As the US election comes to an end, with both candidates having a fairly even chance of winning, it is pertinent to consider the effect that either candidate will have on US/ Africa relations in general and Nigeria in particular.

In order to do this we must first review current US, Africa policy what we know (or think we know) about both candidates.

Current US-Africa Policy

The US State Department defines the four pillars of US policy towards Africa as

  • Strengthening Democratic Institutions
  • Supporting African economic Growth and development
  • Advancing Peace and Security
  • Promoting Opportunity and Development

Strengthening Democratic Institutions

This goal has seen the US engaging with civil societies, training NGO’s and commenting strongly on what it perceives to be negative and positive democratic practices as evinced by the US’s comments and actions in the run up to the Nigeria election and comments and criticisms of various questionable electoral practices such as in Burundi, Burkina Faso etc. However where these criticisms have run up against other US interests (mainly security), the criticisms have had little follow up action. So criticism of the constitutional tinkering in Burundi led to a threat to withdraw from AMISOM, US criticism of ex President Blaise Camporare in Burkina Faso muted by the presence of military and intelligence ISR and Special Forces assets in the country

Supporting African economic Growth and Development

This objective has the fairly straightforward goal of increasing US trade and business in Africa and uses initiatives such as the US -Africa Business Forum, which seeks to draw investment into Africa, Trade Africa and the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa

Advancing Peace and Security

This area has seen the most activity beginning with President GW Bush and accelerating under President Obama, however under the latter has shown less interest in Africa’s internal conflicts such as Sudan or South Sudan than targeting US enemies such as al Qaeda or Daesh. As a result the US military and intelligence presence in Africa has grown exponentially (but quietly) in scope and size. This is represented overtly by the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) which aims to build the capacities of African partner nations through a variety of training and capacity building schemes and annual exercises. At the same time numerous combat, combat support and service support operations have been undertaken across the continent and continue to expand with a series of bewildering names and private security contracts with bases, Contingency Locations, Logistic Bases, Forward Operating Bases and so on constructed in north, east, west, central and southern Africa with the majority in and around the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. These military and intelligence operations are notoriously difficult to track and shrouded from oversight in the US Government by the curious way they are labelled, budgeted and described. They are not publicly discussed except for operations in Somalia or Libya and even then; very opaquely with much of the combat service support operations are undertaken by private contractors. With UAV bases under construction in Niger and US forces operating ground and air combat operations in Somalia and Libya in its clear the US’s security apparatus is set up for a sustained campaign.

Promoting Opportunity and Development

President Obama has comparatively fewer development engagements in Africa than his predecessor, with initiatives such as Power Africa, US-Africa Leader Summit, Feed the Future and an extension of President GW Bush’s African Growth and Opportunity Act. Compared to his immediate predecessor who actively engaged in development aid as well as seeking the end to conflicts in Sudan, Centrafrique and DRC, President Obama has been much less invested in development on the continent, however his initiatives such as Trade Africa and Power Africa should have significant long term impact if sustained.

Summary of US Africa Relations

Whilst development and economic objectives are emphasised the most active and widespread US interventions have been in the defence and security sector, in which Africa has become a key ‘second front’ in the US War on Terror, which has expanded covertly under President Obama whilst he drew down the overt operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. The US has sought to work with regional powers or key partners to provide the bulk of forces for interventions whilst US forces and contractors have conducted training and capacity building of local forces, provided specialist support such as ISR and logistics, transferred or sold equipment and in specific cases conducted direct actions using air power and/ or Special Forces either independently or with host nation forces. Lip service has been paid to the building or strengthening of democratic solutions except for when it directly threatened US security interests (such as in Nigeria) in other cases from Ethiopia to Burundi to Egypt criticisms have not meaningfully impacted US security relationships.

US military operations in Africa are characterised by their wide and diverse spread, relatively small footprints and almost total lack of publicity.

US-Nigeria Relations

US Nigeria relations stretch back to Independence and as the biggest foreign investor in Nigeria the US is interested in Nigeria’s economic growth, with good governance and democracy as a platform for economic development, this also supports a desire to see Nigeria return to its regional hegemonic role (ironically manifested best under unaccountable military dictators) in which it undertook peace keeping, support and enforcement missions in West Africa and beyond as well as deploying hard, soft and economic power to stabilise the region and continent such as in Guinea Bissau, Liberia or Sierra Leone. Mechanisms such as the US Nigeria Bi National Commission deal with issues of mutual interest such as security cooperation, economic growth and development and governance and democracy.

