In the midst of tense diplomatic relations between African nations and the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a week-long tour of the Continent, during which he is expected to meet with officials from Kenya, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
Tillerson’s visit to the continent comes just weeks after President Donald Trump referred to African nations as holes used to deposit excrement. As can be expected, Trump’s comment was condemned by the African Union and by many political leaders.
At this time, perception of the US in Africa is very low, particularly after the cordial relationship that the region enjoyed during the eight years President Barack Obama spent in office. According to a Gallup survey reported by ABC News, positive sentiment about the US among Africans was 85 percent in 2009; however, it tumbled to about 50 percent right after the 2016 American election.
The American State Department is currently a mess; Tillerson has been given few resources to work with, and Trump keeps sabotaging diplomatic efforts. At this time, there is no formal Assistant Secretary of State to handle African matters, and several nations in the continent have yet to welcome new Ambassadors. Still, Tillerson knew that a visit to Africa had to be completed soon because he is concerned about China’s growing influence in the region.
To say that the People’s Republic of China has made inroads in Africa would be an understatement. Since 2009, the PRC has been the region’s most active trading partner, and the amount of friendly loans extended by China to the region has reached more than $67 billion since the year 2000. This is happening at a time when the US plans to cut aid to Africa by 37 percent in 2019; in fact, Tillerson had to push for a $533 million humanitarian aid package to help fight famine and drought conditions in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Chad, and even Nigeria.
There is no question that the issue of terrorism will be discussed during Tillerson’s visit, especially in the wake of the deadly ambush by radical Islamic militants in Niger, where four US special forces operators were killed. The Pentagon has been criticized by its lack of transparency about its operations in Africa; however, when Tillerson visits Djibouti, he will find himself next door to the first Chinese military base outside of the PRC. This facility in the Port of Doraleh puts the military installations of the US and French Foreign Legion to shame.
Yet another challenge awaiting Tillerson is his visit to Chad, a country included in Trump’s list of nationalities banned from visiting the US. Still, some analysts are hopeful that better times could be ahead for the US and the Continent; after all, Africans have historically closer ties to the Americas than to China.
Secretary Tillerson is a controversial appointee personally selected by the even more controversial Trump; he is mostly known as the former CEO of ExxonMobil, and his appointment raised eyebrows due to previous business deals he secured between the energy giant and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In recent weeks, rumors have emerged about Tillerson having been appointed instead of Mitt Romney at the insistence of Russian operatives; many political analysts believe that Romney would have clashed with the Russian President, and thus Trump sought a softer appointment in this regard.