Jennifer Cooke is a director of the Africa Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS.
An expert on Nigerian and African affairs, Ms. Cooke manages a range of projects on political, economic, and security dynamics in Africa, providing research and analysis to U.S. policymakers, members of Congress, and the U.S. military, as well as the broader public.
She spoke to Ladi Olorunyomi, the head of the PREMIUM TIMES Washington Bureau, on the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President-elect and his possible plans for Nigeria and Africa.
PT: During the campaign, it seems like there was no mention of Africa at all. Going forward now, what should Africa expect from the Trump administration?
Cooke: Just as an aside, the one issue that did come up was Benghazi and that was pointed out as a failure of Clinton. I think it’s very hard to predict right now what the Trump foreign policy is going to look like. He’s never expressed any interest in Africa as a business opportunity or as a political pitch. I just think he has pretty much zero knowledge of the continent in terms of the current issues and things that are happening. That said, we don’t know who he will put in place as the Secretary of State, that is one thing. The other is that, the presidents change but there is a massive bureaucracy that kind of continues on, the State Department, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, PEPFAR, all of those are institutions now that will carry forward. Now leadership change may seem toxic for tenure in some ways, I think people were very dubious about what President [George W.] Bush might do in Africa and he ended up having a very good record. We don’t know what Trump’s interests are because we have no idea what his foreign policy looks like but there is this major bureaucracy, the State Department, USAID and various institutions. There is the Defense Department interest in, kind of, an expanding military presence within Africa to fight violent extremism and then finally, on a positive note, there has been fairly strong bi-partisan support in Congress for African initiatives, whether it’s on peacekeeping, whether it’s Power Africa, Electrify Africa, AGOA. There has been a coalition within Congress that is not Republican or Democratic that has kind of sustained interest and funding for Africa. My expectation is that the security interest will be the one thing that captures the President’s attention if at all, there are some other factors that may mean a dramatic change in African policy.
PT: One of the anxieties in Nigeria now about the Trump presidency is about MNJTF, the coalition that is fighting Boko Haram which the U.S. has been very supportive of. Trump said something about decreasing the U.S. footprint in security affairs around the world, so there is this anxiety about what he will do about Boko Haram.
Cooke: That’s interesting because my fear will be the flip side of that. A number of his leading appointments have been military officials and he will be advised by them on U.S. ongoing engagement. There are some things the president does not turn on a dime, that is one thing. The second is that in global terms, U.S. support for counter-terrorism in the Sahel and northern Nigeria is keener compared to the footprints elsewhere in the world. That would not be the first place, I think, that things will shake out. You might say, disentangle from places like the South Sudan but MNJTF is kind of one of the smaller U.S. military commitments. My concern is that he would look at security issues in Nigeria and the Sahel through a strictly military lens. I think it is going to be very important to convince him and to convince the advisers around him that Boko Haram and groups like it cannot be dealt with through solely military means. That’s why governance, economic development, job creation, those are the things, they are harder to do, they take a long time but those are the things that ultimately turn the tide. And that’s my worry, that they won’t see the need for a more comprehensive approach to ultimately defeat terrorists, whether in Nigeria or elsewhere.
PT: Do you think President Buhari should invite President Trump to visit Nigeria?
Cooke: I absolutely think he should, I don’t know whether he will though, or whether he will go. I think the more exposure President Trump can get to different parts of the world, to different perspectives than the purely commercial view he’s got will be very important. But I just can’t imagine that Africa will be very high on his priority list.
PT: And around Africa, there is also the fear that the Trump administration might decide to tamper with AGOA given what he said about trade deals during the campaign.
Cooke: Yes, but he can’t just overturn a law, that would have to have a strong congressional support. Where he might be harder is on a place like South Africa, I don’t know if you followed the whole chicken business [South African restriction on chicken import from the United States] …
PT: Yes, I did …
Cooke: I think there, he might be less willing to cut a place like South Africa a slack, because in some ways, South Africa was giving Europe, Brazil and China better opportunities than it was giving to the United States. So he might press for harder terms when issues come up but he can’t just reverse a law that is in place, and not without strong congressional support.
PT: So we just have to wait and see …
Cooke: Nobody knows what it is going to look like, yes you have to wait and see. You can only judge from the things he’s done and the things he’s said so far. But then President Bush surprised us on Africa …
PT: Yes, but Bush had political experience and good intentions …
Cooke: … and people around him.
PT: … yes, Trump seems to have just began building his coalition, his team.
Cooke: … and the people he is picking are not strong policy pundits …
PT: … that is the fear, Nigeria is at a very delicate position now. The kind of support Nigeria needs from the United States now is not some kind of reversal or hotchpotch policy, we need something integrated, wholesome and solid.
Cooke: The one good thing about Africa not getting that much attention from the President is that the State Department, USAID and the African Command would kind of keep doing what they are doing under the radar. If Africa were a huge priority for the President, then we might see some big changes. But it’s kind of so low that those bureaucracies, those institutions and those engagements that are going on now will likely just carry on in a lot of ways.