Security cooperation with Nigeria should naturally flow from this requirement however this has historically been prickly since the civil war and deteriorated under the last government due to issues with the management of the Boko Haram conflict, with training programmes and cooperation all but halted. Resumed cooperation with ISR, training and limited equipment supply has improved this area however security cooperation is less than with other regional powers in Africa.

Whilst there are US military assets in Nigeria their activities are not well publicised and it would appear most US support comes from bases outside the country in Niger, Chad and Cameroun.

The Nigerian foreign policy and security sector has mainly been focussed inward, protecting the interests of the members of the government in power and internal security, thus it is fairly unclear how Nigeria’s government views the increased US presence in Africa, especially as the presence of French and US forces has helped Nigeria in the fight against Boko Haram.

US Presidential Candidates:

The US Presidential system, whilst much eulogised was designed by men who had a genuine fear of the tyrannical use of power and was thus devised in such a way to limit the power of the President by giving law making and fund raising/ spending power to Congress, to prevent populism  and to ensure states were well represented; an electoral college is used to elect Presidents rather than a popular vote. These checks and balances mean that a President that doesn’t have a majority in both houses, must form coalitions or else bargain with the opposition party to enact policy thus ensuring that the Presidents power is always moderated and opposing views are taken into account. Even a President enjoying a clean sweep of both Houses of Congress must factor in the mid term elections which occur half way through the Presidents tenure and can cost them their Parliamentary advantage.

The one place the President has leeway is in foreign affairs. They have the power to make treaty’s and agreements which however must be ratified by Congress, however military operations whilst paid for by Congress are under the command of the President, thus most Presidents especially those unpopular at home have an activist foreign policy.

Hilary Clinton: the Democratic candidate is a lawyer and politician and has been a member of the political elite for decades, as a Governors wife, First Lady, Senator and then Secretary of State. Whilst she has become a hate figure for her opponents; whilst in public office as a Senator she had a reputation and track record of bipartisan work and whilst her time as Secretary of State did not see any of the dramatic successes of other Secretaries of State she again had a reputation for competence.

Mrs Clinton can be assessed by her actions as a US Senator and a Secretary of State as well as her public comments and policy positions.

Mrs Clintons history shows a fairly consistent traditional US geopolitical worldview, with a belief in the use of US hard and soft power to achieve US strategic aims.

Unlike President Obama, Mrs Clinton appears to have a more aggressive interventionist approach. It can be argued that her vote for the Iraq War was a calculated political move not to appear ‘soft’ whilst the country was on a war footing but her subsequent history has shown an inclination towards the kinetic solutions such as the Libya Intervention and proposed No Fly Zone over Syria an action that would require the deployment of significant assets to defeat the Syrian air force and ground based air defence as well as patrol and dominate the battle space. She has supported President Obama’s build up of a NATO buffer in the Baltics and Eastern and Central Europe to counter feared Russian aggression after Crimea and Ukraine.

It is in fact her hard line on Russia which appears to have helped define part of the electoral campaign and could define her tenure if she won.

Russia’s alleged interference in the US election by reportedly hacking and leaking emails does not appear to be an attempt to skew the election for one opponent or the other but to create sufficient distrust and confusion about the legitimacy of the winner that they will not have a strong enough mandate to operate effectively. This history could make Mrs Clinton’s responses to Russian actions less detached and calculating than President Obama’s.

It is also likely that Mrs Clinton will follow President Obama’s aggressive actions in the Middle East and if possible expand them devoting more resources to supporting Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian rebel forces. Her response to Chinese expansionism is likely to be more tempered however she is likely to continue President Obamas responses to the conflict in the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula balancing projections of military power with diplomacy and engagement.

The more troops and resources the US commits to the Middle East and Asia the less that are dedicated to Africa, particularly as she is unlikely to increase the defence budget in the face of the social programmes she has campaigned on.

Thus whilst Mrs Clinton will need to deal with what could be considered her key geopolitical foe; Russia, continue the US obsession with fighting middle Eastern terror groups and maintain US regional power in the Pacific she is likely to continue with President Obama’s silent military campaign in Africa but with a more interventionist bent and possibly a more strident tone on human rights and governance. Whilst resources are diverted to other theatres some operations may be scaled back but it is likely that headline conflicts such as al Shabaab, Daesh in Libya, AQIM, Boko Haram will continue to receive US attention at the same or increased levels.

