It is not often I follow the itineraries of foreign dignitaries on their adventures across the globe. Meetings are staid, boring and too much of a photo-op. But not Rex Tillerson. The US Secretary of State’s visit to Africa which ended a day early, on Monday, had me hooked, and for all the wrong reasons.
First, the itinerary read like a parody. Of all the countries on the continent Tillerson could have visited, his team selected Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Nigeria and Chad. In so doing, the administration has placed “security” as the one and only foreign policy priority when it comes to Africa.
All five countries are strategic to US interests - be it in the fight against Boko Haram in the Horn of Africa, the wrestle for Djibouti (China is building its first foreign base here), or against extremist groups in the Sahel. There are an estimated 8 000-10 000 US troops spread across the continent, in states that are assisting America in its shadow wars. Tillerson’s meetings indicate that political values have little to do with the relationship; it could be an authoritarian Ethiopia, a despotic Chad, or a politically unstable Kenya. So long as the country sustains America’s defence industrial base, however, the deal is on.
Prior to the trip, some African observers argued that Tillerson would look to repair some of the diplomatic “damage” prompted by US President Donald Trump’s “s***hole” comments in January. But these expectations always seemed mismatched considering where Tillerson was headed.
All five countries are part of the American war machine. Since when did puppets turn the strings on their masters? If Tillerson had travelled to Ghana or Botswana, where there was significant public and government backlash to Trump’s “s***hole” comments, perhaps his trip would have been marginally compelling.
The second reason I followed Tillerson’s journey came out of his pre-travel comments that held much promise for the condescension to come. Tillerson, speaking at George Mason University just days before his trip, took a dig at China’s rising profile on the continent. Tillerson said the US partners with African countries, incentivising good governance to meet long-term security and development goals.
“This stands in stark contrast to China’s approach, which encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth.”
The wisdom flowed. Following his visit to Djibouti, home to the only American base on the continent, Tillerson advised Africans to be wary of China’s deepening and enlarging role on the continent. His advice seemed sincere, earnest and left me in stitches. Reading between the lines, Tillerson seemed to be saying: “Don’t let the Chinese take you away from our clutches.”
As is abundantly clear, American influence, important and powerful as it may still be, has reduced dramatically over the past two decades.
Today, China is the continent’s biggest trade partner. It is again surely parody that in 2018 an American foreign minister would come storming in with nothing more than a security detail, realise that other nations are engaging in more substantive manners, then offer unsolicited advice on how Africans ought to navigate their friendships and partnerships.
But there is more. It was with much curiosity I watched Tillerson’s visit to Chad, one of three African countries on Trump’s travel ban. I wonder if it was awkward in any way for the Secretary of State to travel to a country whose citizens are banned from travelling to the US. Not at all, it seems.
When asked about the ban by journalists, Tillerson said he “wanted to ensure that the people of Chad understand they are welcome in the US”.
Tillerson went on to blame the conflict on Chad’s borders and weak controls over the Chadian passport.
I was also curious if it was at all embarrassing for Tillerson to be in a country with little political freedoms; President Idriss Deby has been in power since 1990.
Again, not at all. “I have known President Deby for many years and I appreciate him receiving me My visit follows the dedication of a new US embassy building here in N’Djamena last October."
I thought by the time Tillerson reached Nigeria - his last stop - he might surprise us all with some grand masterful health or education policy or vision for US-Africa relations. Perhaps South Africa would finally get an ambassador and the State Department a permanent assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
I thought maybe, just maybe, he was going to come good by offering to replace open-pit loos with porcelain flush toilets or relaunch Trump University in downtown Lagos or Nairobi for African students. I cannot say I am disappointed. We certainly don’t want Trump involved in any local matters - be it toilets or fake degrees.
Instead, Tillerson got sick, cut short his trip and ran back home to “more pressing matters” like looking for a new job.
** Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.
*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.