US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST

Washington — US 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 US President Donald Trump has harshly criticised.

US budgetary priorities tell a different story.

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

While the top US 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 US 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 programme at the Centre 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 US considers important security players."

Famine aid

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

The trip will be Tillerson’s first to Africa as secretary of state, but the region is familiar to him from his career at ExxonMobil, where he rose through the ranks to become CEO. For example, he knows Chad’s President Idriss Déby 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 US ties with allies combating an Islamic State (IS) offshoot in the Sahel region and al-Shabab militants in Somalia. He is notably skipping SA, which has seen political turmoil recently with president Jacob Zuma’s forced resignation and replacement by Cyril Ramaphosa.

Niger ambush

The US security role in Africa took on heightened scrutiny after four US troops were ambushed and killed late last year in Niger, prompting expressions of surprise from leading Republican and Democrat members of Congress about the expanded Pentagon presence on the continent. But some also said the growing terrorist presence justifies a wider US 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 US commitment toward the continent, particularly after Trump allegedly referred to African nations as "shit-hole" countries during a meeting on immigration in January.

Military role

Despite their commitment to countering terrorism, US 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 US Africa Command (Africom), told lawmakers on Tuesday. "Therefore, our first strategic theme is that Africom activities directly support US diplomatic and development efforts in Africa."

Tillerson will face tough questions on the administration’s plans to cut funding for UN 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 US 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 US’s commitment to African nations and saying 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 US sees as unfair lending practices and business deals.

For more than a decade, the US 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% 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."