Tillerson Heads to Africa With Security, Not Aid, as U.S. Focus

Updated on
  • Trump’s proposed budget would cut aid to continent by a third
  • U.S. is bolstering security ties to aid in terrorism fight
Rex Tillerson Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson begins his first official trip to sub-Saharan Africa with a pledge to help shore up trade, civic freedom and good governance in countries that President Donald Trump has harshly criticized.

U.S. budgetary priorities tell a different story.

Tillerson arrived on the continent Wednesday with the Trump administration advocating cuts of more than a third in aid to African countries and programs, along with deep reductions to global health initiatives. With several U.S. allies struggling to rein in Islamist extremist groups, and China increasingly making inroads on the continent, the U.S. security relationship will be the focus.

While the top U.S. diplomat has a broad itinerary on his five-nation trip, Africa experts say Tillerson’s planned stops in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria underscore the emphasis on security -- and away from the traditional U.S. role as advocate and partner for good governance and development.

“The common thread among them all is a security partnership,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The substance of what he conveys may be more diverse, but given the signals coming out of the White House and administration to date, I imagine that security is top of the order, along with cementing relationships with partners that the U.S. considers important security players.”

Famine Aid

While Tillerson announced $533 million in new aid to fight famine and food insecurity on the continent in a speech Tuesday before his departure, State Department officials have downplayed the possibility of big announcements or new initiatives during the trip. Adding to a sense of drift, U.S. exports to Africa in 2017 hit their lowest since 2006, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, while senior State Department posts for the continent remain unstaffed.

The trip is Tillerson’s first to Africa as secretary of state, but the region is familiar to him from his career at Exxon Mobil Corp., where he rose through the ranks to become chief executive officer. For example, he knows Chad’s President Idriss Deby from work on sealing a deal to tap the country’s oil reserves in the early 2000s.

This time Tillerson’s focus will be largely on bolstering U.S. ties with allies combating an Islamic State offshoot in the Sahel region and Al Shabab militants in Somalia. He is notably skipping South Africa, which has seen political turmoil recently with President Jacob Zuma’s forced resignation.

Niger Ambush

The U.S. security role in Africa took on heightened scrutiny after four U.S. troops were ambushed and killed late last year in Niger, prompting expressions of surprise from leading Republican and Democratic members of Congress about the expanded Pentagon presence on the continent. But some also said the growing terrorist presence justifies a wider U.S. military role.

“The war is morphing," South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters in October. “You are going to see more actions in Africa, not less.”

Looming in the background throughout the trip will be African leaders’ questions about the U.S. commitment toward the continent, particularly after Trump allegedly referred to African nations as “shithole” countries during a meeting on immigration in January.

Military Role

Despite their commitment to countering terrorism, U.S. military officials have said their role should be secondary to diplomatic efforts.

“None of Africa’s challenges can be resolved through the use of military force as the primary agent of change,” General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told lawmakers Tuesday. “Therefore, our first strategic theme is that AFRICOM activities directly support U.S. diplomatic and development efforts in Africa.”

Tillerson will face tough questions on the administration’s plans to cut funding for United Nations peacekeeping, particularly given that African nations, including Ethiopia and Nigeria, where Tillerson will visit, contribute a large portion of the troops that make up many of the missions.

Africa hasn’t been a priority for this administration’s diplomacy, and the staffing woes that afflict the entire State Department haven’t spared its Bureau of African Affairs. There is still no assistant secretary of state for that office, or even an announced nominee.

Human Rights

“I would certainly like to see the secretary reclaiming that moral ground, reclaiming very clear U.S. commitment to values of inclusive governance, respect for fundamental human rights,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told reporters ahead of Tillerson’s trip.

Tillerson didn’t refer to Trump’s disparaging description of African countries when he spoke at George Mason University outside Washington on Tuesday, instead pledging the U.S.’s commitment to African nations and saying that the administration wants stronger partnerships on the continent, “with an aim of making African countries more resilient and more self-sufficient.”

He also echoed several themes he has outlined in previous speeches ahead of trips abroad, including the need for other countries to share more of the burden for aid and calling out China for what the U.S. sees as unfair lending practices and business deals.

For more than a decade, the U.S. has cautioned African countries against entering into deals with China, which has steadily increased its influence by offering infrastructure loans and investing in energy production and natural resources extraction.

‘Predatory’ Loans

In his speech, Tillerson said China’s approach uses “opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth.”

He injected a degree of urgency into the speech, noting that Africa’s population is projected to double to more than 2.5 billion by 2050, with 70 percent of people under 30 years old.

“This growing population of young people, if left without jobs and a hope for the future, will create new ways for terrorists to exploit the next generation, subverting stability and derailing democratic governments,” Tillerson said.

— With assistance by Roxana Tiron

(Adds Tillerson’s arrival in Ethiopia starting in second paragraph.)
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