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US's Tillerson expected to mend fences during Africa visit

Sella Oneko
March 6, 2018

Apologies, economics and security are expected to be on the menu during Rex Tillerson’s trip. The visit comes shortly after reported derogatory comments by US President Donald Trump caused an outcry across Africa.

Rex Tillerson
Image: Reuters/H. Romero

Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Chad and Djibouti are on the itinerary of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's week-long trip to the African continent starting on Tuesday. It is his first official visit and the first where the US is expected to come out with a clearer policy toward Africa, despite two top US officials, Nikki Haley and Donald Yamamoto, having already visited the continent,

"Three of the countries house three of the four largest US embassies in Africa," explained Yamamoto, acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs, during a press briefing ahead of the trip. Those countries — Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria — already have strong ties to the US, and as Yamamoto pointed out, host major UN and international organizations.

"These countries can play a really predominant role in growth because we're looking at 8 to 9 percent economic growth rates," Yamamoto added.

The other two countries, Chad and Djibouti, are a different matter. In Djibouti, the US has its biggest military base in Africa, from where it coordinates anti-terror operations in the Horn of Africa and anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, as well as enjoying close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. From Chad, the US has easy access to the Sahel region.

 Read more:US military engagement in Niger and Africa: 3 things to know  

Ministerial on Trade, Security and Governance in Washington D.C.
Previous meetings between US and African officials paved the way for Tillerson's visitImage: DW/M. Cura

'S***hole' comments

Unfortunately for Tillerson, his trip comes on the back of derogatory remarks US President Donald Trump was reported to have made about several world regions. Behind the scenes, he is said to have called African countries, Haiti and some Latin American nations "s***holes," which caused the African Union (AU) to demand an apology. A letter from the US president to AU leaders later spoke of the deep respect that the US has for what it called its African partners.

Reacting on DW's Africa Facebook page to Trump's comment, users voiced their dismay. "The US has shifted from a more inclusive to a protectionist nation, cutting off its allies with unpredictable foreign policy. The President's remarks about Africa haven't helped much," wrote a user who goes by the name Gbiel Fidelis. Ladu Samson from South Sudan, on the other hand, commended the US president: "Trump respects Africa and that is why he is always frank. The derogatory statement is a wake-up call!"  

"I think Mr. Tillerson's visit is part of a 'goodwill mission,' if you like, to demonstrate that the US government has not forgotten about Africa," DW's Washington correspondent Carsten von Nahmen explained. "The question is, how significant is Mr Tillerson as a person to Donald Trump, because Secretary of State Tillerson has been pretty embattled here in the US. There has been speculation for months how long he will stay in office, and Donald Trump has often contradicted his foreign minister."

"The United States could make a strategic mistake, according to a number of observers here in the US," von Nahmen commented with regard to the general role of the US in Africa. "If it does not look into economic potential there, others like Russia, Turkey or China might fill the void if the Americans stay away."

Read more:Trump envoy Nikki Haley on first Africa trip 

US Air Force plane in Senegal
The US anti-terror operations have focuse on the Horn of African and the Sahel regionImage: Getty Images/AFP/L. Gelfand

 The military presence

Where the US has its troops is, of course, another key interest for US foreign policy. After four US soldiers and five Nigeriens were killed in an anti-terror operation last year, many citizens and even politicians in the United States woke up to the fact that the country actually had troops in Africa.

The visits to Chad and Djibouti, therefore, come as no surprise. The aim, Yamamoto said, was to discuss the coordination of military operations with, for instance, the AU, France and other countries.

Tillerson's visit to Ethiopia incidentally coincides that of his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Yamamoto, however, brushed off any notions that this meant the two ministers would be meeting.

"The other issue is that China has recently established their base in [Djibouti]," said Yamamoto. "We're looking at having a discussion with China in Washington later in spring about what their overall goals and operations are on the continent."

"China played a positive role in UN operations in Sudan, so it's a very complex relationship, but again it goes to the heart of how can we coordinate on security," Yamamoto added. 

Uncertain futures in Kenya and Ethiopia

Crowds wait outside Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia is in political limbo. In February political prisoners were released and the prime minister resigned.Image: Befekadu Hailu

National politics are, however, also overshadowing Tillerson's visit. Ethiopia, seat of the African Union, currently does not have a prime minister. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in mid-February due to heavy protests in the country's biggest region, Oromia.

"Going to Ethiopia, we're looking at the transition of the prime minister but also strengthening institutions," said Yamamoto. "We're looking at the problems in Oromia and the Somali region and we're looking at about 1 million people displaced." The issues of land rights in the region needed to be addressed, he said, and also human rights.

In Kenya, the political stand-off between the government and the opposition puts the US in a difficult position. Talks with the president, the government and civil society members were planned, but Yamamoto dodged a direct response as to whether the delegation would meet Raila Odinga's opposition. "The schedules are still fluid," he commented, adding that he and the US ambassador to Kenya had met Odinga on several occasions in the past.

 "We're not ignoring the opposition. The opposition plays a critical role," he argued, saying that regular contacts with opposition leaders were occurring "behind the scenes." Dialogue and reforms were the keywords. Yet Kenya's opposition has in the recent past accused foreign governments, and particularly the US, of exerting pressure on them.

So, while many African countries will probably be more than happy for this face-to-face opportunity with the US government, there are a few rocky paths for the delegation to navigate.

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