Africa Reacts to the First Presidential Debate and Trump’s Case of Covid-19

In our “Africa Reacts” series, the CSIS Africa Program asks prominent African journalists, civil society activists, and thought leaders to share their analysis on the U.S. presidential election process. Sub-Saharan Africa has not featured prominently in presidential campaigns, but the outcome of the election will have important ramifications for U.S. policy toward the region. By flipping the script—featuring African analysts’ views on U.S. politics rather than U.S. analysts’ opinions on African developments—we are seeking to start a new conversation about the future of U.S.-African relations.

In the sixth installment of Africa Reacts, we asked some of the continent’s top analysts to share their takes on the first presidential debate and Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. Many noted Trump’s interruptions of opponent Joe Biden, interpreting his chaotic behavior as an attempt to avoid real policy debate. Others questioned if Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis would lead him to rethink the national pandemic response or reinstate support for the World Health Organization. Last, many analysts characterized next month’s election as a tipping point for the United States—warning that its democratic character and international reputation are at stake.

Read the firstsecondthird, fourth, and fifth installments of our Africa Reacts series.

The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.

Sait Matty Jaw, Executive Director, Center for Research and Policy Development, The Gambia (@saitmatty)

Watching the first presidential debate ahead of the U.S. election later this year, I honestly do not know where the United States is heading and where Africa stands in all this. In fact, I was not sure if what I saw was a debate after all, particularly on the side of President Trump. It seems his only interest was to demoralize and confuse Biden without presenting any solid plan for the United States now or post-Covid-19. Even I—living in a complicated transition in The Gambia—feel sorry for Americans as they deal with a president who has little consideration for others. Will the United States rise from this quagmire and will it regain its position as the poster child for democracy that it is slowly losing thanks to Trump? November will tell, but what is clear is that the United States has to do better and reclaim its position in global affairs.

Moïse Mounkoro, Co-Founder, Upendo Media; Contributor, (@moisemounkoro)

I have been watching the U.S. presidential debates for several years now, and I must admit that I have never seen such a chaotic debate. It simply lacked dignity and seriousness. The debates of the last years have been tense with harsh attacks, but overall they have been conducted with respect. This was not at all the case in this first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden with the incessant interruptions Trump was making.

I got the impression that Trump's strategy was to attack incessantly to avoid bringing up the subjects and issues that matter. I found his attacks very childish, especially when he made fun of Joe Biden for constantly wearing a big face mask. At that point I told myself, “this is one of the most chaotic debates in the history of U.S. presidential debates.”

Nor was Joe Biden especially transcendent or sharp (he still needs to work on his charisma to ensure support). But he tried several times to raise the level of the debate without success.

In summary, I think that this debate will help to mobilize all the anti-Trumpers to make sure that Joe Biden is elected, even if he is not their ideal candidate. On the other hand, the debate will in my opinion reinforce Trump's supporters, who do not care if Trump performs well or poorly at the debate.

Sanusha Naidu, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Global Dialogue (@SanushaNaidu)

In South Africa, focus on the forthcoming U.S. election has certainly caught the imagination of people who follow global affairs. Part of this probably has to do with the intriguing nature of President Trump and the ambiguities that have surrounded his presidency. The first debate and Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis have confirmed some of the mainstream views that Trump represents a threatening disruption to democracy and governance, notably in the United States as well as in other parts of the world. Trump’s antithetical nature remains a serious dilemma for South African policymakers with regard to bi- and multilateral relations, especially frameworks such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act. More importantly, how would Trump’s reelection impact U.S.-Africa relations, working outside of continental development and security frameworks like the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement and the African Union’s political and economic integration processes?

Ansbert Ngurumo, Tanzanian Journalist and Human Rights Defender, (@ngurumo)

The United States and Tanzania are holding general elections at a time when their citizens are witnessing a sharp similarity between their presidents. Both Donald Trump and John Magufuli have exhibited bullish and demagogic styles of leadership. Trump and Magufuli are seemingly the active champions of autocratic rule.

The main difference between them, however, is the constitutional setting under which they lead their countries. In the United States, you are assured of checks and balances. In Tanzania, the president behaves like a monarch. He has the final word in everything, a tendency that would likely become a breeding ground for grand corruption.

