Africa Reacts to President Biden’s Inauguration
January 25, 2021
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. political process. 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 our eighth edition, we asked top African analysts to react to President Biden’s inauguration and the events leading up to that day. Many noted the deleterious effects of the January 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol on the United States’ global reputation as a beacon of democracy. Others argued that President Trump’s policies and actions over the last four years have set a precedent for “strongmen” across Africa to ignore democratic norms and backpedal on human rights. Last, many looked forward with anticipation—wondering how the Biden administration will juggle its domestic challenges of political divide, systemic racism, and surging Covid-19 cases, while working to restore its legitimacy and leadership on the world stage.
The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.
Chiponda Chimbelu, Zambian American Journalist (@chipondac)
The Biden era will mark a return to multilateralism for the United States, setting a clear shift from Trumpian diplomacy. But the world has changed a lot since 2016. The legacy of the Trump administration will linger, much like effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to hit the United States’ poor hardest. In Africa, deaths are also surging, and governments are struggling to cope. Can Washington adequately support African countries while it is dealing with its own significant domestic challenges? Despite plans by the United States to rejoin the World Health Organization's COVAX initiative, Africans are projected to be left out for the foreseeable future. Democracy is also regressing on the continent. Meanwhile, the United States is no longer the example it was for Africa. Many Africans are watching Washington struggle to respond to the pandemic. And the striking images from the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 have done little for the country's reputation as a “beacon of democracy,” similar to the news of the continued killing of African Americans and police violence in response to Black Lives Matter protests. It will be interesting to see how the Biden administration juggles domestic challenges while resetting its relationship with Africa and the rest of the world.
Eromo Egbejule, Editor, Ozy Africa (@EromoEgbejule)
These are, to use that oft repeated cliche, unprecedented times. Thanks to social media, we have witnessed The Great American Unravelling, this grand test of American democracy and its institutions degraded by a “strongman” over the last four years.
These four years have gifted authoritarian regimes around the globe an excuse to call the United States’ bluff now and perhaps also in the future, confident in their ability to cite the many missteps of the “leader of the free world” as precedent. Also, as world leaders and the media fussed over every step of the U.S. elections, sit-tight presidents in Ivory Coast, Guinea, Cameroon, Uganda, and elsewhere continued to backpedal on human rights in their jurisdictions, grateful for the absence of proper scrutiny by the usual suspects.
Of course, we must anticipate the emergence of a U.S. politician or two in the coming years who, now well steeped in the doctrines of Trump's gospel of white supremacy, will launch populist campaigns for the presidency. That person will have learned from the teacher's mistakes, and the world will have to cringe through a more melodramatic sequel of The Great American Unravelling. And yet another domino effect on the rest of the world. The pendulum swung from Obama on the one end to Trump on the other, now Biden back to the left . . . who knows where it will swing next?
Patrick Egwu, Freelance Investigative Journalist (@PatrickEgwu6)
Critics across the world saw Donald Trump’s administration as a disaster. His policies and unguarded political utterances were described as “unpresidential” and as tearing the world apart. Trump was unbothered, too. After he lost the election, his refusal to concede and his baseless allegations of voter fraud and rigging became the focus of his administration amid a pandemic that has brought our world to its knees and killed more than 410,000 Americans.
Every action by the United States defines and shapes the world. Countries all over the globe look up to the United States for leadership as a moral compass and exemplar of democracy. No doubt the United States often takes the unofficial position of the global watchdog by invading countries, imposing sanctions on so-called dictators in Africa or Asia and most times trying to set the standard of what a working democracy should look like. This norm, however, was brought into question during the U.S. Capitol invasion and the many atrocities that have been going on in the so-called “free world,” such as the brutal killing of George Floyd and the uprise of extremism and white supremacy. Biden has not wasted a minute in taking up the job.
The signing of 17 executive orders on his first day in office—reversing some of the hard decisions taken by President Trump—brings hope and joy not only to Americans, but to millions around the world. The executive actions include rejoining the Paris Agreement, revamping the pandemic response, racial equality, ending construction of the Mexico border walls, and reversing the so-called “Muslim ban,” which affected travel to the United States from some African countries, such as Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Tanzania. Many hope to see a new dawn and the United States taking its rightful place on the global stage. Biden knows the ropes and has been predicted to walk in Obama's shoes through his policies and action plans.
Will a Biden-Harris presidency deliver on promises and high expectations? Will it unite or divide the United States more? Will Africa-U.S. relations improve or deteriorate through sanctions and threats? Time will tell.
Yawa Hansen-Quao, Executive Director, Emerging Public Leaders (@yawahq)
I watched the U.S. presidential inauguration with my husband and seven-year-old daughter, and it was deeply inspiring to witness the first woman, the first Black woman, sworn in as vice president of the United States. During the recent presidential election in Ghana, we had our first woman on a major party ticket, though the smaller parties have previously led the way with female vice presidential candidates since 2012. It is important for women and girls to see themselves reflected in the highest level of government and to feel empowered to shape policy whether by voting, running for office, or joining the civil service.
The events of the last few weeks in the United States have underscored how much work the new administration has to do to restore faith in government and rebuild the civil service. A lot of us in Africa have deep experience doing this work. Civil servants are the face of government and the hands of service delivery; they create and implement vaccine programs, process recovery checks, and ensure safety in everything from food to airplanes. The Biden administration should look to models from the continent, like the public service fellowships I lead, as it works to strengthen government. Fortunately, with nominations like Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (to the position of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), there is evidence that this administration will be open to learning from African countries.
