Africa’s Future in the Age of Trump

Humanitarian efforts in Comoros

Most Africans don’t seem to find great hope for their continent in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.   I’m not convinced that Africa is of much concern to the future American President, but his win creates direct and indirect economic effects across the continent beyond just the disrupted world markets following the election results.

Africa may be much more on its own economically under Trump than it has been under previous American administrations. It is unclear what Trump will do with the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers tangible incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets. As of now, he appears only interested in fostering relationships with world economies that can benefit the U.S. immediately through trade. This may be good news to Nigerians, who enjoy the largest economy on the continent, but less promising for growing economies such as that of Ghana.

Trump’s probable business-like emphasis on what the U.S. can gain from African relationships does not bode well for human rights practices. I would presume that American financial gain would be foremost in Trump’s mind during negotiations, far more than concerns over human rights practices. This is troubling since the U.S. benefits economically from some African countries with disturbing human rights records.  Equatorial Guinea is the 6th largest oil producer in Africa and 3rd largest supplier of African oil to the U.S. Yet, President Obiang has been in office since his coup in 1979, and the country has been plagued by reports of underground torture of dissidents, extrajudicial killings, repression of the press, and high level corruption. Similar human rights challenges exist in Angola, Algeria, and Sudan, which are also top ten oil producers in Africa, and with whom the U.S. has trade arrangements. I am also concerned for human rights standards in Central Africa, which are large mineral producers, if the robustness of their economies is more valuable to Trump’s administration than their human rights practices.

This potential fostering of relations with countries with dubious human rights records would come at a troubling time, when African countries are withdrawing or threatening to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.

In terms of humanitarian aid, it certainly wouldn’t increase under Trump, and would most likely fall into decline. The U.S. currently gives around $12 billion per year in aid to Africa. It is less than 1% of the U.S. annual budget, which is very little and less than many European countries donate. To his credit, Trump has spoken in favor of the Bush-era PEPFAR program, which has given millions to help fight communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria across the continent. These funds have been wide spread across countries, and I helped put some of that money to good use as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique in 2005. We implemented a nationwide girls’ empowerment conference in Maputo using much needed PEPFAR funds.

For most, a reduction in aid to Africa would be unequivocally bad. There are nations that rely for almost 100% of their national budgets on international aid, producing nearly nothing, e.g. Central Africa Republic (CAR). Conditional economic aid to Africa has been heralded as helpful to democracy in some places, e.g. Uganda. U.S. aid also acts as a potent antidote to the immense investments that China is making in the continent, investments which certainly do not come with conditions. (Many blame China for allowing Sudanese genocide under Omar al-Bashir, as China has great business investments in Sudan and thus blocked UN intervention that could have stopped the Darfur killings.) Trump would certainly not take the time or effort to fight for conditions to American economic aid.

However, there are anti-aid advocates who highlight the lack of evidence that economic aid actually helps pull countries out of poverty at all. In fact, Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner in economics, represents a growing body of scholars and policymakers who believe the developed world may actually be corrupting those more impoverished nations’ governments and slowing their overall growth.  They say that economic aid allows lackluster leaders to stay in power when they would otherwise be ousted for their performance; also, aid replaces revenue flow that should come from taxes, which are a fundamental building block of strong democracy. These folks argue that economic aid simply creates dependency. If you agree with this idea, then a Trump presidency may be a positive. His disinterest in the continent could create the conditions for self-sufficiency.

What is your forecast for Africa under a Trump Presidency?

Kids from Makoko Stilt Village Photo by Joanna Jurewicz — National Geographic Your Shot

Kids from Makoko Stilt Village in Lagos, Nigeria

Source: Kids from Makoko Stilt Village Photo by Joanna Jurewicz — National Geographic Your Shot

Ending Child Marriage Step-by-Step

Across sub-Saharan Africa, marriage of minors is still a prevalent problem, particularly among young girls from impoverished families. In Nigeria, the practice is far more common in the Muslim North, where some areas practice Sharia law that allows for child marriage. “The Nigerian government made child marriage illegal in 2003, but according to campaigners from Girls Not Brides, 17% of girls in the country are still married before the age of 15. In the Muslim-dominated northwest, 48% of girls are married by the age of 15 and 78% are married by the time they hit 18.”

This is obviously a challenge for development, as girls who marry young are unlikely to finish schooling or stay within the protective proximity of their parents. There are countless health problems associated with childbearing at a young age, common among child brides. It threatens both the health and human rights of young girls.