If Trump were a president in Africa, he would definitely be far more corrupt than Magufuli.

Now with these elections—one in late October, the other in early November—citizens face a stark choice between a working democracy and a dictatorship. It's time for them to either get their countries back to shape or keep the status quo for the worse—of course, in the absence of vote rigging.

This time, the United States has little to teach the rest of the world, let alone Africa. Much as the United States has always had a say in the affairs of other countries, it is time the world had a say in U.S. politics too. Its type of democracy is far from perfect, and it calls for a completely fresh start.

Mary-Ann Okon, Broadcast Journalist, Producer/Presenter (News Central TV) (@mimieyo)

The presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden was a bizarre spectacle to watch. As Africans watching from this side of the globe and seeing two people running for the highest office in the land going at each other in such a manner, it leaves you wondering if this is the new normal. Is this the new reality of “the greatest country in the world?” Is this the American dream?

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns have to re-strategize and prioritize issue-based debates instead of the old trick of bullying and dragging of opponents and being evasive.

Just days after the debates, it was reported that the president tested positive for a virus he played down at every time. As we join Americans in wishing him well, it is our hope that he'll have a change of heart through this experience, appreciate the seriousness of this pandemic, and rethink his position as it concerns the World Health Organization and Covid-19. But it does not look likely. How all this will play out in the polls remains to be seen.

Rodney Sieh, Front Page Africa, (@RodneySieh)

As a journalist whose professional life has been driven by investigative reporting on governance issues—(holding governments and dictatorships accountable and leaders’ feet to the fire)—I find it contradictory that each and every year we sit on this side of the world in anticipation of the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, in which the United States chastises governments across the globe. From abusing the rights of their citizens and engaging in acts deemed undemocratic and inhumane to their people, no violation is spared by the State Department's voluminous chronicle of the world's worst ills and misdeeds.

Sadly today, we are witnessing a rather strange predicament, in which the world's leading global police is grappling with a dictatorship of its own. The bullying tactics exhibited by President Donald Trump against his Democratic Party opponent Joe Biden were done in poor taste. More importantly, the president's failure to condemn white supremacists on a major debate stage, in my view, put him on the same plateau as many of the African dictators across the continent.

Chatters and bold comments from a sitting U.S. president—raising questions about the legitimacy of the upcoming November elections and jitters that Americans are actually pondering whether President Trump will leave office if he loses to Biden—mirror ongoing dilemmas in the West African nations of Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, where incumbent leaders Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé, having completed the maximum two terms, are looking to extend their stays in office.

The United States, the watchdog of democracy, appears to be toeing the line of dictatorship. It appears no one has the gravitas to stand up to President Trump except for a few members of Congress on the Democrat side—and a handful within the GOP.

This brings me to the issue of sycophancy, which I always felt was limited to Africa or third-world struggling economies eclipsed by a patronage system wherein people have no choice but to stoop as low as they can to the powers of the day just to survive. Ironically, we're talking about America, the last bastion of hope for the oppressed, which gave journalists like me a haven when dictators came knocking. Watching President Trump getting away with everything—from refusing to release his taxes to allegations of sex abuses and his repeated beatdown of health experts regarding the effectiveness of wearing masks during the deadly Covid-19 pandemic—I'm baffled at what has become of America. How can one man be allowed to get away with so much and yet so few in his rank stand by and do nothing?

It reminds me of a familiar place, the continent of Africa, where dictatorships have become the root cause of all our problems and the democratic way of life has been rubbed down our throats for as long as I can remember. If America is being ruled by an untouchable dictator, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Who will stand and be counted when it matters most? For now, Americans appear to be getting a taste of what we have been going through all these years. For the first time in recent memory, our part of the world is watching things unfold in America with great anticipation, not sure what to expect. The sad reality is the unknown factor of the November elections and the ripple effect of the outcome that could affect not just Americans, but the world at large.

If you are interested in contributing to future Africa Reacts commentaries on the U.S. presidential election, please email CSIS Africa Program Manager Marielle Harris (

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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