Amini Kajunju, Executive Director, IUGB Foundation (@AminiKajunju)
We can't ignore the fact that the United States has military and geopolitical strategies it will always consider when working in a region or a continent. However, I would like to see an era, beginning with the Biden administration, in which there is a do-no-harm approach to military activities in Africa. The U.S. intervention in Libya feels recent, and it is painful to see its regional repercussions. Instead, I believe the United States should "export" and partner with Africa in two areas in which it leads globally: higher education and entrepreneurship. Africans need access to excellent tertiary education and jobs. Education and employment are a solid panacea to what ails the youth of Africa, who have engaged with militia groups or made perilous voyages to Europe in search of a better life.
Bola Mosuro, Broadcaster, BBC (@bbcBola)
Millions across the United States—including Republicans—heaved a collective sigh of relief seeing Donald Trump leave the White House and Joe Biden sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. The emotions watching Kamala Harris take her oath of office as the first African American, South Asian, and female vice president were hard to describe. But neither politician is blemish free—their records on criminal justice a case in point—and this tenure will see them making overtures to many communities.
President Biden spoke of hope, unity, and healing—echoed in the words of the impressive poet laureate Amanda Gorman, who spoke of “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” Yet how easy will it be to forge unity and put back the pieces of the “dis-United States,” shattered after four years of “Trumpism”? The ravages of the pandemic have cost over 410,000 American lives, racial tension is at an all-time high, and white supremacists have been emboldened enough to promise more insecurity. It’ll be a tall order healing the United States’ many divisions over the next four years.
Alvin Ntibinyane, Co-Founder, INK Centre for Investigative Journalism (@AlvinNtibinyane)
A few years ago, while attending a party hosted by the U.S. ambassador to Botswana at his residence in the affluent suburbs of Gaborone, I had a conversation with a young embassy staffer about the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok town in Nigeria. The staffer could not fathom why Boko Haram, an extremist Islamist organization, would kidnap innocent schoolgirls in the name of religion and hate for Western civilization. “Perhaps this barbarity is due to lack of civilization,” he concluded.
Could this be true? Maybe not. What happened two weeks ago when an angry pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to overturn the election of Joe Biden is an example of how extremism can creep into society, even in so-called developed societies. Like Boko Haram extremists, these U.S. extremists were conditioned to hate and fear. Whereas Boko Haram hates Western civilization and education and believes in the supremacy of Islam, the U.S. extremists—in particular, the white supremacists—hate multiculturalism, globalization, and immigrants. Some even call for Christian domination.
I disagree with the young U.S. embassy staffer; this barbarity is not necessarily due to a lack of civilization. It’s a combination of several factors, including misinformation campaigns and “lies told for power and profit,” as President Biden rightly said in his inauguration speech.
Tolu Olasoji, Nigerian Journalist (@Tollexrism)
The transition was a fitting depiction of two eras: a sulking Donald Trump leaving the White House in the most unceremonious manner, and how the world received, with warmth, the ascension of Joe Biden, Trump’s successor.
Biden’s gotten to work already, and one of the most significant things to Africa is overturning an inhumane anti-immigration rule enforced by his predecessor. For years, it’s had negative effects on a lot of Africans, stereotyped as mostly terrorists because of their belief and nationality.
Biden has also laid out markers against complicity and corruption, thus setting the pace where Trump has either failed or turned a blind eye. The world’s gaze is on Biden’s first 100 days in office. He knows and has assured that there is more to come. In his words: "these are all just starting points."
Biruk Terrefe, Ph.D. Candidate, Oxford Department of International Development (@terrefebiruk)
As Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) contemplates whether the people of Pittsburgh are party to the Paris Agreement, we are reminded that the eviction of Trump from the White House is not a triumph over Trumpism. As Biden ushers in a new dawn of U.S. politics by signing executive orders focusing on climate change, Covid-19, and immigration, Trump’s destructive legacy looms large. That said, it would be a fatal mistake to lay the blame for the United States’ ills solely on the former president. Trump may have exposed the myth of American exceptionalism on primetime television, but this myth predates him. The Trump administration's handling of the pandemic was catastrophic, but the structural problems of the United States’ unequal health care system have a long history. The record unemployment numbers caused by this economic crisis are reflective of a precarious labor market in which labor unions are systematically undermined and workers exploited. The structural violence against racial and ethnic minorities may have received support from far-right militia groups and the White House in the last four years, but it is a central tenet of the United States’ history of segregation. The deployment of 25,000 soldiers on the streets of Washington, D.C., to protect a newly elected administration is thus a fitting tribute to America’s unexceptional nature. The United States has problems like the rest of us.
This raises a number of particularly pertinent questions for Biden and Harris. Does the carnage that Trump left behind offer a moment for deeper interrogation or a shallow plastering of the country’s wounds? Is the United States aspiring to a “return to normal” or a “new normal”? Does the Biden administration return to the myth of American exceptionalism or acknowledge the fragile social fabric upon which the United States was built? Does the United States continue to pathologize and paternalize the continent or engage humbly in light of its own fragility? Does this offer a moment of reflection on how the United States approaches its “democracy work” in Africa or is it back to “business as usual”? With control of the House, the Senate, and the executive branch, the Democrats have it in their hands to answer these questions.
If you are interested in contributing to future Africa Reacts commentaries on major U.S. political events, please email CSIS Africa Program Research Associate Marielle Harris (email@example.com).
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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