In mid-March, shortly after his return from Abuja, his last stop on a five-nation African tour, Rex Tillerson learned that US President Donald Trump had dismissed him as secretary of state via Twitter.
This was not only a disdainful way for the president to sack his top diplomat, but also called into question the value of the tour Tillerson had just undertaken. As the trip was aimed at repairing the damage done by the president when he reportedly referred to African countries using highly insulting language in January, Trump’s latest insensitivity has been taken as evidence he really does not care.
It could now be concluded that there is probably not much hope for the continent under Trump. Tillerson’s tour of capitals was the first high-profile visit by a US official or politician to Africa since Trump assumed office.
Ibrahim Sagna, director and head of advisory and capital markets at Cairo-based African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) gives a synopsis of the current state of US-Africa relations: “Since the Trump administration came into office, at least one of the top three US officials – the president, the vice-president, and the secretary of state – has visited every other global region except Africa. The key official at the State Department for Africa has not yet been appointed, and there are key ambassador positions that remain unfilled, such as ambassador for South Africa.
“Ex-secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s visit, in March 2018, was the first time that a senior member of the administration travelled to Africa.”
Ronak Gopaldas, director at Signal Risk, a consultancy, provides additional perspective: “Given his campaign rhetoric, security and migration are likely to be the key focus areas for US policy. Amid a more insular US approach to foreign policy, Africa simply does not feature very highly on the priority agenda for the Trump administration.
‘Return on investment’ is the simple guiding principle that Trump uses to determine foreign policy – therefore Africa needs to ‘offer’ some kind of benefit to the US if it is to derive anything in return.” It is possible, however, that the good chemistry between Trump and his nominee as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, will allow the Department of State’s Africa Bureau to run more smoothly.
And since Pompeo is expected to be primarily focused on North Korea and Iran, he is likely to leave African affairs to his professional staff. So perhaps Africa cannot expect another visit from a US secretary of state anytime soon. However, what is more important is that US engagement with the continent continues at least at current levels, and hopefully increases over time.
More security, less trade
Pompeo, hitherto chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is tasked with the acquisition of intelligence on foreign countries, may not necessarily be totally indifferent to the African continent. But just like his predecessor, security will probably be his major focus.
“[There is] nothing major on the horizon”, asserts Verner Ayukegba, principal analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa economics and country risk at London-based IHS Markit, a research firm. “It is all about trade and the interests of America. We will [probably] see [US] army bases grow but no particular interest from the Trump administration.”
Afreximbank’s Sagna sheds more light: “In all aspects of US-Africa relations, [whether] diplomatic or economic, most traction is seen on the security front. Djibouti is home to the only US military base on the continent and also an important refuelling post for the US Navy. Kenya and Ethiopia are key strategic partners in the fight against al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa. Nigeria and Chad are important allies in the fight against Boko Haram in the Sahel region.”
And trade? The volume has reduced considerably and will probably continue trending downwards: “The US trade deficit with the 38 AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act] countries shrank to $7.9bn last year from a peak of $64bn in 2008, as US shale oil production has reduced the need for oil imports from major exporters like Nigeria and Angola”, adds Sagna.
Interestingly, despite Trump’s nationalistic drift, the US security focus on the African continent derives not so much from a desire to preserve the safety of its citizens as a wish to maintain its influence across the world. In furtherance of this objective, Africa is likely to become a major stage for America to spar with China.
China is already far more influential in economic terms in Africa. Its nascent challenge to US military arrangements on the continent is beginning to cause some irritation at the Pentagon. In 2017,
China established a military base in Djibouti, its first such overseas outpost.
In early March, it looked like Djibouti was going to entrust the running of the nearby container port at Doraleh to a consortium with links to a Chinese state-owned company. This provoked concerns in Washington that China might be able to threaten its naval refuelling or cut off supplies to the US base at Camp Lemonnier. However, in mid-March the government of Djibouti appeared to have backed down on its plans.
The US anti-China rhetoric will probably be ratcheted up regardless, especially as Trump has his eyes almost vengefully set on China, which he accuses of cheating America on trade. So, it is only a matter of time before China’s overwhelming influence in many African countries begins to provoke his ire.
And there is no gainsaying the fact that a tweet by Trump, perhaps in regard to a punitive action against an African country he believes to be putting Chinese interests before America’s, is not something any African leader wants at this time.
In any case, “African countries face potential threats from cuts to donor aid as well as Trump’s policy towards climate change”, says Gopaldas of Signal Risk. “Meanwhile, the performance of the US dollar and the prospects of a global trade war will also have economic implications for the continent.”
Benign neglect or wilful ignorance?
However, African governments could draw some comfort from Trump’s speech at the United Nations last year, where he indicated that his administration sees Africa as a viable economic partner. Whether he genuinely sees the continent in such good light is probably not of consequence.
In fact, Trump’s aggressive approach to foreign policy issues that catch his fancy suggests an indifference towards Africa on his part may not entirely be such a bad thing. “Overall, the policy can be described as one of benign neglect, although critics would argue this borders on wilful ignorance,” concludes Signal Risk’s Gopaldas.