The Challenge of Trump’s Telephone Diplomacy to Africa’s Power Houses
But for the complexity of Donald Trump as president of the United States, it has been an accepted commonsensical reasoning that Africa end up gaining more from the Republicans in power in spite of the more liberal Democrats. Most recent example is George W. Bush’s HIV/AIDS intervention in Africa. When Bush’s popularity rating remained relatively high in Africa towards his exit from power in contrast to many other parts of the world, people found nothing else to point to beyond that intervention. No one can even guess if Trump is going to follow that trajectory of deliberately adding a unique value to Africa, being stormy on all counts so far.
It is still too early, too fluid to have expected any such categorical commitment when Trump took ‘America First’ to the African power houses yesterday through his telephone diplomacy. Africa’s power houses is what they call the exclusive club of Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. Egypt’s absence from the list yesterday shows that, for Trump, sub-Saharan Africa is a standalone category while Egypt is somewhere in the Middle East or the idea of the Mediterranean Union or wherever. He had called Egyptian President much earlier on January 23rd, 2017 and it could only have been overdose of hegemonic scripting of the world for the Nigerian media to claim that President Buhari of Nigeria is the first African president Trump was phoning. In fact, Trump told Buhari almost exactly what he told Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, assuming we were told everything that went on during the telephone conversation.
However, nothing can diminish a one-on-one telephone conversation between the president of an African power house and a new president of the United States. Nigeria is power personified although it is still a case of arrested development. The United States remains the power to beat. For decades, declinists have pushed out evidence to show that it is on its way out of great power status. They emphasised how the US had lost the capacity to get others to reify the Pax Americana or even impose hegemony on global politics. This went on till a counter analysis that seems to have prevailed was developed. It pointed out how what matters is not whether the US prevailed among hegemons or not but the dominance of American principles in the ideational framework underpinning international order and which American institutions promote to what the late Susan Strange, called a lock-grip on world affairs. For her, what matters most about American power is not whether it prevails but that it sets the agenda. It’s nearly twenty years that Strange died and her formulation must have taken some washing but not entirely repudiated.
So, the telephone conversation was not a wasted journey. Empires, as they say, have a way of sneaking back from decline or collapse and the US is an empire, however understood. But what did Trump want the two African leaders to do for him or to do for them?
It would seem that trying to understand the phone conversation on the basis of the specific items mentioned in the discussion could be misleading. Helping Nigeria fight terrorism or consolidating trade with South Africa would seem to be commonsensical. As nothing is, however, commonsensical, the telephone conversation would seem to have helped promote a discourse along with the answers implied. It is still the discourse of Africa’s insecurity in the hands of terrorists and other varied sources of threat bearers. With Trump, what is interesting is the shift in the American response, from prohibitions of sale of weapons to the Nigerian military on ground of reservations against its rating in human rights compliance to distrust of the same military for allegedly leaking information to the enemy and now to guarantee of sale of military technology to the same military to deal with terrorist threat.
Shifts in gaze are never innocent. As such, the telephone conversation can be construed as a disciplinary move through which Trump could be transforming his imagination of Nigeria into reality, into power. American weapons in the hands of Nigerian military could bring so much relief just as it reifies ‘America First’. But, what is wrong with that?
Nothing is wrong with that if only Nigeria has an equally powerful imagination of the US by which it could exercise power through discourse. It could be difficult to do for an African country but power through discourse is the only means by which an African country can assert itself. All other forms of power are loaded against it. Lacking in the military capability, it cannot rely on coercive power to assert itself. Apart from the normative baggage of coercion, it is fraught with dangers in the age of hybrid wars. It doesn’t have the structural powers and certainly not the institutional powers. Powerful as the institutions under girding international order, they are, in the last instance, controlled by one powerful state or the other. Even if Nigeria has a strategic discourse of the US, it has not popularised such and it is certainly not into its performativity. It is still locked in the grip of formalistic diplomacy in the era of info sphere and megamachinism which even the Trumps of this world are wielding with ease. That’s the challenge!