Donald Trump’s interaction with Africa since he was sworn in as America’s president has been cold and limited.
For a country that has wielded the big brother stick, the visit by Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could not have come at a better time for the super power.
Tillerson is not new to Africa, and his Nairobi visit poignantly points at a deliberate shift from the chest thumping America First bravado that propelled Trump into office to the possibility of a more logical partnership between Washington and the capitals of the continent.
In a speech ahead of the tour, Tillerson, who visited the continent many times as chief executive of oil conglomerate ExxonMobil, laid out the challenges Africa faces and the role of Washington.
“There is ample opportunity on the continent for economic growth, for greater prosperity, and for responding to global challenges through mutually respectful partnerships. I do look forward to returning and building on a strong foundation of US-Africa relations,” he said at George Mason University on Tuesday.
By the year 2030, Africa will represent about one-quarter of the world’s workforce, and by the year 2050, the population of the continent is expected to double to more than 2.5 billion people, with 70 per cent of them under the age of 30.
For context, by the year 2050, Nigeria will have a population larger than the US and an economy larger than Australia’s. The World Bank estimates that six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world this year will be African. “To understand where the world is going, one must understand that Africa is a significant part of the future,” Tillerson said.
His sentiments represent a change on the part of the Trump administration, which until now has said very little publicly on African policy. During the transition, mentions of the continent seemed largely in the context of cutting some of the US signature aid and development programmes.
Over the years, a shift in both US policy and the emergence of other world economies -- China in particular -- has continuously chipped away at the dominance of the Americans, and the influence of the Super Power in African economies has waned significantly.
This visit might also be an opportunity for Trump’s White House to reassert itself as the most logical go-to partner for African states.
“The US pursues and develops sustainable growth that bolsters institutions, strengthens rule of law, and builds the capacity of African countries to stand on their own two feet,” Tillerson said. Chinese influence does not however take away the historical ties between Washington and African capitals. One of them being the pain of terrorism.
“This August, we will remember the hundreds of lives lost 20 years ago in the U.S. embassy attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam – where hundreds of lives ended,” Tillerson said.
Although the visit might have some level of sentiment, it is clear that no punches will be pulled as corruption, a thorny issues in African states, will feature prominently during the visit. Democracy, the civil society and transition of power in these states will also be up for discussion at a time when African strongmen are changing constitutions to further stay in power and cracking down on dissent.
Tillerson’s Africa visit began in Ethiopia, then on the way to Nairobi, he made a stop in Djibouti. He will then go to Chad and Nigeria.