By Murithi Mutiga
Donald Trump was not playing games. He clearly meant everything he said on the campaign trail about pulling back from the world and pursuing his ‘America First’ agenda.
His speech on Friday thrilled his supporters and shocked leaders around the world. Some in Africa are alarmed about the inevitable cutbacks in aid that will come when an isolationist president enters the White House.
Instead, Africa should leap at this chance to end its shameful culture of dependency and get its house in order.
The world should have seen this coming. Trump has been preaching isolationism for decades. In September 1987, he took out advertisements in three major newspapers demanding that America turns inwards.
“The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help,” he wrote.
The country should instead “help our farmers, our sick, our homeless … end our huge deficits, reduce our taxes, and let America’s economy grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defence of their freedom.”
The moment of reckoning has arrived. It is inevitable that millions around the world that depend on American aid will have to find alternative ways to survive.
That’s a good thing. The aid industry is a scandal. As the London School of Economics anthropologist Jason Hickel pointed out in a Guardian article recently, Africa loses far more to the West – in unfavourable trade terms, in under-declared profits by multinationals and in illicit capital flight – than it receives in aid.
Citing a report by the Centre for Applied Research at the Norwegian School of Economics and Global Financial Integrity (GFI), Hickel pointed out that $1.3tn was sent to Africa, including all aid, investment, and income from abroad in 2012 but that same year some $3.3tn flowed out of the continent.
Aid fosters laziness, stifles innovation and keeps incompetent rulers in power. Mobutu stayed in office for so long because he was a loyal American puppet who was rewarded with billions of dollars in aid, misappropriated most of it (and kept 5 billion dollars for his family, according to Transparency International).
Nothing has changed today. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a reported $24 trillion in untapped resources under the ground. Yet it is still one of the poorest countries on earth with a UN peacekeeping force of 19,000 spending billions of dollars every year purporting to keep the peace.
If such countries did not receive aid, there would be greater pressure from the people to force their leaders to be more accountable.
If Kenya saved the Sh300 billion Joseph Kinyua, who was Treasury PS at the time, said is lost to corruption every year would it not be entirely free of the need for aid?
Why does much of the population in countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Gabon live in poverty yet they have such low populations and vast amounts of wealth?
Nigeria, a powerhouse with scores of bright, educated people and vast resources would be a major world power if it broke from its past (including the many British-supported military coups that imposed weak leaders in the 60s) and found a way to govern itself better.
Ending aid dependency will help countries on the continent to challenge themselves to achieve their potential.
It must not be lost to the world that others that have advocated ‘America First’ slogans including, most recently, the 2000 third party candidate Patrick Buchanan have been openly racist figures. Trump’s campaign came from this ugly tradition.
But Africa should not mourn the retreat of America back into its shell. The continent has huge untapped potential that has been left unexploited due in part to its tendency to rely on the West for its sustenance and its tolerance for bad leaders.
The Trump campaign list of questions to the State Department about Africa leaked to the New York Times was telling: (Why haven’t we defeated al-Shabaab and Boko Haram? “With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen? Why should we spend these funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the US?”)
Those questions signal an imminent change from the policy of engagement of the last five decades. Africa should not bewail this development. Instead, it should see this as an opportunity to end its culture of dependency and radically reshape its future.
Boosting trade within the continent, even re-ordering the many illogical borders that create so many landlocked and uncompetitive states and above all toppling inept leaders, should all be on the table.