Tillerson visit to Africa weakened by replacement

Haitham Nouri , Saturday 17 Mar 2018

What at first seemed like a significant visit by Rex Tillerson to Africa turned out to be low on outcomes, compounded by Tillerson’s replacement as US secretary of state

Rex Tillerson boards his plane to depart Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, March 12, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cut short his tour of Africa, 6-13 March, the first of its kind since his appointment in Donald Trump’s cabinet over one year ago.

The State Department said Tillerson left Nigeria and headed home to deal with the North Korea crisis.

However, on Tuesday Trump announced he had replaced Tillerson with Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, and had tapped Gina Haspel to lead the CIA.

The resignation represents the biggest shakeup of the Trump cabinet so far and had been expected since last October when reports surfaced about a falling out between Trump and Tillerson, 65, who left his position as chief executive of Exxon Mobil to join the administration.

“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!” Trump said on Twitter.

While Tillerson was on tour to salvage Washington’s influence in Africa in the face of China’s sweeping successes there, and to reassure leaders about the US administration’s positions, Trump announced he agreed to hold direct talks with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, leaving Tillerson to appear out of the loop.

Tillerson’s trip, which began last week, included Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria, and came on the heels of bigoted remarks by Trump in which he described Haiti and several African countries as “shitholes”.

Incredibly, chairman of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki told Tillerson during talks that Trump’s statements “are in the past”, and he has spoken to several African leaders to “turn over a new leaf”.

Africans accuse Trump’s administration of neglecting the continent.

The State Department has not yet named an African affairs officer, and the US has not sent ambassadors to eight countries, including Democratic Congo, South Africa and Somalia.

While Trump’s administration has “neglected” the continent, former US president Barack Obama visited Africa six months within taking office, arriving to Ghana, which some US circles consider a democracy success story.

Obama also supported African programmes to fight AIDS, but the current administration has barely given any assistance to African countries, many of which are facing complex problems.

One of the goals of Tillerson’s tour was to offset China’s influence on the continent, so he announced aid worth $533 million to fight famine and a lack of food security in the Horn of Africa and Lake Chad basin, though some see this as meagre.

Tillerson, who boasts knowledge of the continent, especially during his tenure at oil giant Exxon Mobil, said “Africa is the future” but warned that “without jobs and hope for the future, these youth will be a new generation that falls victim to terrorists and undermine stability and democratic governments.”

He added: “The US wants to encourage sustainable development that sustains institutions, rule of law, and gives African countries self-sufficiency. This is opposite to the Chinese model that encourages dependency through shady deals and loans… that entrap countries in debt.”

China invests $124 billion in Africa through hundreds of infrastructure projects such as railroads, power and water plants, and renewable energy.

Beijing became the number one partner on the continent several years ago to replace Washington, which dropped to third place after the EU.

A senior State Department official told journalists the trip would “be the start of dialogue and we must work with our African partners to reap the fruit”.

US aid to Africa was a hot button issue in Trump’s administration after proposals to slash assistance.

Some officials warned this would impact US vital interests in Africa and usher in other players to boost their economic and political ties on the continent.

The US’s new view of trade with Africa sees the continent as a mega market for US goods and products, since the continent is predicted to represent one quarter of the world’s labour force and consumers by 2030.

US exports to sub-Saharan Africa rose from $17 billion in 2010 to more than $25 billion in 2014, and in 2016 US investments in Africa rose to more than $57 billion.

Tillerson arrived in Ethiopia amid a serious political crisis after the sudden resignation of prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, but he did not comment on the situation in Addis Ababa.

He met with Faki at the African Union Commission’s headquarters there, which was built by China “as a gift of Chinese-African relations”.

Tillerson then went to Djibouti, which is home to the only US military base in East Africa, but did not mention US investments in this strategic port or even non-European bases there, including China’s (the largest overseas base), and Saudi Arabia, which is currently building a base.

His third stop was in the Kenyan capital Nairobi that was commemorating the anniversary of the 1998 US embassy bombing.

Tillerson fell ill while in Nairobi and decided to cancel his political meetings, although he commented that talks between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga was a “positive” step.

A political crisis erupted after Kenya’s presidential elections last summer, and the meeting between Kenyatta and Odinga on Friday was the first since the elections.

Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are Washington’s allies in the war on terrorism which in the Horn of Africa is perpetrated by the Somali terrorist group Shebab Mujahideen.

Tillerson next headed to the Chadian capital N’Djamena, the first visit by a US secretary of state to the former French colony.

The two countries are currently fighting the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, which was ranked the most violent in 2015 and 2016.

Lake Chad basin countries (Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin) created a 7,000-strong military force to fight Boko Haram in the region after terrorist attacks reached villages bordering Nigeria’s northeast.

Tillerson’s meeting with Chadian President Idriss Deby focused on fighting terrorism and the assistance Washington could provide.

In Abuja, Tillerson met with Nigeria’s President Mohamed Bukhari who is fighting several battles, including terrorism by Boko Haram and widespread corruption, with negligible assistance from his Western allies even though Nigeria remained a strong ally during the Cold War, according to local press coverage.

Since the last days of the Obama administration, the US procrastinated in supporting its allies against terrorism in Nigeria, which greatly empowered Boko Haram.

But since applying Bukhari’s new strategy in 2016, the radical group has lost momentum despite last month’s kidnapping of 111 school girls in the northeast.

The Nigerian army still needs advanced assistance from major powers to obliterate Boko Haram, which Tillerson did not promise.

Tillerson’s tour may seem significant but it resulted in very little, especially since Trump’s administration is swamped with domestic scandals and his obsession with striking a historic deal with North Korea that would be “the best deal in the world”.

Washington is also grappling with problems in the Middle East after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocating the US embassy there in May.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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