By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Melania Trump’s staff briefings before heading to Africa in early October are not too hard to imagine. That is even as her staff revealed she had her mind set on the trip at the very beginning of her husband’s presidency. It would certainly not be derisory to reckon there was more talk about clothes than culture, policy or politics at the pre-trip meets. Reminiscent of the colonial era, the American first lady chose to wear khakis with a pith helmet to match while on Safari in Kenya. The television screen could very well have been black and white to make the act complete. Expectedly, she visited some schools and went around to the usual places to affirm some of the misery she was likely told to expect to see. Her comments during the trip were inevitably about her husband. Choosing the African backdrop as the stage for her first substantive public comments on any major political issue, Mrs Trump defended her husband’s controversial choice for the American Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh, and inadvertently revealed she was of the same ilk as her husband. This would not be considered a compliment in most circles. It is probably too mean a characterisation. There was likely a genuine desire on her part to see the continent. And to help. But for someone who was once an international model and travelled the world, it was a little striking she was only just visiting the continent for the first time. But at least, she visited. Her husband has never set foot in these parts before. Did she leave a favourable impression though? And is she likely to make her husband more favourably disposed to the continent? It could be argued that Mr Trump was already beginning to pay attention to goings-on on the continent beforehand. And that perhaps a consequence of that was how the continent was brought to the attention of his still glamorous wife. The visit by two British royals, Prince Charles of Wales and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, to the continent about a month after her trip probably provides the perfect contrast; since just like her, they do not formulate policy but can influence those who do. Prince Charles, who was travelling in his capacity as the new head of the Commonwealth, visited The Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria. With no formal power of his own, being as that is the forte of 10 Downing Street, African governments were not unaware of his ceremonial purpose. But they still took him and his wife seriously, not only because they are royalty, but also in recognition of their palpably genuine interest in the continent’s progress.
Find a problem to solve
Another example is the recent trip to Uganda by Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, a globally recognised celebrity couple. Social royalty in their own right, they were received by President Yoweri Museveni in grand style at his residence. While many were and remain sceptical about their supposed tourism-enhancing value, it is an example of how a visiting dignitary need not have formal power to be influential. In any case, Mrs Trump is royalty in her own right. After all, it is very obvious she has some influence over her husband. And she would clearly be able to guide aid and development finance to causes dear to her while doubly seen to further the interests of the American state; if she chooses to. The problem with her recent visit is that there was no sense that she would do all these things. There was the feeling that she really does not have much interest in the matter. For some, she could as well have declared she was going on a vacation. Simply put, her purpose for visiting the continent was not well-defined nor did she use the purported long time in preparing for the trip to decide what she really wanted to achieve from it. It could be rightly assumed that maybe she did not know much to get on with. That is fine. But now that she knows the extent of the problems, it would be sacrilegious for her to come ill-prepared next time. That said, there was certainly palpable excitement in her circle at the announcement of her first solo foreign trip as first lady. It was as if she had finally found something to do with her position via her “Be Best” charity which she says aims to shine “a spotlight on successful programs and organisations that teach children the tools and skills needed for emotional, social and physical well-being.” This is too wide a focus in the African context. Thus, focusing her humanitarian efforts on a few key issues would be a good start. In this regard, the approach by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might be a good model for her to follow.
Bring him along next time
Should it be hoped that she would succeed in changing her husband’s views about the continent? It seems she was already beginning to do so even before she stepped on the plane: Mr Trump told everyone who was of good hearing how much he loved Africa ahead of his wife’s trip. Afterwards, in an interview with Fox News, Mr Trump revealed how eye-opening the trip was for his wife. And clearly for him. “She saw some things that were very eye-opening and tremendous poverty. Tremendous poverty. So we’re trying to help.” Let it be hoped then that just as she visited Ghana, Kenya and Egypt, she would find time to travel widely around the continent soon. Better still, she should hold her husband’s hand as she does it. And hopefully, the couple would get to know about the many positive things also happening on the continent and the tremendous boost greater American engagement could bring about. And yes, her summer clothes would do just fine.
An edited version was published in the December 2018 issue of New African magazine