now, Zuma's preferred candidate as next president of the ANC has been his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whose candidacy was endorsed by the party's Women's League last week. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said late last year that some six candidates were running for the top job.

We hear from Johannesburg that another contender may come into the open: Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba is said to have won the backing of the ANC Youth League. A former leader of the Youth League, Gigaba has been a strong supporter of Zuma but is a generation younger than most of the others in the leadership race.