For this reason, it was lauded news that “Malawi banned child marriage last week through new legislation that increases the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, representing a major victory for girls in a country that has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.” Malawi could function as a model nation in Africa for reforming the ways marriage and girls’s rights are approached.

Report on the Impact of Nigerian LGBT Law

Human Rights Watch just published a report that Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, 2013 (SSMPA) “encourages widespread extortion and violence.” I blogged about the similarities between Nigeria’s legislation and that of Uganda several years ago, after reading about anti-LGBT violence in East Africa.  Then, anti-gay legislation was in its nascence in Nigeria, but is now codified. It encourages Nigerians to report suspicions of same-sex relationships, which can lead to jail time for those convicted. Nigeria is just one of many African countries that make the continent one of the most difficult for members of the LGBT community. Assuming that gay marriage laws are an indication of attitudes toward the gay community in general, this legislative map shows which world countries are most challenging:



Human Rights Watch just published the following:

Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, 2013 (SSMPA) has made a bad situation much worse for Nigeria’s beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The law has led to an increase in extortion and violence against LGBT people and imposed restrictions on nongovernmental organizations providing essential services to LGBT people in Nigeria.

A gay man in Bariga, a neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria, who said he hides his identity from his friends and family.

The 81-page report, “‘Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe’: The Impact of Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” shows how the law, which took effect in January 2014, is used by some police officers and members of the public to legitimize abuses against LGBT people, including widespread extortion, mob violence, arbitrary arrest, torture in detention, and physical and sexual violence. The law has created opportunities for people to engage in homophobic violence without fear of legal consequences, contributing significantly to a climate of impunity for crimes against LGBT people.

“The Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act effectively authorizes abuses against LGBT people,” said Wendy Isaack, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While Human Rights Watch found no evidence that anyone has been prosecuted under the SSMPA, its impact has been far-reaching and severe.”

The report is based on in-depth interviews conducted between October 2015 and April 2016 with 73 LGBT people and 15 representatives of Nigeria-based nongovernmental organizations in Abuja, Lagos, and Ibadan. Human Rights Watch research indicates that since January 2014, there have been rising incidents of mob violence, with groups coming together to attack people based on their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Former President Goodluck Jonathan passed the law, even though same-sex activity between consenting adults was already illegal and activists had not been advocating legalization of same-sex marriage. The law provides for prison terms of 14 years for anyone who enters a same-sex marriage or civil union and is so vague that “civil union” could include any form of intimate co-habitation.

The law also punishes establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection with 10 years in prison.

The passage of the law was strongly opposed by domestic, regional, and international human rights groups, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. On February 5, 2014, Commissioner Reine Alapini-Gansou, the African Commission’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders in Africa, voiced concern about “physical violence, aggression, arbitrary detention and harassment carried out against human rights defenders dealing with sexual minority rights issues” in the wake of the law.

“Basically, because of this law the police treat LGBT people in any way that they please,” said an Abuja-based leader of a nongovernmental group. “They torture, force people to confess and when they hear about a gathering of men, they just head over to make arrests.”

Punitive legal environments, stigma, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, together with high levels of physical, psychological, or sexual violence against gay men and other men who have sex with men, impedes sustainable national responses to HIV, Human Rights Watch found. When officials or national authorities, including law enforcement officials, condone and commit violence, it leads to a climate of fear that fuels human rights violations. The fear also deters gay men and other men who have sex with men from seeking and adhering to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support services.

The law contravenes basic tenets of the Nigerian Constitution and violates several human rights treaties that Nigeria has ratified. In April 2014, the African Commission adopted its groundbreaking resolution 275, calling on governments to prevent and punish all forms of violence targeting people on the basis of their real or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity. In November 2015, the African Commission urged the Nigerian government to review the law, to prohibit violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to ensure access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care services for LGBT individuals.

Nigerian authorities should act swiftly to protect LGBT people from violence, whether by state or non-state actors. Law enforcement officials should act without delay to stop all forms of abuse and violence against LGBT people, and ensure that LGBT victims of violence can file criminal complaints against their attackers.

The government of Nigeria should repeal the specific provisions of the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act that criminalize forming and supporting LGBT organizations and ensure that key populations, including gay men, men who have sex with men, and transgender people have access to HIV services, care, and treatment.

“LGBT people in Nigeria are not advocating for same-sex marriage, but they want the violence to stop and for human rights defenders and organizations that provide services to LGBT people to be able to operate without fear,” Isaack said. “Nigeria should respond to the African Commission’s recommendation to review the law, rather than remaining silent about the human rights abuses LGBT people are facing.”

