Will Trump’s rise undermine global and African democracy?

Will the US under the presidency of Donald Trump, who has promised to turn the world’s largest economy determinedly inwards, undermine democracy globally and in Africa?

Many Africans wonder whether Trump’s election indicates a decline in democracy in the US itself.

It is not democracy which is at fault in the US, but political, financial and cultural elites and those heading democratic institutions are perceived not to be accountable to ordinary citizens.

Where in the past disaffected citizens have stayed home in despondency, they have now used their vote to oust leaders they perceive to be distant.

In the US and in many industrial countries, middle and working classes are under increasing financial pressure.

Global technological and economic changes have seen manufacturing jobs increasingly moving to emerging markets such as China. New technology, automation and the rise of the “gig economy” where temporary positions are becoming more common, has led to fewer and less stable jobs in industrialised countries.

Following the global and Eurozone financial crises, industrial countries have increasingly introduced austerity programs, reducing welfare, cutting public jobs and services. The purchasing powers of incomes in industrial countries have declined dramatically, meaning that even people in traditional stable professions, such as nurses, teachers and engineers, struggle with basic living costs, such as housing.

Rising economic migration from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to Western Europe, has put pressure on jobs, housing and has changed the demography of recipient countries. Locals anxious about their declining economic situations fear economic migrants as added competition who threaten to undermine their way of living, customs and identity.

Furthermore, the wealth gap between ordinary families and the political and business elites in Western countries has risen dramatically. Increasingly, privileged elites are fabulously well-off, whilst the majority is struggling to make ends meet, even with high levels of education. They feel trapped competing for increasingly scarcer opportunities to become upwardly mobile.

Outgoing US President Barack Obama said, “What we’ve also seen is that this global integration is increasing tendencies towards inequality, both between nations and within nations, at an accelerated pace.

“And when we see people global elites, wealthy corporations seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes, manipulating loopholes when the rich and the powerful appear to game the system and accumulate vast wealth while middle and working-class families struggle to make ends meet, this feeds a profound sense of injustice and a feeling that our economies are increasingly unfair.”

Furthermore, because of technology, everyone now can see how the priviliged live.

“An inequality that was once tolerated because people didn’t know how unequal things were, now won’t be tolerated because everybody has a cellphone and can see how unequal things are,” said Obama.

Importantly, there appears to be a generalised sense among many ordinary citizens that current political parties and leaders are not listening, do not have the capacity to and are not accountable and capable to turning things around. People are increasingly looking to answers in populist politics, extreme nationalism and xenophobia in Western countries.

The UK “Brexit” referendum, for example, became a proxy referendum on the perceived lack of responsiveness, distance and lack of leadership to deal with ordinary citizens’ anxieties by domestic political leaders, institutions, the European Union and its leaders and institutions.

Whether successful or not, the US has traditionally positioned itself as a defender of democracy, democratic values and human rights across the world.

Although unevenly implemented, former US President Barack Obama made building democracy, institutions and good governance a cornerstone of the country’s US Africa policy. Obama argued, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong (democratic) institutions.”

How Trump threatens democracy, freedoms and rights at home will be carefully watched by both democrats and autocrats in Africa and around the world.

If he suppresses democratic debate, rights and undermines democratic institutions in the US, it will give many African governments already trigger-happy, an excuse to do so also.

Trump’s initial comments to turn the US focus inwards have been enthusiastically welcomed by many autocratic African leaders. Many of them, no doubt hoping a domestically focused US under Trump won’t police, censure or monitor their anti-democratic behaviour.

In fact, Trump’s election may embolden many an African autocrat who may think that they now have the freedom to act with impunity.

Trump, unlike Obama, who is of African descent, has been decidedly unenthusiastic about Africa. None of the 29 leaders Trump phoned in the week following his election were from Africa.

US policies are often heavily influenced by partisan diaspora lobbies.

On the face of it, an African diaspora lobby will struggle to keep the continent on the US domestic agenda under a Trump presidency.

Trump has also threatened to cut US development aid to developing countries.

Whether he will cut US development funding to Africa more, may have one of the biggest impacts on democracy building in Africa. Disappointingly, under the Obama Presidency, development aid to Africa had been drastically reduced. It may be further reduced under Trump.

The US is the largest foreign donor in the world. The Obama administration allocated around US$37.9bn of its total US$4trillion 2016 federal budget to foreign aid.

The US provides 24% of the development aid of all industrial countries. Around 20% of the US foreign aid goes to African countries. Development aid specifically to Africa’s civil society is crucial for strengthening democracy, development and peace.

Civil society organisations in Africa play a crucial role in holding governments to account, fostering a new generation of alternative leaders and also providing local jobs.

One of Obama’s worst legacies in Africa has been reducing development support to civil society in Africa cutting off one of the most crucial democratic oversight institutions on the continent.

Trump may also be less keen to support African civil society which may weaken civil society attempts to strengthen African democracy. Trump has criticised the value of foreign aid and has threatened to cut it. If he does so, it will heavily imperil efforts at democracy building in Africa.

If Trump steps up the US doctrine of “war on terror” it will sabotage the expansion of democracy on the continent.

Under the Obama administration, the US has expanded its military presence in Africa, with military bases in Kenya, Nigeria and Somalia, and a new one being built in Niger.

The Obama “war on terror” has destabilised most of northern Africa, breaking up countries, and giving extremists a raison d’être.

African dictators have often joined the “war on terror” and under its guise suppressed perfectly legitimate critics, labelling them “terrorists”. It is very likely that Trump will step up the “war on terror” campaign which is likely to destabilise Africa, strengthen the hands of extremists and undermine democracy on the continent.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has warned that Trump’s “militaristic tendencies towards the Middle East (and ban on all Muslim travel to the US) would be a potent recruitment tool for jihadi groups, increasing their threat” in the Middle East, as well as Africa.

It is likely that Trump in his “war on terror” campaign, will align with a number of African strongmen not on the basis of their democratic credentials, but on their strategic positions in the “war on terror” campaign.

This will strengthen African strongmen, who are deemed “strategic” in the “war on terror” campaign.

Currently, global democracy is flawed. The global political, financial and cultural systems are still unequal and skewed against developing and African countries, in favour of Western powers.

For example, developing and African economies do not have the policy independence to use monetary and fiscal policies to stimulate their own economies lest they face a market, investor and Western media backlash.

The US and Europe-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the United Nations, have dominated development finance and global politics since the Second World War.

All are dominated by Western countries.

They have also all been criticised for often being biased towards Western countries at the expense of African and developing countries.

Developing and African countries need greater say in the control of the policies, decisions and ideas of the IMF, World Bank, IFC and the UN, in order to boost their futures.

Unfair global trade rules have undermined African economies since independence from colonialism. African economies have suffered, with lost wealth, jobs and economic growth, because African countries continue to export raw materials to both industrial and developing countries, while these countries export manufactured and beneficiated products to Africa.

Industrial nations have erected high trade barriers to products from Africa that have been transformed from raw materials to manufactured products which means value has been added. However, raw materials from Africa usually do not have the same high tariff barriers in industrial countries.

Making global trade rules more democratic, fairer and equitable is crucial for African sustainable development.

It is very unlikely that Trump will push for the democratisation of global politics, economics and trade or for the IMF, World Bank, IFC and UN to be more inclusive of African and developing countries.

  *This article was published in SABC News. To view the article on their website click here

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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