US President Donald Trump (L) gestures next to China's President Xi Jinping during a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. Donald Trump urged Chinese leader Xi Jinping to work "hard" and act fast to help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, during their meeting in Beijing on November 9, warning that "time is quickly running out". / AFP / Nicolas ASFOURI Image Credit: AFP

An Africanist Donald Trump is not. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who had signature initiatives on the continent, the United States president has shown little interest in Africa and had minimal contact with its leaders. At a lunch he hosted with nine African heads of state on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September, he repeatedly referred to the southern African country of Namibia as “Nambia” and startled those in attendance by celebrating the extractive potential of the continent. “I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich,” he said. “I congratulate you — they’re spending a lot of money.” Trump made no reference to human rights or strengthening democracy in Africa, usual themes in presidential remarks about the continent.

But the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger and the inclusion of Chad, a key US counterterrorism partner, on the latest iteration of Trump’s travel ban have made Africa increasingly difficult for the administration to ignore. These events have also exposed the administration’s startling lack of expertise when it comes to the continent and its reticence to tap the knowledge of career diplomats and analysts in the executive agencies — missteps that have already cost the administration and which could have additional consequences down the road.

Trump’s disinterest in Africa appears to be shared by many in his cabinet, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, at an hour-long meeting with State Department employees on August 1 embarked on a “little walk ... around the world” that did not mention Africa and its 1.2 billion inhabitants — roughly 17 per cent of the world’s population. The administration’s political point person for Africa seems to be America’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who had little foreign experience prior to her appointment. Last month, she visited Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the most senior Trump administration official to have set foot on the continent thus far.

Making matters worse, the Trump administration has shown little respect for the expertise that resides at the departments of State and Defence, within the intelligence community, and within the academic and policy communities. Important African diplomatic posts remain unfilled, and domestic positions concerned with Africa have been filled only very slowly. For his meetings with African heads of state on the margins of the UN General Assembly, career State and Defence officials were not invited to be present. Not a single career diplomat accompanied Haley on her Africa swing, although she did permit ambassadors and chargs d’affaires to attend her meetings with heads of state, which is the usual practice.

The Trump administration’s freezing out of State, Defence, and intelligence community expertise predictably results in mistakes. The most costly to date was the inclusion of Chad — a major US ally in the fight against terrorism — on Trump’s travel ban, which also targets travellers from seven other countries. Not long after the latest version of the ban was announced on September 24, Chad shifted troops from Niger, where they had been involved in operations against Boko Haram, to its border with Libya. A reported upsurge in terrorist activity followed the troops’ departure.

The travel ban blunder may yield additional negative consequences that are difficult to predict. The current chairman of the African Union Commission is Moussa Faki Mahamat, a Chadian. And to the extent that the travel ban is interpreted as a Muslim ban, it’s not just Chad that the administration risks alienating. Islam is the majority religion in some 22 African countries, 13 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. In certain parts of Africa where the rivalry between Muslims and Christians is acute, some Christians, especially of the Pentecostal tradition, are welcoming and exaggerating what they see as the Trump administration’s anti-Islam policy. If African elites perceive Trump’s immigration and refugee policies as part of a larger “war on Islam”, then a general hostility to the US is likely to grow.

Fortunately, the administration has begun to remedy its lack of Africa expertise in a prelude to what will hopefully be a better-managed policy toward the continent. While there is still no permanent assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Donald Yamamoto, a career diplomat and former ambassador with deep knowledge of Africa, has been appointed as an interim secretary with a term of up to one year. Filling Africa-related positions on the National Security Council (NSC) was a slow process but one that is now largely complete. Cyril Sartor, a career government analyst who is also knowledgeable about Africa, took up his duties as senior Africa director at the NSC in August, as did Mark Green, a former congressman and ambassador to Tanzania who now leads the US Agency for International Development (Usaid). Despite this progress in filling senior posts based in Washington, there are still numerous ambassadorial vacancies, including key postings in South Africa and South Sudan.

As one might expect given his disinterest in Africa — though with the caveat that his administration is less than a year old — Trump has unveiled no signature initiative there that could be compared to Barack Obama’s Power Africa plan, which aimed to harness public and private funds to increase electricity generation, or to George W. Bush’s widely successful President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR).

The defining feature of the administration’s Africa policy so far is its ramping-up of military and counterterrorism engagement, a trend that began before Trump took office. In a recent conversation with senators, Defence Secretary James Mattis indicated that the US military presence in Africa is set to increase, with continuing training, reconnaissance, and air support missions that accelerated under Obama (though from a very low baseline).

This shift is also reflected in the administration’s budget proposal, which may end up having the biggest initial impact on US policy towards Africa. The Defence Department budget would swell by roughly 9 per cent, enabling it to increase its presence in Africa, while the State Department would see a roughly 30 per cent cut, if the administration gets its way. Included in that cut would be Usaid, meaning that almost all development assistance would be eliminated, as would many health-related programmes. Africa would be disproportionately affected; at present roughly one-third of USAID funds go to the continent. Trump’s budget would also nearly halve the US contribution to UN peacekeeping operations, more than half of which are in Africa.

Finally, while the administration’s budget proposal explicitly states that it will be “continuing treatment for all current HIV/AIDS patients” under PEPFAR (which provided life-saving antiretroviral drugs to 11.5 million people last year), the proposal would lower the yearly contribution by 17 per cent, or about $800 million (Dh2.94 billion). Little is known about the future of Power Africa, which has delivered electricity to more than 50 million people since 2013, but the administration has already shown itself to be hostile to most of the Obama administration’s initiatives.

Congress is likely to oppose many of these cuts, however, and in the end they are unlikely to be as deep as Trump’s budget proposal would indicate. Even so, cutting just half of what the president has proposed would significantly reduce the scope of department and agency activities, with the exception of defence. So far under Trump, US foreign engagement is declining with respect to Africa. China and India have already begun to fill the void by steadily increasing their political and economic activity, as have Turkey, the Gulf states, and Iran. Larger African states, notably Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia, may also assume a more significant role than in the past. Few of these countries share America’s commitment to democracy, human rights, or security. Yet, with the US administration’s back turned, they are increasingly ascendant in Africa.

— Washington Post

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as US ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007 and as US counsellor for political affairs in South Africa from 1993 to 1996.