Trump’s dan­ger­ous re­treat from Africa

Daily Messenger - - National - By John Camp­bell

US for­eign en­gage­ment is de­clin­ing and other coun­tries have be­gun to fill the void by in­creas­ing their po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties

An African­ist Don­ald Trump is not. Un­like his two im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, who had sig­na­ture ini­tia­tives on the con­ti­nent, the United States pres­i­dent has shown lit­tle in­ter­est in Africa and had min­i­mal con­tact with its lead­ers. At a lunch he hosted with nine African heads of state on the mar­gins of the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly in Septem­ber, he re­peat­edly re­ferred to the south­ern African coun­try of Namibia as “Nam­bia” and star­tled those in at­ten­dance by cel­e­brat­ing the ex­trac­tive po­ten­tial of the con­ti­nent. “I have so many friends go­ing to your coun­tries try­ing to get rich,” he said. “I con­grat­u­late you— they’re spend­ing a lot of money.” Trump­made no ref­er­ence to hu­man rights or strength­en­ing democ­racy in Africa, usual themes in pres­i­den­tial re­marks about the con­ti­nent.

But the deaths of four Amer­i­can sol­diers in Niger and the in­clu­sion of Chad, a key US coun­tert­er­ror­ism part­ner, on the lat­est it­er­a­tion of Trump’s travel ban have made Africa in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to ig­nore. Th­ese events have also ex­posed the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s startling lack of ex­per­tise when it comes to the con­ti­nent and its ret­i­cence to tap the knowl­edge of ca­reer diplo­mats and an­a­lysts in the ex­ec­u­tive agen­cies — mis­steps that have al­ready cost the ad­min­is­tra­tion and which could have ad­di­tional con­se­quences down the road. Trump’s dis­in­ter­est in Africa ap­pears to be shared by many in his cabi­net, in­clud­ing Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who, at an hour-long meet­ing with State De­part­ment em­ploy­ees on Au­gust 1 em­barked on a “lit­tle walk ... around the world” that did not men­tion Africa and its 1.2 bil­lion in­hab­i­tants — roughly 17 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­lit­i­cal point per­son for Africa seems to be Amer­ica’s Am­bas­sador to the UN, Nikki Ha­ley, who had lit­tle for­eign ex­pe­ri­ence prior to her ap­point­ment. Last month, she vis­ited Ethiopia, South Su­dan, and the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo — the most se­nior Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial to have set foot on the con­ti­nent thus far.

Mak­ing mat­ter­sworse, theTrump ad­min­is­tra­tion has shown lit­tle re­spect for the ex­per­tise that re­sides at the de­part­ments of State and De­fence, within the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, and within the aca­demic and pol­icy com­mu­ni­ties. Im­por­tant African diplo­matic posts re­main un­filled, and do­mes­tic po­si­tions con­cerned with Africa have been filled only very slowly. For his meet­ings with African heads of state on the mar­gins of the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly, ca­reer State and De­fence of­fi­cials were not in­vited to be present. Not a sin­gle ca­reer diplo­mat ac­com­pa­nied Ha­ley on her Africa swing, although she did per­mit am­bas­sadors and chargs d’af­faires to at­tend her meet­ings with heads of state, which is the usual prac­tice.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s freez­ing out of State, De­fence, and in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity ex­per­tise pre­dictably re­sults in­mis­takes. The most costly to date was the in­clu­sion of Chad — a ma­jor US ally in the fight against ter­ror­ism — on Trump’s travel ban, which also tar­gets trav­ellers from seven other coun­tries. Not long after the lat­est ver­sion of the ban was an­nounced on Septem­ber 24, Chad shifted troops from Niger, where they had been in­volved in op­er­a­tions against Boko Haram, to its bor­der with Libya. A re­ported up­surge in ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity fol­lowed the troops’ de­par­ture.

The travel ban blun­der­may yield ad­di­tional neg­a­tive con­se­quences that are dif­fi­cult to pre­dict. The cur­rent chair­man of the African Union Com­mis­sion is Moussa Faki Ma­hamat, a Cha­dian. And to the ex­tent that the travel ban is in­ter­preted as a Mus­lim ban, it’s not just Chad that the ad­min­is­tra­tion risks alien­at­ing. Is­lam is the­ma­jor­ity reli­gion in some 22African coun­tries, 13 of which are in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. In cer­tain parts of Africa where the ri­valry be­tween Mus­lims and Chris­tians is acute, some Chris­tians, es­pe­cially of the Pen­te­costal tra­di­tion, are wel­com­ing and ex­ag­ger­at­ing what they see as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s anti-Is­lam pol­icy. If African elites per­ceive Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion and refugee poli­cies as part of a larger “war on Is­lam”, then a gen­eral hos­til­ity to the US is likely to grow.

For­tu­nately, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has be­gun to rem­edy its lack of Africa ex­per­tise in a pre­lude to what will hope­fully be a bet­ter-man­aged pol­icy to­ward the con­ti­nent. While there is still no per­ma­nent as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for African af­fairs, Don­ald Ya­mamoto, a ca­reer diplo­mat and for­mer am­bas­sador with deep knowl­edge of Africa, has been ap­pointed as an in­terim sec­re­tary with a term of up to one year. Fill­ing Africa-re­lated po­si­tions on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (NSC) was a slow process but one that is now largely com­plete. Cyril Sar­tor, a ca­reer gov­ern­ment an­a­lyst who is also knowl­edge­able about Africa, took up his du­ties as se­nior Africa di­rec­tor at the NSC in Au­gust, as did Mark Green, a for­mer con­gress­man and am­bas­sador to Tan­za­nia who now leads the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment (Usaid). De­spite this progress in fill­ing se­nior posts based in Wash­ing­ton, there are still nu­mer­ous am­bas­sado­rial va­can­cies, in­clud­ing key post­ings in SouthAfrica and South Su­dan.

As one might ex­pect given his dis­in­ter­est in Africa — though with the caveat that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is less than a year old— Trump has un­veiled no sig­na­ture ini­tia­tive there that could be com­pared to Barack Obama’s Power Africa plan, which aimed to har­ness pub­lic and pri­vate funds to in­crease elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion, or to Ge­orge W. Bush’s widely suc­cess­ful Pres­i­dent’s Emer­gency Plan forAids Re­lief (PEPFAR).

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