A Joe Biden presidency: What it may mean for Kenya

US presidential candidate Joe Biden

Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 4, 2020.

Photo credit: Jim Watson | AFP

What you need to know:

  • For Joe Biden, a former Vice President in the Obama years, his imminent victory, assuming he maintains trajectory, could right many wrongs or omissions seen in the Donald Trump years.
  • Both Biden and Trump have spoken little about Africa, let alone Kenya, but his presidency could target to rectify what Trump did, including withdrawing from key multilateral institutions.

What would a Joe Biden presidency bring Africa? Probably nothing, or probably some “respect,” according to analysts at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

This debate, of course, about American presidential elections, has been muted, given the swinging nature of votes this week. In that country, one can have more (popular) votes but still lose the presidency as it happened to Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, both Democratic candidates.

Ahead of the elections, Trump’s rating in Africa was half what Obama enjoyed on the continent. A survey of some 4,200 youth across 12 African countries, including Kenya this week cited the US as an influential country on the continent despite the rivalry of China.

Commissioned by Ichikowitz Family Foundation (IFF) and conducted by PSB Research (an affiliate of WPP Group), the survey interviewed youth from Kenya, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

For Biden, a former Vice President in the Obama years, his imminent victory, assuming he maintains trajectory, could right many wrongs or omissions seen in the Donald Trump years.

There could be an Africa Summit in Washington, for example, last witnessed in 2014 during Barack Obama’s administration.

“Respect for Africa would, for example, include lifting the requirement that Sudan recognise Israel in order for Sudan to be removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism,” ISS said in a bulletin last month.

“Another focus would be on negotiating reciprocal free trade agreements with Africa, either bilaterally or regionally. These would eventually replace the non-reciprocal African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which allows exports from eligible African countries into the US, duty and quota-free.”

Both Biden and Trump spoke little about Africa, let alone Kenya. But his presidency could target to rectify what Trump did, including withdrawing from key multilateral institutions.

Climate change

This Tuesday, the US formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a year after Trump began the process to pull out of a global deal reached in 2015 to allow progressive reduction of dangerous emissions.

Using agreed transparency tools, the Paris Agreement aimed to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. It also aimed to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change by encouraging financial support for new greener technology and supporting developing countries.

Trump reversed that, allowing one of the world’s biggest users of fossil fuels and pollutants to be out of reach of regulations reached by the globe.

Biden’s campaign suggested he would revoke the withdrawal. His website says he acknowledges the greatest challenge facing the US and the world is climate change, something Trump rejected as a hoax.

“That’s why he (Biden) is outlining a bold plan – a Clean Energy Revolution – to address this grave threat and lead the world in addressing the climate emergency," it said.

“As president, Biden will lead the world to address the climate emergency and lead through the power of example, by ensuring the US achieves a 100 per cent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.”

This week, as the withdrawal became formal, a year after President Trump filed the withdrawal instruments., activists said it shouldn’t matter who wins but that the challenge should force politicians to change their views on climate change.

“The US withdrawal has huge implications for the rest of the world in terms of tackling the climate crisis,” Boeve Executive Director, 350.org, a US non-Profit organisation, said in a statement.

“The US leaving the Paris climate agreement demonstrates what’s at stake in this election. What we need now is all hands are on deck for global climate leadership."

The organisation clarified it was not endorsing either candidate but warned that if the withdrawal from the Paris climate deal became permanent, it would undermine the resolve of other countries to make their own tough cuts.

“Despite the US federal government officially leaving the Paris Agreement, there are millions of Americans who reject this regression. They are committed to climate justice and are demanding that the US as a whole - including cities, states and banks- uphold the goals of Paris and go beyond," Boeve argued in a statement.

Kenya's deals

For Kenya, a Biden presidency may be expected to follow through on deals reached in the early years of Trump.

“President Trump does not seem too keen on Africa like his forerunners, who had signature programs for Africa. However, he has carried on with their initiatives, such as the PEPFAR under President George W Bush and AGOA under President Clinton, which has formed the basis of the proposed Kenya – US foreign trade agreement,” Ms Lydia Kimani, Treasurer of the Council of the International Relations Society of Kenya, and Agribusiness Liaison  at the Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors (SOCAA), told the Nation.

She argued, under Trump, Nairobi should expect less of aid but more discussions on trade and investment. Either candidate may continue with other programmes on security and governance but US’ own internal problems with Covid-19 mean aid may be limited in the near future.

Kenya will be keen because it began negotiating a trade agreement with Washington just as campaigns heated up there.

Given the precedence set when the US negotiated with other partners for a trade agreement, Kenya should expect security dividends to be included in the FTA, Ms Kimani told the Nation.

But there could be a catch.

“It would be important to first understand the impact that the pandemic has had on the enterprise landscape in the country,” she said, referring to Kenya’s mostly informal, service-based economy with US formal enterprises.

“Therefore, the question begs, in light of these disparities, are Kenyan enterprises ready for liberalised trade across sectors, some very sensitive such as agriculture that support millions of Kenyan and their livelihood?  Do they have the capacity to compete with the American businesses?”

Key projects

In August 2018, Presidents Trump and Uhuru Kenyatta, at the White House, established the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue framework, elevating their bilateral relations to 'strategic partnership'. This meant that the focus was to be two-way, based on "shared values, mutual cooperation, and a common vision for free, open, and secure societies," a dispatch indicated at the time.

Trump's predecessor's had begun or continued aid programmes such as PEPFAR (President's Emergency Response to AIDs Relief began by George W Bush), which supports HIV/AIDs patients in Africa, and pumped money for education and humanitarian support to Africa.

Obama also began the Young Africa Leadership Initiative, meant to inculcate governance values among the youth.

Trump has been keen on business ties, rather and launched Prosper Africa, an initiative meant to counter China and establish channels for US firms. It came from the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development Act of 2018 (BUILD Act), which changed the previous Overseas Private Investment Corporation into the US Development Finance Corporation, a $60 billion fund.

George Mucee, the Practice Leader at Fragomen-Kenya, a migration consultancy firm, argues that it also showed he will support allies who can aid his policies.

"Trump is heavy on national security and anyone that helps advance his homeland safety is a friend. Kenya has benefited immensely on security financing to help counter terrorism."

Last year, the United States and Kenya signed an updated Security Governance Joint Country Action Plan meant to "enhance bilateral cooperation on civilian security, governance, and anti-corruption efforts," according to a Department of State dispatch in May 2019.

That meant the US continues to support Kenya's refugee hosting programmes as well as health, education and security support.