Aweird global symmetry in geopolitics prevailed on 20 January. Just as the vainglorious Yahya Jammeh was being shooed from State House in Banjul by West African soldiers in defence of democracy, Donald J. Trump was preparing for his swearing-in as US president. There are psychological as well as temporal links between the two events. Leaders with over-mighty opinions of themselves rarely end well. Both men share a tenuous understanding of science, whether of the medical or climate variety. Equally, their common disdain for journalists and attempts to strong-arm the media have only heightened popular suspicions of them. Until a few weeks ago, it seemed pointless to ask about Trump’s Africa policy. The continent had not cropped up in any policy discussions during the campaign, except Trump’s contention that Hillary Clinton was negligent in providing security for diplomats in Libya before they were killed in a jihadist attack. Even the fact that Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah al-sisi, was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his victory hardly moved the dial. Days later, a few details emerged. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, was the frontrunner to become the new assistant secretary for African affairs. Then Trump announced General Michael Flynn, who was dismissed as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, would be his national security adviser. Flynn has appointed Marine Sergeant Robert Townley, a national intelligence officer, to work with him on African security matters. The two men take a robust view, remarkably similar to the approach of Egypt’s Sisi, on the need to face down Islamist groups in Africa and the Middle East. Slowly, the pieces were coming together. Then we learned that the rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army enjoys strong backing from Sisi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, had sent an envoy to Washington to request assistance from the Trump team. Haftar, a long-time Central Intelligence Agency asset, is currently trying to topple the Un-recognised government in Tripoli and picking fights with selected jihadist groups. We understand that Haftar’s envoy met Flynn and the message was well received. From having no discernible Africa policy, the Trump administration could find itself embroiled in one of the continent’s most intractable conflicts. Initially, Haftar may not need arms from the US – he just signed up to buy $2bn worth of weapons systems from Russia – as much as military advisers, intelligence and diplomatic support. Should the US under Trump abandon its support for the admittedly shaky peace negotiations and throw its lot in with Haftar, an escalation in the war there looks inevitable. Few Libyans think that the outcome would be a more coherent state. Rather, the opposite is likely, a further splintering of the country into autonomous regions or statelets and another mass migration across the Sahel of jihadist forces set on wreaking havoc in the rest of Africa.
From having no Africa policy, Trump looks set to become embroiled in conflict