The tail-end of 2018 was inundated by news events, both domestic and international, which eventually overshadowed a major policy pronouncement — the US-Africa strategy. After two years without much clarity on the Trump administration’s stance on Africa, it is ironic that the Africa strategy almost went unnoticed.

The strategy was announced well into the festive season, with many institutions either wrapping up or already closed for the holidays. However, given the significance of the US-Africa strategy for Africa, it is necessary to unpack it and discuss its implications for the continent.

At the core there is not much that has shifted from a policy perspective. The US still places most emphasis on conditional support for Africa — the policy is punctuated by phrases such as “aid with effect” and “assistance with accountability”. The US also still maintains its vision of reciprocity, underlined by a desire to terminate preference programmes such as the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa) and the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) in favour of what it calls “modern and comprehensive bilateral trade agreements”.

My interpretation of the US take on “modern and comprehensive bilateral trade agreements” includes a number of “new generation” issues such as trade in services, trade in environmental goods, aspects of the agreement on government procurement, and immediate (tariff) liberalisation of almost all forms of trade.

While the Obama administration pushed these issues through mega-regional and plurilateral trade agreements, the Trump administration has adopted a more selective approach, opting for bilateral agreements with specific countries.

Going forward, the Trump administration’s stance might be implemented in the continent through the Africa strategy, with the US dealing with specific African countries rather than the entire continent, or regional economic communities and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (Af-CFTA).

The differences between the Obama and Trump administrations are nuanced, not so much in policy content as in approach. The latter is adopting a more overtly aggressive approach, while the former pursued more diplomatic ways of promoting US interests in the continent. This aggression can be seen in a speech by Trump national security adviser John R Bolton who lamented the Chinese and Russian approach in Africa.

For instance, Bolton noted that the “predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa; which threaten the financial independence of African nations; inhibit opportunities for US investment; interfere with US military operations, and pose a significant threat to US national security interests”.

A new addition to the US-Africa strategy is the “Prosper Africa” initiative, the objectives of which are “to support open markets for American businesses, grow Africa’s middle class, promote youth employment opportunities, and improve the business climate”. Prosper Africa is almost an extension to Agoa in terms of its goals and ambitions, which seek to support sound and transparent governance and improve the “ease of doing business environments” across the continent.

What is clear is that the US-Africa strategy seeks to reposition the US and bring it on par with China and Russia. What seems to set the US apart from China and Russia is the aspect of “conditional support”, and the question that therefore arises is, will a more aggressive US approach change its influence over the African continent?

It will be interesting to see how the Africa strategy  translates into policy action, and how the US uses its leverage (through Agoa) to implement the Trump administration’s vision for Africa. This ties in with the pursuit of “modern and comprehensive bilateral trade agreements”, which the US might seek to conclude with specific African countries.

My take is that the US might target key markets such as Kenya, SA, Nigeria and Egypt (as well as some others), which are core economic and sociopolitical power hubs in eastern, western, southern, and northern Africa.

Sihlobo (@WandileSihlobo) is head of economic and agribusiness research at the Agricultural Business Chamber. Dr Tinashe Kapuya contributed to this column.