Recently, President Trump announced via Twitter that he had fired Rex Tillerson as the U.S. secretary of state and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. The decision was made during his first diplomatic trip to Africa, where he traveled to Ethiopia, Chad, Kenya, Djibouti and Nigeria. He cut his trip to Africa by a day under the pretense that his presence was urgently needed in Washington due to developments with North Korea. We now know the real reason for his sudden departure.
Adding insult to injury, Secretary Tillerson was further humiliated when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly saw fit to announce that the secretary was in the bathroom when he called to encourage him to return to Washington because the president was unhappy.
Among the agenda items raised on the trip were trade, good governance and security. Unfortunately, it did not take long for President Trump’s alleged derogatory comments about African nations to be raised. At a press conference with the African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki, a journalist asked whether the U.S. should apologize for the president allegedly calling Africa “s—hole countries” during discussions over immigration, reiterating that the comment “is something that Africa’s still digesting.”
Faki took the high road, stating that his meeting with Tillerson focused on areas of cooperation, including the possibility of the U.S. providing financial support for an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. During these challenging times in American foreign policy, it is important that both the Administration and Congress focus on strengthening ties between the United States and Africa, including facilitating reciprocal trade and investment policies.
Thankfully, the Hill is taking the lead in shaping U.S. policy for Africa and indeed several organizations are encouraging Congress to pass legislative measures that will be mutually beneficial. For example, the Initiative for Global Development (IGD) is on record as urging prompt Senate passage of the African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) and Millennium Challenge Act (MCA) Modernization Act. The legislation was passed by the House on Jan. 17, 2018.
AGOA was first passed on May 18, 2000, and signed into law by President Bush. The legislation was subsequently renewed in 2015 through 2025 by the 114th Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The primary purpose of AGOA was to establish a new trade law and investment policy for sub-Saharan, along with expanding trade benefits to the Caribbean Basin.
The AGOA and MCA Modernization Act serves as an extension of AGOA, promoting policies that foster trade and cooperation, while also aiding eligible AGOA partners. In addition, the legislation seeks to create a website which will detail the benefits of the program and provide the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) greater flexibility with which to facilitate trade by permitting up to two compacts with one country. In addition, the act will strengthen the accountability of the MCC by making the criteria for reporting requirements stronger. Embassies in chosen countries will also be encouraged to promote export opportunities to the United States.
Though not perfect, the bill has greatly improved the access to sub-Saharan African countries. Moreover, both AGOA and the MCC have proven track records of spurring economic development across the continent of Africa. By quickly passing this legislation and sending it to the president’s desk for signature into law, the United States can expand existing programs and further position ourselves as global leaders of development, strengthen our own domestic job market and economy, while simultaneously protecting our national security interests.
Without a doubt, it remains in our economic and political interests to expand our economic relationships with the governments and business communities of Africa. This legislation will strengthen these key laws in that effort.
As for the president’s abrupt dismissal of Secretary Tillerson, at a minimum, it raises questions about the strength of the commitments he made while on the continent. According to John Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, the firing can be interpreted as “another example of the administration disrespecting Africa.”
Almost a year and a half into the Trump presidency, we still have no coherent strategy towards Africa. Many U.S. ambassadorial roles in Africa remain vacant, as do senior positions at the State Department. According to Dr. Bonny Ibhawoh of McMaster University, Tillerson’s firing “signals the progressive erosion of U.S. relevance in Africa’s development agenda,” calling the decision a “setback” to already-delicate ties.
Africa should be high on the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda. Sadly, it is not. This is not good and no one should pretend otherwise.
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.