LONDON, February 9 (ANA) – When U.S. President Donald Trump recently called African nations “shithole countries”, it provoked international outrage. But the insult was only an abrasive confirmation of what was already plain – U.S. neglect of a continent where nearly 17 percent of the world’s population live.
Trump appears to have little if any interest in Africa, even less much knowledge of it, but he is only the most extreme example of a longer-term trend of declining U.S. engagement with the region. Except, that is, for its military presence, which is growing fast in a sometimes controversial response to international terrorism.
In what has become a familiar pattern for Trump, he tried to assuage the storm last month over his comments – reported by witnesses but denied by him — by writing a gushing letter to the African Union asserting his respect and commitment to Africa. This was just in time to stop January’s AU summit from passing a toughly worded statement calling for a public apology.
Nevertheless, Trump’s drastic cuts to the State Department budget and hence the U.S. foreign aid programme are bound to hit Africa particularly hard.
And in a clear indication of how little his administration cares about Africa, it has still not appointed a permanent Secretary of State for the region or ambassador to South Africa, one of the continent’s most influential countries.
LACK OF KNOWLEDGE, EXPERTISE
Trump’s slim knowledge of Africa is indicated by his repeated reference to Namibia by the fictional name “Nambia” in a meeting with African leaders at the United Nations last year. At the same time, in a statement reminiscent of colonial times, he told them many of his friends were going there “to get rich”.
Trump has included three African countries in his travel restrictions against predominantly Muslim nations, and one of them, Chad, is a key anti-terrorism ally in West Africa. Such moves underline the lack of coherence and expertise in forging Africa policy after the marginalisation of professional diplomats and experts.
U.S. involvement in Africa was declining before Trump, however, even under his predecessor, Barack Obama, who failed to live up to perhaps unrealistic African euphoria over his election as the first black American president, with a Kenyan father.
Obama did visit seven African countries in four visits, mainly in his second term, the most of any American president, and clearly had an interest in Africa despite his many distractions in the Middle East and elsewhere. He set up laudable signature initiatives to promote trade, electrification and the training of future African leaders.
But these projects have had only modest success so far. The Power Africa programme has confirmed new generation of 7,400 megawatts from a planned total of 30,000 megawatts since its foundation in 2013.
Ironically, Obama’s projects have achieved less than President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR scheme for AIDS relief, which is credited with saving millions of lives, together with praised initiatives to protect babies from malaria.
U.S. FALLS BEHIND CHINA AS TRADE PARTNER
In terms of trade, Washington has for many years fallen far behind China, which now has huge involvement in African infrastructure projects and overtook Washington as Africa’s biggest trading partner in 2009.
Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for less than one percent of U.S. world trade in 2016, which was worth $34 billion, dwarfed by China’s $123 billion. China has spent about $100 billion on direct investment and development loans to the region.
Such imbalances look myopic considering Africa’s rapidly expanding middle class and the fact that it hosts three of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies.
The one area where U.S. interest has not lagged is militarily, as the Pentagon reacts to a growing terrorist threat from Islamist groups crossing the Sahara from North Africa and causing mass casualties in Nigeria and Somalia.
The U.S. Africa command has quietly built up the number of forces operating on the continent to a total of 6,000. Last year, U.S. drone and air strikes in Somalia rose sharply to more than 30 and the number of special forces there to 400.
As everywhere, such military operations and the inevitable civilian casualties they bring run the risk of alienating local populations and boosting terrorist recruitment rather than U.S. influence. Critics say U.S. anti-terrorism training programmes for African militaries have also had disappointing results.
In a further element that could alienate rather than impress local populations, the terrorist threat has induced Washington to strengthen alliances with countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, which have questionable human rights records or democratic credentials.
If there was anybody listening in Washington, these factors might induce a broad review and reset of Africa policy. But under Trump, this looks improbable, with many gaps in the State Department still empty a year into his presidency.