US-Nigeria Relations under Mrs Clinton

The assumption from the above is that Mrs Clinton will closely follow President Obama’s strategy in Nigeria and Africa, with a possible emphasis on stabilisation and post conflict assistance particularly for girls and women, considering the deliberate targeting of females in this conflict, Mrs Clinton’s ‘glass ceiling’ narrative and the media friendly nature of any such assistance.

Donald Trump: is a wealthy property developer, business man and reality TV performer. Much of Mr Trumps policy positions contradict his past statements (which to be fair were those of a media personality rather than a politician or bureaucrat). However, a summary of his positions appear to be to rapidly expand the US military and renegotiate or reassess US military alliances, based on his perceptions of threats to the US.

He has advocated cooperating with Russia and Arab states to combat Daesh, although it is unclear how his ‘Muslim ban’ proposal will affect his relationships in the Islamic world. Relations with China will be economic, labelling them ‘currency manipulator’ possibly sparking a trade war.

Relations with Mexico and other Latin countries are likely to be cool following his harsh rhetoric about immigrants.

Whilst Mr Trumps erratic and aggressive campaign style of perpetual attack and insult and willingness to retaliate against slights, even if it defies logic and conventional wisdom might appear to be a significant negative, it in fact creates an element of strategic uncertainty which will make allies and adversaries wary of provoking a disproportionate response that they could not predict or counter.

The disadvantage however is that the long list of peoples and groups insulted by Mr Trump automatically reduces the goodwill and soft power that the US could use to advance his interests, Mrs Clintons ability to goad and manipulate Mr Trump during their debates shows a method by which his unconventional behaviours might be manipulated to an opponent’s advantage. The multiple tools of state at the Presidents disposal are full of institutional professionals who would oppose or neuter more outlandish proposals. And much like Mrs Clinton if Mr Trump won he would be working with a highly polarised country and Congress. Not only would he be opposed by the Democratic Party but members of his own party. His lack of experience of governance (coupled with a pretend or genuine lack of knowledge about local or foreign affairs) also means that there will be a significant learning curve with inevitable gaffes which would bedevil a popular outsider much less a highly unpopular outsider.

It is impossible to quantify Mr Trumps relationships with Africa or Nigeria as he has not indicated any interest in either previously or during the campaign except to attack Mrs Clinton over her failure to censure Boko Haram.

Based on Mr Trumps belief in strength through peace but also getting allies to contribute towards US assistance, it is possible that Mr Trump will seek to scale back President Obama’s security and defence networks in Africa as there is very little economic reward or seek to leverage these security deals against economic advantages. With the latter option, the US is not as well equipped or situated as other powers such as China, Russia or India to negotiate these type of quid pro quo deals.

Conversely he could decide that these theatres could give him quick, uncomplicated victories and help burnish his reputation as a fighter against ‘radical Islam’ without getting tied up in Byzantine Middle Eastern politics and proxy wars or having to deal with Congressional oversight, thus leading to a rapid expansion a loosening of restrictions and a less cautious (or cynical one might add) relationship with anti democratic governments.


The next US government irrespective of whoever wins will be characterised by

  • Deeply polarised electorate and domestic environment
  • A deeply unpopular President (and a hate figure to some segments)
  • A hostile Congress unless they have an outright majority, which is unlikely except possibly the first 2 years

They will possess however:

  • The worlds strongest and most widely based military
  • A strong economy
  • In Africa a widespread, secretive military and intelligence apparatus

These factors lead one to the assessment that the next US President will seek to make their mark in foreign affairs especially if they fail to get a favourable Congress, whilst Iraq, Syria and Eastern Europe will be the headline events Africa presents a theatre with the military and intelligence infrastructure, collection of easily understood enemies who fit neatly into the ‘Islamic terrorist and ‘bad actors’ mold and a wide array of countries more than happy to form security alliances with the US to shore up their on regimes, buy favour, gain training and equipment for their forces, unlock access to aid and investment and to gain international legitimacy.

These factors in the US and Africa present an opportunity for countries like Nigeria to gain an advantage irrespective of the candidate.

The conflict in Nigeria is easy to present and requires both kinetic and non kinetic effects. For a conventional, hawkish Democrat the conflict falls under the umbrella of R2P, building strategic alliances as well as advancing regional and global security.

For a potentially isolated outsider the conflict presents an opportunity to have a decisive effect and contrast (or claim credit for) any progress made with such an intervention against his predecessor.

For Nigeria and Africa it would appear that Pax Americana is here to stay.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Defence, Geopolitics, Nigeria Strategy, West Africa Strategy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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