A Dash in Lagos

Although not about Nigerian politics, a travel story I wrote was published in Somewhere, Sometime. My chapter is about navigating the complex social terrain of “Area Boys,” or unemployed young men who try to make money in unconventional ways in Lagos. I came across a group on a day off from field research, and it was one of the greatest learning experiences I have had in Nigeria.

Link: A Dash in Lagos

Washington Is Unhappy That Burundi Is ‘Very Happy’ to Be Leaving the ICC — Foreign Policy

The Burundian government wants to leave the International Criminal Court. They’re well on their way.

via Washington Is Unhappy That Burundi Is ‘Very Happy’ to Be Leaving the ICC — Foreign Policy. Also see my post on if certain African leaders are anticipating their own bad behavior by leaving the ICC.

Guterres as the next UN Secretary General

Leaders at the UN have announced their collective support of Portugal’s former Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, as the new Secretary General starting next year. He will replace South Korea’s Ban Ki Moon for the first of two possible five-year terms. In a secret ballot, 13 Security Council members voted in support of him, two neutrally, and none voted against him. Although he is not the female SG many had hoped for, as there as has never been a woman to hold the position, it is still good news.

So, why does this new SG matter so much to Africa?

Guterres was the 10th High Commissioner for Refugees, and most of his UN experience has been working towards humanitarian efforts for those who are displaced.  He has been a vocal supporter of greater Western intervention on behalf of refugees, particularly those from Syria.

Although the world’s attention has been focused on those displaced from the Middle East, the refugee crisis has worsened in Africa too. The UNHCR reported that about 16 million people in Africa were either displaced or forced to flee to other countries. This figure increased by 1.5 million from 2014. Most of these people, about 10.7 million of them, were internally displaced persons (IDPs). The remaining 5.2 million were people that fled their home countries. The vast majority of these refugees, roughly 4.4 million, sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Like the previous years, the ongoing civil war in Somalia remained a huge factor in the high number of refugees. The simmering conflicts in South Sudan and Sudan were also responsible for putting many people on the run. Burundi descended into chaos after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third term, an election he went on to win. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram crisis drove a higher number of refugees to neighboring countries.

Infographic: Top 10 countries with refugee exodus (in thousands) Sperrfrist!!

There are few who are better poised to understand the displacement challenges of Africans than Guterres. Appointing the former head of the UNHCR as SG is a sound decision, and good news for those concerned for refugees and IDPs from Africa. Let’s still focus on a female SG for the next round, though, as this gender imbalance continues to be pressing.

Are certain African leaders anticipating their own bad behavior?

The African Union is still considering a mass withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would be disastrous for human rights.  The ICC can prosecute individuals for international crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly in circumstances in which the country of the crime is unable or unwilling to do so.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on testimony against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo at the ICC in the Hague, Netherlands. He is the Congolese former Vice President and ALC leader who ordered mass rapes and killings in the Central African Republic from 2002-2003. His trial was historic because it was the first time that an individual was charged with sexual violence as a stand alone crime. Previously, charges of mass rape have been embedded under the umbrella of other wartime violence in general. It was an important step forward for women’s rights.

This sort of progress would not have occurred outside the framework of the ICC. The AU currently demands that sitting heads of state be immune from ICC charges, but such actors are exactly those who are least likely to face justice in their home countries.  The ICC is most relevant precisely for them.  Are such leaders making a bid to withdraw simply in anticipation of their own potential bad behavior in the future?

An interview on oil politics in the Niger Delta

A few years ago, I was asked for an interview for a narrative non-fiction book, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. I recently realized that I hadn’t yet shared it here, so the unedited transcript is below. The interview is part of my commitment to making understandings about Africa more accessible to those outside academia. Everyone should have an opportunity to increase their knowledge about a complex region so vital to our understanding of history, economics, and world politics.

The Impact of Oil – Niger Delta, Nigeria


Niger Delta, Nigeria

An interview with Laine Strutton, interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Law & Society at New York University

OFF TO THE DELTA: I first arrived in Nigeria with nothing more than an out-of-date guidebook and my backpack. I was halfway through my PhD when I began to focus on this country, and I decided to write my dissertation on the Niger Delta oil conflict. During several months of my own field research there, I waded through toxic rivers and shared a canoe with crocodile.

EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT: Since oil was first commercially drilled in the delta in 1958, there has been virtually no oversight of its environmental impact by oil companies or the government, and spills are an immense problem. After the BP and Deep Water Horizon accident of 2010, I heard several claims that the same quantity of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico in just that one spill has slowly been released dozens of times in the Niger Delta. Unfortunately, most people don’t pay as much attention to the spills in Nigeria because they occur slowly over time, due to eroding pipelines and tampering, as opposed to the singular, dramatic, large-scale accidents that you hear about in the media. While offshore spills from oil rigs are certainly concerning for the local communities of this region, onshore leaking and exploding pipelines are just as problematic because they poison the rivers from which community members fish and the land that they farm. If you wade in the many rivers in the Niger Delta you can see the oil floating on the top of the water and dead fish washed up on the riverbanks. There are few sources of clean water in the Delta, so thousands of women end up using polluted river water to cook for their families, wash dishes, and bathe their children. Communities are also breathing in toxic gas flares that have been burning for years.

HEALTH: It is extremely difficult to study the health impacts of environmental damage. Logistically, the Niger Delta has few roads and most rural community members travel by canoe, which would be challenging for a team of health researchers with equipment. Such researchers would rarely have access to electricity and would need to bring along most of their own food and water. Secondly, it is not an easy region for outsiders, particularly foreigners, because there are serious problems with robbery, kidnappings for ransom, and more. Even if these challenges were overcome, so many other factors there would make it problematic to identify environmental damage as the sole cause of certain health problems. For example, the Niger Delta has an extremely high infant mortality rate. Although that could be due to, for example, babies and pregnant women consuming oil-polluted water, the water could also be harmful in other ways—a lack of indoor plumbing in homes or waste seepage into shared water. On further speculation, the infant mortality rate could result from nutrition issues, lack of prenatal and postnatal care, unidentified genetic birth defects, or anything else. So, any study certainly could yield a correlation between oil spills and health problems, but proving causality would be complicated because there would be so many other variables to take into consideration.

DIVIDED RESPONSIBILITY: I would say that the average Niger Deltan community member would identify the foreign oil companies, the largest one being Shell, as the main culprit of conflict and pollution. They see the oil company vehicles on the roads, they may have passed the guarded compounds where companies house their employees, and they see the logos on oil equipment. The companies are clearly outsiders, so an “us versus them” mentality easily arises. However, in my longer discussions with both individuals and groups, the issue of government accountability also came up. For example, one could argue whether the nature of capitalism does not require companies to be morally accountable in the same way that democracy requires governments to be morally accountable. The primary function of corporations is to make profit, but the primary function of governments is, simply put, to stop bad things from happening to their citizens. But, Niger Deltans know that the federal government, in conjunction with foreign oil companies, is enjoying immense oil profits—yet the people themselves live without electricity, clean water, reliable roads, access to hospitals, and funded schools. They wonder among themselves, “Where is all the money from oil going?” People are frustrated and angry that government representatives, or others who they call “Big Men,” are not engaged in economic development at the local level. They feel that such development is particularly important because of how oil activities have negatively impacted their traditional forms of livelihood. There is a sense that the government and oil companies together should offer some type of compensation for the environmental destruction that now hinders local economies.

WOMEN AND MOBILIZATION: I became interested in women’s resistance to the Niger Delta oil industry because it seems to have emerged quite suddenly, although women’s protests in West Africa are certainly not new. After Nigeria’s transition to democracy there was a spat of female-led marches and sit- ins against oil companies in the Rivers and Delta State, starting in 2002. The biggest protest occurred at Chevron’s Escravos oil terminal for ten days that July. For the first time on such a massive scale, some 600 Itsekiri women of the Niger Delta staged an anti-oil occupation of the extraction site. They made claims against Chevron and the government, alleging illegal appropriation of property, broken economic- development contracts, and environmental damage caused by oil spills and gas flares. It received a lot of media coverage because during the occupation the women exposed their bare bodies to shame male officials with the “curse of nakedness.” Behind the curse, there is a belief that the breasts of a mother are sacred and that showing them to a man in protest is like saying, “Look, I gave you life from these breasts so you must listen to me.” In some places in West Africa they say that seeing the bare chest of a mother can make a man go crazy or blind. An employee who was there during the Escravos takeover also said that women had left symbolic branches and leaves on the oil equipment to curse the company. This occupation immediately inspired additional takeovers, which involved over a thousand women at six different sites. Away from the oil terminals, female vendors in the region responded to the call for anti-oil action by closing their market stalls and cutting off urban food supplies near extraction sites. Male workers joined in the occupations with their own labor stoppages and women forced out unionized workers who had refused to strike. It is significant to note that men sometimes liked to bring women into marches because soldiers and police are less likely to use force if women are involved. There is a strong cultural taboo against using public violence against women, especially older ones, so women may march in front of men to act as a buffer.

