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Tillerson's firing 'negative' for Africa

Philipp Sandner
March 14, 2018

Rex Tillerson's firing comes as the US secretary of state ended an African tour focused on security. His successor will take a similar approach, but with less Africa experience, says the Atlantic Council's Aubrey Hruby.

Rex Tillerson and Moussa Faki
Rex Tillerson met with Moussa Faki, chair of the African Union Commission, March 8.Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Ernst

DW: Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, toured Africa for a week before being called back to Washington and sacked by US President Donald Trump. What does this tell us?

Aubrey Hruby: First of all, this administration has been plagued by departures. Secretary Tillerson is the 36th significant departure from this administration. It was long rumored that this was in the works because of continual disagreements between Tillerson and the White House. And so it doesn't come as a surprise in general, but the timing is a bit odd to do it while he was on a trip and to call him back — so much so that he had to feign illness in Kenya and then cut the trip short. Our understanding is that the disagreement had something to do with North Korea issues, or just a general accumulation of disagreements.

Does this mean all we know so far of US-African relations has become null and void?

US-African relations over the last year and a half of the Trump administration have already been a challenge to understand because a lot of the key roles were not filled. So we didn't have an assistant secretary of state for Africa, and the people in the key roles will determine the direction of the policy. But what we can say is that Tillerson himself in his prior career at Exxon had worked in Africa quite a bit. And so we had a secretary of state in his personal capacity who understood the region quite well, traveled extensively in the region and had established relationships in the region. And now we're going away from that so we have to think that that's a negative development.

Is there a possible link between Tillerson's tour of Africa and his being sacked by Trump?

I think there is nothing that we can see that Tillerson did on the trip in particular that would lead to his sacking. I think these were larger issues that had been percolating for some time. But it looks like he was called back due to questions around President Trump's potential meeting with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un.

When Tillerson was in Africa, he pursued the traditional US take on the continent, which is: focus on security issues, focus on the fight against terrorism. His visits to Nigeria and Chad, and also Djibouti, where the US has a military base, reflected this. It is furthermore said that he was supposed to strengthen economic ties between the US and Africa. What can we expect of Tillerson's tapped successor as secretary of state, CIA chief Mike Pompeo, in this in this regard?

Yes, the trip had a very heavy security lens, you could see that from the countries chosen — Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. Also, some commercial events were supposed to take place to focus on the trade and business relationship, but they got canceled as the trip was shortened. As Pompeo comes, he comes from the inner CIA. Given that he's been there for the past more than a year, I think you can expect a lot of the same when it comes to the security focus.

Idriss Deby and Rex Tillerson
Tillerson's meeting with Chad's Idriss Deby focused on the anti-terror fight in the SahelImage: DW/B. Dariustone

Can we also deduce anything as far as US-African trade relations are concerned? Trump caused quite a controversy at a UN luncheon in September when he alluded to his friends getting rich in Africa, but in general, we haven't seen much of an economic strategy during his administration.

It's a little early to tell because Pompeo has not really spoken on that issue. And as we said before, the person that will fit in the role of assistant secretary of state has not yet been chosen. So if Pompeo makes a choice for that role, and we have a sense of who that person is and their kind of background, their approach, their thinking, that will give us a better insight into the future commercial policy of the US towards Africa. What I can say is that the White House and Congress have been focused on a narrative of, "How does the US compete with China in African markets?" The US Congress had a hearing on that last week and there are folks in the White House working on US-China global competition issues. So that does touch the African market. And I do think Pompeo will continue that view that there is more that the US needs to do in order to be able to compete with China in the African market.

In choosing Pompeo, Trump has opted for one of his close allies. Does this mean we will see more of the Trump line in US-Africa policy?

The Trump approach has been one of uncertainty and unpredictability and certainly we will see a little bit of the same in Pompeo taking over the State Department. And what that means for Africa policy is that it's pretty unpredictable at this point. A lot will depend on who he appoints for the role of assistant secretary of state or if he makes those appointments. They've been empty thus far in the Trump administration. So if he fills those roles then we will have a better sense of the direction of Africa policy. In the meantime, we can say it's probably going to be secondary or tertiary to this administration's concern as it seems to be focused on North Korea and still fighting the image of Russian meddling. And US-Russia relations, US-China relations and North Korea seem to be the dominant themes of this administration from a foreign policy perspective to date.

Aubrey Hruby is a senior fellow at the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. The interview was conducted by Philipp Sandner.