Africa Watchers, myself included, have been critical of President Trump’s perceived disregard for Africa, which has been punctuated by clumsy attempts to engage the continent.
When President Trump walked out of the G-20 session on Africa in Hamburg, Germany in July, substituting in his daughter Ivanka, I called it utterly tone-deaf to the well-being of Africa’s 1.6 billion people.
In late September, at the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump finally held his first direct engagement with the continent, inviting leaders from nine of Africa’s largest economies to a lunch discussion on increasing business and trade relations with the U.S. A great initiative — in theory.
While the agenda prepared by the president’s senior Africa staff at the National Security Council was focused and relevant, the content of the dialogue was far overshadowed by the president’s mispronunciation of the Southern African country Namibia, which he re-named “Nambia.” A Twitter-fest quickly followed. Late-night hosts Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah had a field day.This time, however, the president and his administration has gotten it right on Africa — from idea through execution.
Last month, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, took a three-nation tour to Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to review U.S.-supported UN peacekeeping missions and to assess measures to arrest the conflict in South Sudan and delayed elections in the DRC.
Haley, an inexperienced diplomat but a seasoned politician and consensus-builder from her days as South Carolina’s Republican governor, was well prepared.
She penned an op-ed for CNN before departing to make her case arguing that U.S. interests in Africa are certainly humanitarian, but that they are also “economic and strategic.”
She promised to take a hard look and the UN efficiencies on the ground and to deliver a strong message to the leaders of South Sudan and the DRC that the U.S. would hold them accountable for their actions. Haley was quoted as saying to South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir, “I did not come here to talk.”
Finally, Haley did not go it alone. She sought counsel from her more experienced colleagues at the U.S. Mission to the UN, the National Security Council, the State Department and the U.S. missions in the three African nations.
While Haley was not the first senior Trump administration official to visit Africa, as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis traveled in April to visit America’s military base in Djibouti, this was the first time that it was made clear that the White House, itself, had directed the initiative of its senior envoy.
And precisely because of the close association with the White House, the African leaders appeared to engage not just superficially, but on the tough issues and with some early and cautiously optimistic results.
Barely two weeks after her trip, election officials in the DRC announced that a long-overdue presidential election would finally take place in December 2018, a central demand Haley tabled with President Joseph Kabila. Elections, she told the Congolese president, must occur by end of next year.
Of course, one diplomatic mission and a single early concession in a generational struggle does not a success make. Conflict resolution and democratic institution building is a long-term play, and no matter how trusted Ambassador Haley is by her president, or how persuasive she is in her bilateral engagements, she cannot succeed without institutional support. And herein lies the obstacle to Haley’s success.
In President Trump’s budget proposal, the State Department and USAID would see a roughly 30 percent cut, with Africa disproportionately affected. Trump’s budget would slash U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations, more than half of which are in Africa. U.S. Ambassador John Campbell argues in Foreign Policy that this a dangerous retreat.
While the House appropriators conceded to the administration’s drastic cuts, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $51 billion for the State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs in its 2018 appropriations bill — almost $11 billion above President Trump’s request.
However, no matter the Senate mark, or what Congress finally approves, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has promised to neither spend nor allocate a penny above the administration’s request. A promise shared with members of Congress and his own State Department staff.
I recognize that President Trump’s “America First” agenda is marked by a shift towards defense and counter-terrorism, and welcome Tillerson’s announcement that the U.S. will contribute $60 million to a five-nation task force in the Sahel region of Africa. However, security gains will be temporary, absent a comprehensive and sustainable strategy that addresses governance and obstacles to economic growth.
Madam Ambassador, U.S. interests in Africa, humanitarian, economic and strategic, need your help. Now that you have borne witness and “felt the pain” of the refugees and the innocents caught in conflict, I hope you can appreciate more how essential U.S. support is to programs of peace-building and conflict resolution. These are the skill sets our diplomats and development experts possess, and they must be properly resourced.
Just before your Africa mission, when you met with former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Condoleezza Rice in New York on a panel about American leadership, you reassured them that President Trump did not necessarily mean for his proposed cuts to actually be enacted. “It was just his conversation point,” you said. “He was starting a conversation.” We now hope that to be true!
You have a voice, Madam Ambassador. It is welcome and outspoken and I hope you will raise it on behalf of all of those you met in Africa.
K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016).