WHAT WOMEN WANT: These protesting women had communal and sometimes nonspecific demands. First and foremost, they wanted jobs for their husbands and sons. Aside from that, most told me that they wanted the companies or government to provide electricity, water, and roads, as well as build schools and hospitals. To a lesser extent, they also were asking for the company to clean up the environment so that they could continue fishing and farming (although by some scientific assessments the Niger Delta ecosystem may not fully recover in our lifetimes). The more ardent protesters, specifically the Ogonis who followed Saro-Wiwa, said that if companies can’t do these things then they should leave Nigeria altogether.

THE CHIEFS: There are chiefs of varying levels of power in the Niger Delta, from a low clan chief to the kingdom chief, and they are powerful enough that I could not enter a village without paying a visit to at least the local chief if not also those above him. In the first community I visited, a local taxi driver called ahead to tell the chief I was coming. I then had to show up with kai kai, or locally distilled liquor, as my offering. I sat in the chief’s living room as he and his men asked me questions about why I wanted to walk through his community and what my financial stake was there. After explaining that I just wanted to gather field data, he poured a capful of kai kai over the threshold of his front door and sang incantations to the spirit in the local language, Ogoni. This means he prayed to the ancestors for my safety during my time there. Then we drank the kai kai together, meaning that I had his permission to be there. He sent out word to community members that it was all right with him that they talk to me. I then had to repeat this kai kai ceremony at several other higher chief’s palaces until the king said that I didn’t need to see anyone higher than him. This was all very important to gaining access because as such a clear outsider, community members would have been very suspicious of me talking with them.

A COMPLEX REALITY: Something that’s interesting is that my conversations in the field about oil protests indicated that local chiefs had a heavy hand in instigating these demonstrations. In rural areas, the law of a chief is far more powerful than that of the government, and as my interviewees said, “Chief’s law goes.” In many instances the chief sent a town crier through the community announcing the day and location of the march. A protest may serve the chief’s interest as much as the community members’ because he may be rewarded by the company or the government for ending the demonstration and for keeping the peace. Also, if the company or the state offers concessions, such as funding for social amenities, those funds are going to be controlled by the chief. In this sense, whether the women or other protesters succeed or fail, the chief may benefit. Since these leaders hold so much power in daily life, it isn’t necessarily surprising that those same power dynamics would be reproduced in the social movement. So essentially, I went to Nigeria looking for a story of increased political and rights activity among the women, but what I found was far more complex.

Dissertation on Niger Delta women and the oil movement published

My dissertation is available online. If you are unable to access it because you are outside the academic network, please feel free to contact me for a copy. I am an avid supporter of open, author-permitted access to publications.


Since the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta in 1958, there has been an ongoing low-level conflict among foreign oil companies, the federal government, and rural community members in southern Nigeria. Armed insurgents and small cadres of male protesters have resisted oil activities, demanding environmental cleanup, employment, and local compensation for extractive operations. In 2002, however, large groups of women began engaging in peaceful protests against oil companies and the state, making the same demands as men. Current work describes these women as coming together autonomously to assert their rights in the face of corporation exploitation.  This project challenges such accounts and investigates how common perceptions of law and politics inform women’s role in the oil reform movement.

Employing constructivist grounded theory, this dissertation argues that women’s protests were largely a product of local elite male politicking among oil companies and federal and state governments. The first finding is that local chiefs, acting as brokers engaging in “positional arbitrage,” urge women to protest because it reinforces their own traditional rule.  In this sense, women have not implemented new tactics in the movement but instead are the new tactics. Secondly, Niger Delta women see law as innately good but identify individuals as the corrupting force that thwarts law’s potential for positive change. Women also perceive a binary between local and state law, thus allowing chiefs to act as gatekeepers between women and the state. As a qualitative case study, the project uses in-depth interviews, direct observations, and archival documentation to analyze a series of all-female demonstrations that occurred around oil extraction sites in Rivers State from 2002-2012. Ultimately, these findings welcome a more critical look at social movements by identifying ways in which apparent episodes of resistance may actually be reconfigurations of existing power arrangements.




grounded theory

For a link to my final dissertation, please see: