As the sun rose over Kinshasa on 9 November, Martin Fayulu was awoken by a phone call from a relative in the US telling him to switch on his television – Donald Trump appeared set to become the next US president.
Fayulu, an opposition politician at the forefront of recent protests calling for elections to be held on time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, immediately switched on a French channel.
“Many Congolese were watching, and a lot had mixed feelings,” he said.
Across Africa the interest was equally intense, with the surprise result prompting fierce speculation about the unexpected winner’s possible policy towards the continent.
Many have asked if Trump actually cares about Africa at all. Observers noted that not one of the 29 leaders the president-elect had spoken to in the week following his election was from sub-Saharan Africa.
“The simple question is, does Africa matter enough to Trump for him to change much?” said Peter Fabricius, a Johannesburg-based foreign affairs expert. The news and analysis website The Conversation described Trump’s likely foreign policy on Africa as “where’s that?”
There are some on the continent, however, who would welcome a lack of interest from Washington, experts say. Trump’s victory may allow more autocratic African rulers freedom to tweak constitutions to retain power, harass dissidents, shut down media organisations or, in some cases, simply make more money.
“A bunch of democratic gains are slowly being eroded in a lot of quite important countries … This is a really bad moment for the continent, to have somebody take over in Washington who is not necessarily going to be so sharp on supporting democratic values abroad,” said Nic Cheeseman, an expert on democracy in Africa at Oxford University.
The US election campaign was scrutinised particularly closely the DRC capital of Kinshasa, by Fayulu and others in the opposition movement. In recent months the Obama administration had supported their cause, and had increased the pressure on the country’s president, Joseph Kabila, to hold elections before the end of his mandate in December.
Sanctions had also been imposed on Kabila’s close associates after protests were violently repressed, and relations deteriorated to the point where government supporters attacked the US special envoy to the region.
When Trump’s victory became clear, Lambert Mendé, the DRC’s information minister, made it plain Kabila’s government would welcome a change in policy.
“I would just say that at a governmental level we have not enjoyed the last few years of the administration, which has behaved with a very cavalier attitude towards us … We hope that relations will now be much more respectful of our dignity and our sovereignty,” he said.
Kabila, who has ruled DRC since 2001, also sent an effusive letter to Trump congratulating him on his “brilliant election”.
Another African ruler to welcome Trump’s election is Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, DRC’s tiny neighbour. Nkurunziza won a disputed election last year to retain power and has been accused of widespread human rights abuses by the UN and local campaigners. His associates, too, have been placed under US sanctions.
Nkurunziza told Trump his “victory is the victory of all Americans”, and officials say they expect “a certain improvement” in relations.
“There’s a new administration that will have a different view. In my personal opinion, the last was misled by a few individuals who influenced the way decisions were taken and that will fade away now,” said Nubwacu Lionel Yves, a press councillor of the president.
Willy Nyamitwe, a key presidential aide, compared Trump’s election to Nkurunziza’s, saying both candidates were vilified by the media but supported by the people.
Such reactions are easily explained, said Prof Filip Reyntjens, a central Africa specialist at Antwerp University. “[Rulers in DRC and Burundi] will assume, perhaps correctly, that Trump’s world will be restricted to direct US interests with a view that human rights in far-off places do not concern,” he said.
Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 36 years, has not commented directly on Trump’s election. His government has been under US sanctions since 2001 following the violent seizure of land from farmers and the systematic repression of dissent. Mugabe’s officials have repeatedly accused the US of seeking regime change, a common charge levelled by rulers across the continent.
Chris Mushohwe, Zimbabwe’s information minister, said the Trump administration “would restore our long-term relationship that we have enjoyed with the American people”, while an editorial in the Herald, a pro-government newspaper, lambasted Hillary Clinton for seeking to destabilise Zimbabwe and thanked US voters for “keeping this warmonger from the reins of power”. The opposition in Zimbabwe was “gutted by Clinton’s loss”, the newspaper reported.
Not all rulers are so pleased at Clinton’s defeat. The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, who can now theoretically rule until 2034 following a change to the constitution, had a close relationship with Clinton and her husband, and observers noted that his congratulations to Trump on “a well-earned victory” were less gushing than others.
“I think they are pretty disappointed … A Clinton victory would have meant a friend in the White House,” said Reyntjens.
Three-thousand miles to the north, in the Saharan desert state of Chad, Trump’s victory received one of its most effusive welcomes. Idriss Déby, the country’s strongman and one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, hailed the tycoon’s “brilliant” win, and his “great qualities as a statesman”.
In South Sudan, where relations between president Salva Kiir and the US have broken down in recent months, a pro-government youth organisation called for a “welcome march” for Trump.
There is little clarity on Trump’s potential policies in Africa, but most analysts believe the fight against Islamist extremism will be a central element. In his sole foreign-policy speech as a candidate, Trump mentioned Africa only once, referring to the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In recent years, the US has reinforced its military presence across the continent and has contributed air support, special forces and training in conflicts in Somalia, Nigeria and across the vast Sahel region. A major new $50m base is being built in Niger.
Many African leaders have sought to burnish their counter-terrorism credentials in recent years to gain Washington’s favour. Rulers and their advisers may now be calculating that any local human rights abuses will be overlooked by a president who has explicitly stated his desire to aggressively counter Islamic militancy as well as his belief that “torture works”.
Déby has committed Chad’s army to the fight against Boko Haram, the west African affiliate of Islamic State, and may be hoping for support from Trump. Amnesty International accuses the 64-year-old, who has been in power since 1990, of jailing critics, including journalists, and using security forces to break up demonstrations.
“This stuff does make a real difference to ordinary lives … The chances of getting beaten up in the streets, or having poor water, healthcare and education, are going to increase for a lot of poor Africans.”
Many African opposition politicians and dissidents, however, say they have faith in US institutions and their long-established networks of supporters in Washington, whoever is president. Last week, Republicans voted with Democrats in Congress to intensify sanctions in an effort to force elections in DRC, observers noted.
Fayulu said: “African affairs has long been a bipartisan issue, and whatever [Trump] thinks personally. There are some advisers, Congress … others who don’t want Kabila to stay in power. Personally I don’t think [policy] will change that much.”
André Mtaba, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Kinshasa, said DRC citizens should not count on any help from overseas. “The biggest players are the Congolese people themselves. Sovereignty and democracy belong to the people, so the people will have the final say,” he said.
The veteran Zimbawean opposition leader Tendai Biti, who was arrested for treason and detained for month in 2008 after suggesting his MDC party had defeated Mugabe in a vote, has previously called Trump “a gift to all tinpot dictators on the African continent.”
Last week, however, he said the continent’s dictators should not take any comfort from Trump’s victory.
“You are dealing with institutions. The State Department has a whole section devoted to Africa. Trump may not care, but others will,” Biti said.
Saleh Kebzabo, the head of Chad’s main opposition, said in a Facebook post that he did “not believe America will change much”, pointing out that under Obama and previous administrations the US never criticised Déby.
“Obama leaves with a mixed record on Africa. Haven’t we wrongly expected too much from him, because he is black and of African origin? Africans must be more mature and stop seeking help elsewhere: let us choose our own leaders ourselves, freely,” he wrote