By Rafiq Raji, PhD
In mid-March, whilst en route Washington from Abuja, his last stop on a 5-nation Africa tour, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson first got news, it is believed, of his dismissal by American president Donald Trump; via Twitter at that. Other reports suggest he happened on the news earlier; hence why he declared himself sick for most of his stay in Kenya. It was most disdainful, some African thought leaders reckoned, that President Trump chose to sack his foreign minister in such an odious manner just after a trip to a continent he not too long ago called “shithole countries”. As Mr Tillerson’s trip was supposedly aimed at repairing the damage done by the president when he made the unsalutary remark about Africa, Mr Trump’s insensitivity was taken as evidence he really did not care very much about the continent. There is the potential now, though, that under new secretary of state Mike Pompeo, there is likely to be more efficiency in the African affairs division at Foggy Bottom. And since Mr Pompeo is expected to be primarily focused on North Korea and Iran, he is likely to leave African affairs to his professional underlings.
More security, less trade
Hitherto chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is tasked with acquisition of intelliengence on foreign countries, Secretary Pompeo may not necessarily be totally indifferent about the African continent. But just like his predecessor, security would likely be his major focus. Besides that, there is probably not much more that could be reasonably expected. Interestingly, despite Mr Trump’s nationalistic drift, the American security focus on the African continent is not so much out of a desire for the safety of its citizens as it is about maintaining its influence across the world. In furtherance of this objective, Africa is likely to become a major stage for America to spar with China. In Djibouti, for example, China may be about to acquire control of the crucial sea port there; a key outpost in the Indian Ocean which the American military depends on for logistics, refueling its aircrafts and ships and so on. Already far more influential, China’s nascent challenge to American military arrangements on the continent is beginning to cause some irritation at The Pentagon, it is believed. The Americans remain gentlemanly about the matter, though; albeit they now use the slightest opportunity to advise Africans about the risks of selling their sovereignty way to the Chinese. Imagine that? Africans and their leaders likely ponder the irony: the kettle calling the pot black, they probably wonder bemusedly. The American anti-China rhetoric would probably be ratcheted up regardless, especially as Mr 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 begin to provoke his ire. And there is no gainsaying the fact that a likely tweet by Mr Trump on the occasion, perhaps in regard of a likely punitive action against an African country he believes to be putting Chinese interests before America’s, is hardly something any African leader wants at this time. African governments could draw some comfort from Mr Trump’s speech at the United Nations last year, though, where he indicated his administration sees Africa as a viable economic partner. Whether he genuinely sees the continent in such good light is probably no matter. In fact, Mr 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.
It has been about two months since I first wrote the article this week’s column is based on. (If you are interested in the more comprehensive version, with commentary by experts and so on, check out the April 2018 issue of African Business magazine.) Considering how much has happened since then, it is quite apropos to now ask: Is there now hope for the continent under Mr Trump? Well, the American president surprisingly hosted Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, in late April, and he put on his widest smile for the visiting head of state; albeit that is not always a good thing if the charmer is Mr Trump. And predictably, the focus of the Trump-Buhari meeting was mostly on security. More importantly, it brought to light Mr Trump now has Africa on his radar. What is comforting at least, is that the American president appears to want to do no harm. Let us hope that remains the case.