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Donald Trump envoy tours Africa

Sella Oneko
October 24, 2017

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is on her first Africa tour. But, with President Donald Trump's foreign policy plans for the continent unclear, nobody is really sure how Africa will feature on the US agenda.

Nikki Haley with AU Commissioner for Political Affairs Minata Semate Cessouma
Nikki Haley with the African Union Commissioner for Political Affairs, Minata Semate Cessouma, Addis AbabaImage: picture-alliance/AA/M. Wondimu Hailu

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, is one of the highest-ranking officials in the Trump administration to visit the African continent. Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are on her itinerary.

Haley told reporters she hoped this was the beginning of "a stronger relationship with the AU and our African partners," following a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday.

"The United States very much sees Africa as a very important part of the world. We see great opportunities in Africa, we see challenges in Africa, but we want to support and help in those situations."

Famine as a weapon in South Sudan

Haley also plans to take a critical look at the UN peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and the DRC, both of which are among the biggest missions in the world.

The operation in DRC, for instance, costs $1.14 billion (970 million euros).

The US pays a large a portion of the UN peacekeeping budget.


Read more: Donald Trump's lack of interest in Africa

UN funding cuts?

Both the Trump administration and Haley in particular have been known to speak out against what they see as the inefficiency of the UN. In an op-ed published by CNN shortly before her trip, Haley lauded the UN for its efforts to avert a full blown famine in South Sudan.

However, she wrote: "The UN's track record of long-term success is not good. Neither South Sudan nor the DRC has shown any real progress toward political solutions that would stop the violence." 

In June this year, Haley tweeted about a budget proposal to cut funding to the UN by $500 million (425 million euros). She was heavily criticized for the proposal.

For the time being, though, Haley has struck more of a conciliatory tone with the UN and its work on the continent. In her op-ed, she wrote of the need to provide humanitarian aid and help the displaced.

"The president is sending me because we want to build (our Africa policy) back up to what it was under (former President George W. Bush). It has fallen and our African friends feel that," Haley said at a George W. Bush Institute event in New York last week.

Africa policy unclear

Indeed, Africa hasn't featured much in US foreign policy over the last few years. The initial enthusiasm and hopes in African countries that things would change under the Obama administration had ebbed. In mid-September, President Donald Trump for the first time turned his attention toward Africa, hosting a lunch meeting with the leaders of Ghana, South Africa and Senegal amongst others. At the meeting, Trump spoke of the continent's opportunities and the US interest in creating jobs and investing in Africa.

President Trump speaks at the UN
US President Trump has spoken little about foreign policy plans concerning the African continent Image: Getty Images/C.Ochs

For many political analysts, however, Trump's actual policy toward Africa is an unwritten chapter. "It remains difficult to assess the Trump administration's policies on African issues because they have failed to get in place key political appointees," explains Paul Williams, associate professor at the Security Policy Studies program at George Washington University in the US.

"So far, it appears the key decisions on operational issues related to African affairs are being made by Ambassador Nikki Haley and the US AFRICOM commander, General Thomas Waldhauser. None of Trump's senior political appointees have given a detailed or coherent statement defining how they see US interests across Africa."

Phil Clark, a central Africa expert at the SOAS, University of London, agrees. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has shown little interest in Africa, he says, adding that a lot of the decision-making has, in a sense, been outsourced to US ambassadors on the ground. Washington itself has no clear strategy on Africa.

'Trying not to turn the world into a mess'

After almost 10 months of silence, the sudden interest in Africa has therefore come as a surprise to some. It's no coincidence, says Hady Amr, a senior fellow with the US-based Brookings Institution, that this attention has come after the death of four US soldiers in Niger.

"After the killings of US service members in Niger, Trump's nativist base is asking itself — what are we doing over there? How does this square with what Trump told us he would do?"

What people need to have in mind when it comes to US policy, Amr says, is that "Trump has tried to sound very tough to his nativist based and tried to fulfill campaign promises, while trying not to turn the world into a big mess." 

We've seen this with his stance on his threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, or in the health care sector, he adds.

A UN peacekeeper in the DRC
The UN peacekeeping missions in the DRC and South Sudan are among the biggest in the worldImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Y. Tylle

Hopes for more engagement

Much like the other analysts, Amr believes that the US currently has no clear stance on its role on the continent. "I think that neither President Trump nor Nikki Haley have experience working in Africa. I really think what is going on is a reflection, a fact-finding mission," he said.

"This could go in two different directions. I could see her realizing that there is some really important work that's being done on the ground and we need to do more of that, or it could go the other direction."

Some African diplomats are hoping Haley's visit is a sign of Washington's intention to engage more broadly with governments in Africa.

"We hope that after this trip the administration will sit down and maybe before the end of the year we can hear their Africa strategy," a senior African diplomat at the UN told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity. "We would have wished it was earlier, but it's never too late."

As has been the case with several Trump administration strategies, Amr says, many political analysts are at a loss. "It's a little scary but also very different, because people who are used to analyzing what the US has done in the past, are getting it wrong."

General Thomas D. Waldhauser greets members of a US delegation in Djibouti
AFRICOM Commander General Waldhauser greets US Defense Secretary James Mattis (2ndL) in Djibouti in AprilImage: Getty Images/J. Ernst

Business and military operations

One thing, however, that seems to be on the minds of US officials is a sense of business opportunity, as Trump emphasized during his lunch meeting with African leaders earlier in the year. Anti-terror operations are another point of concern.

Clark at the SOAS in London believes African countries are worried about "whether the US simply sees Africa as a huge goldmine that the US can exploit."

Secondly, he adds, the work of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) appears to be increasingly important, with the attack in Niger providing the possibility of shedding light on its operations.

"Africom has always been a very shadowy entity," Clark said. "It operates in more countries than many people realize. It's often unclear, even to those African states themselves, exactly what AFRICOM is doing."

AFRICOM, which has its base in Germany, is tasked with peace-building, anti-terrorist operations and combatting illicit activities in Africa.

A few days after the attack in Niger, the command published a statement explaining that its role was to secure US bases and assist and train the Nigerien army. After the attack, a number of US senators came out to say that they weren't aware that the US had up to 800 soldiers in Niger, while US media was suddenly tasked with coming up to speed with what US troops were up to in the Sahel region, 

Some of the command's main focus areas include the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia, as well as Islamist militants in the Sahel.