Out in Africa? Tillerson trip leaves hosts nonplussed

Tillerson meets with officials during a stop in Djibouti
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport in Djibouti, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

March 13, 2018

By Ed Cropley

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – From the outset, Rex Tillerson’s first trip to Africa looked half-hearted and token, but with the hindsight knowledge that the U.S. Secretary of State was fired just two days in, his African hosts who must be wondering why they bothered.

Beyond $533 million in humanitarian aid and some pat remarks about security and not getting too cosy with China, Tillerson’s main aim appeared to be clearing up the mess left by President Donald Trump’s reported dismissal of some African nations as “shithole countries”. Trump later denied making the comment.

But the revelation from a senior White House official that Trump told Tillerson he was out of a job just two days into the six-day jaunt leaves little room for doubt about the Trump White House’s attitude towards the continent.

Given its increasing reliance for aid and trade on China, its main commercial partner, and a recent diplomatic push led by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the slight is likely to have real consequences for Washington’s status on the continent of a billion people.

“This shows Trump’s disdain – a real own-goal, especially with Lavrov hot on his heels,” said Jackie Cilliers, head of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.

After a brief appearance at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia, where he spoke of the need for care when doing business with China, Tillerson flew to the Horn of Africa state of Djibouti, then Kenya, an important east African ally.

His presence in Nairobi on Friday smoothed the way for a kiss-and-make-up meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

It was downhill from there. Tillerson’s focus switched to a possible summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un – and trying to keep his job.

On Saturday, he pulled out of his activities in Nairobi, citing ill health, before flying to Chad and Nigeria. His time with leaders there on the front line of the fight against Boko Haram was cut short by the need to get home a day early.

Only hours after he touched down in the United States, Trump announced on Twitter that Tillerson was fired.

For Kenya’s chattering political classes, it was a telling window into the priorities of the Trump White House.

“It’d be better for Africa if the Trump administration just ignored us because of the chaos and dysfunction within the administration,” said Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan writer and political analyst.

“It’s interesting and disturbing to see the administration flounder so much and not really have a coherent response to any major challenges on the continent and elsewhere.”

A spokesman for Kenya’s president declined to comment. Nigeria’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

In Nigeria – where Tillerson held talks with President Muhammadu Buhari on Monday – the secretary of state’s ousting was met with a sense of weary acceptance.

“American foreign policy has always treated Africa as a leftover, which is why it’s not a huge shock that Tillerson was in Africa while they fired him,” said Pat Utomi, professor of political economy at Lagos Business School.

“It doesn’t augur well for the long-term message of America to Africa, especially with the message he sounded, which was ‘beware of China’. This means that the warning he was giving was of no consequence,” said Utomi.

(This story has been refiled to restore missing word in 14th paragraph.)

(Reporting by Ed Cropley; Additional reporting by Chijoke Ohuocha in Lagos and Maggie Flick in Nairobi; editing by Larry King)