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Rex Tillerson ends Africa trip

March 12, 2018

After meetings with the African Union in Ethiopia and diplomatic meetings in Kenya, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ended his Africa trip in Chad and Nigeria where counter terrorism topped the agenda.

Rex Tillerson and Moussa Faki (AU)
Tillerson (l.) met AU Commission chair Moussa Faki in EthiopiaImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Maina

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is ending his Africa trip with a short visit to Chad and Nigeria. During his visit to Chad, Tillerson hinted at the possibility of lifting the US travel ban on Chad, which he said was an ally in the fight against terrorism. He said that his team was preparing a progress report on Chad, which would be reviewed by US President Trump at a later point. In September 2017, Chad was added to a list of countries whose citizens are restricted from travelling to the United States

During Tillerson's visit, Chad's President Idriss Deby voiced his incomprehension of the travel ban.

Tillerson had cut his week-long Africa trip a day short citing that he had urgent matters to attend to in the US. He had also cancelled some of his appointments over the weekend in Kenya, saying that he felt unwell. DW spoke to Mathew Page from the UK think tank, Chatham House, about the trip.

US president Donald Trump has, on the campaign trail and after his victory, repeatedly said that for him, it's America first. Tillerson's trip is largely restricted to efforts to fight terrorism. Isn't this enough for African leaders to treat the visit with a level of skepticism?

That's right, I think the Trump administration really view Africa through a very narrow lens. The first lens that has dominated the US-Africa policy is the security and counter-terrorism lens. The US Africa Command is the military command that is very active on the continent, both in terms of routine activities such as the training and engagement with African militaries, but also in terms of more direct actions together with the militaries of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and, of course, in Niger. We've seen that the US military actions in that region have not always been as well controlled and thought out as they could be. An example of this was the death of four US servicemen in Niger last year as a result of a botched patrol that they were undertaking with Nigerien troops.

Matthew T. Page
Mathew Page is an associate fellow at Chatham HouseImage: Chatham House

Second to security are trade and business opportunities, stemming from the almost neo-colonial policy that the Trump administration is keen to push, which is to push US businesses, especially in the extractive sector.

There are many doubts that this trip will amount to much, whether it is fighting terrorism or improving US-Africa relations.

Yes, and I think for many years, not just under the Trump administration, the US has perhaps overestimated its influence on the continent. However, the US does have an embassy in almost every African country and there is a strong cadre of diplomats within the US diplomatic service who've spent a lot of time on the continent and see a broader range of policy interests.

So while I think that the US-Africa policy is going through a dry spell, it's been overshadowed by an administration that is espousing a lot of white nationalist principles in terms of its domestic policy –  it is very xenophobic towards immigrants and people of color – and I think it's difficult under those set of conditions for the US government to engage constructively with African countries.  

A few months ago, Nigeria's president Buhari announced thatBoko Haram had been defeated. But recently more than 100 school girls were abducted in Yobe State. What do you make of the way Nigeria has been handling the situation.

I think Buhari's comments, which echoed comments made many times by the Nigerian military and other Nigerian officials, is really misguided. The Boko Haram insurgency is a very complex, deeply rooted transnational that is driven not only by religious factors but also by governance failures and also corruption and abuses in Nigeria and the surrounding countries. So rather than acknowledging what a complex insurgency it is and how the drivers, many of which are in the power of the government to change its own behaviors, there's this temptation by Nigerian officials and military leaders to tout some sort of victory.

The reality of it is that the counter-insurgency efforts are not bearing fruit. There has been a lot of backsliding in terms of the security situation in the North East and when this happens the civilian population in north-eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region becomes increasingly vulnerable. North-eastern Nigeria is home to the world's largest humanitarian crisis with over 2 million people displaced. And I think the Nigerian government and the military have played a very problematic role in their handling of the humanitarian crisis, whether it be their failure to protect civilians as they undertake counter-insurgency operations there or the militarization of Internally Displaced Person camps. We saw this very clearly in the recent Boko Haram attack at Rann [in Borno State], where Boko Haram attacked that camp because of the military presence inside what should have been a humanitarian zone.

So all in all, the Nigerian government has taken a real challenge in the Boko Haram insurgency and really compounded it into a crisis through a variety of missteps including human rights abuses and security sector corruption.

Mathew Page is an associate fellow at Chatham House. He formerly served as a intelligence expert on Nigeria for the US Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Interview: Isaac Mugabi

New Boko Haram abduction