Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a trip to five countries in Africa — Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad, and Nigeria.
Since taking office last year, three of U.S. top officials — President Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretary Tillerson — have visited all regions– except Africa.
This overdue trip could signal that the administration may be prepared to engage with the continent, after a slow start.
However, the specific deliverables of the trip, if any, remain unclear.
At the same time, this visit also provides an opportunity for the administration to reassure its African partners of its commitment to US-Africa cooperation, especially in light of the derogatory comments allegedly made by President Trump about the continent earlier in the year.
The war on terror
The choice of countries reinforces the perception that security is primarily the lens through which the current administration views Africa.
The five countries are important partners for the fight against terrorism and extreme violence in the region. For example, Djibouti is home to the region’s only U.S. military base and provides support to the U.S. Navy.
Kenya has the largest US embassy and is a key partner in the efforts to fight the terrorist group al-Shabaab along the Eastern Coast of Africa.
Chad plays a critical role in efforts to restore security in the Sahel region. The Trump administration authorized the sale of military equipment to Nigeria last year to help with the fight against Boko Haram—and the abduction of another group of schoolgirls by the group two weeks ago has raised fresh concerns.
While security is vital to US-African relations, for a more enduring partnership, Secretary Tillerson would do well to focus on the complementarity and interdependence of defense, diplomacy, and development—and use this trip as an opportunity to generate momentum in all three realms.
So far, there have been fewer concrete actions on the development or diplomatic dimensions of US-Africa relations. During President Trump’s first speech on Africa at the United Nations last September, he mentioned the continent’s potential as a viable economic partner.
This statement contrasted discouraging signals he sent last July by skipping the Africa session on the future of the continent during G-20 Summit in Hamburg.
On diplomacy, some key positions relevant to the continent, such as that of Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, remain vacant, and ambassadors for important partners, including South Africa, have not been appointed.
In his U.N. speech last September, President Trump rightfully highlighted the economic potential of the continent.
Half of the world’s top-10 fastest growing economies are in Africa, with two-thirds of its economies projected to expand at a faster rate than the global economy.
The continent’s middle class is growing and the increase in consumer and business spending is projected to rise by an additional $1.6 trillion to $5.6 trillion by 2025.
By the turn of the century, Africa will have 40 percent of the world’s population, according to UNICEF projections.
The continent’s large infrastructure gap presents business opportunities for U.S. companies. Later this month, the Africa Union plans to adopt a Continental Free Trade Area that will create a single market of 1.2 billion people and about $3.5 trillion in combined gross domestic product.
Closer partnership with Africa, which will help the continent overcome its development challenges, will generate substantial commercial opportunities in various sectors.
Africa’s other partners, including Europe as well as China and other emerging market economies, understand the opportunities and dynamism of the continent, and they have been more proactive in strengthening their relationships with Africa.
The Africa agenda
Secretary Tillerson’s trip provides an opportunity for a dialogue to inform the world about the administration’s yet-to-be-released Africa strategy.
Going forward, this administration needs to address what to do about the Africa programs (AGOA, PEPFAR, Power Africa, Young Leaders Initiative, MCC etc.) advanced by previous administrations, and articulate whatever new Africa agenda, if any, Trump might initiate to secure his own legacy.
It is not uncommon for US presidents to take office without a clear Africa agenda.
Former Presidents Clinton and Bush did not reveal an Africa agenda until well into their first terms.
Similarly, President Obama’s strategy for sub-Saharan Africa was not published until June 2012.
Nonetheless, these former presidents left overall positive Africa legacies for Trump to build upon.
There is still time for Trump to build his own positive legacy, and Secretary Tillerson’s trip could mark an important step in that direction.