US President Donald Trump has been under fire for calling African countries ‘shitholes’. Failing to renegotiate relations with the US, Africa risks merely condemning and decrying racism but not much more, say the writers. Picture: AP
US President Donald Trump has been under fire for calling African countries ‘shitholes’. Failing to renegotiate relations with the US, Africa risks merely condemning and decrying racism but not much more, say the writers. Picture: AP

The White House’s flagrant ignorance on Africa

By David Monyae and Bhaso Ndzendze Time of article published Jan 16, 2018

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IN A session with the US Congress on immigrant protection, President Donald Trump, as only he can, labelled Haiti, El Salvador, and certain African countries as “shitholes”.

The response has been global and swift. The United Nations said it was impossible to describe his remarks as anything other than racist, while the Holy See labelled Trump’s words as “particularly harsh and offensive”.

For its part, the African Union said the remarks were “clearly racist”.

Salvador Sánchez, the president of El Salvador, said Trump’s words had “struck at the dignity of Salvadorans”.

Robin Diallo, the US chargé d’affaires to Haiti, was urgently summoned to meet the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, to discuss the remarks. The former Haitian president, Laurent Lamothe expressed his dismay, saying Trump had shown “a lack of respect and ignorance”.

Across Africa there was diplomatic fury. The government of Botswana, nominally pro-West, called Trump’s comment “reprehensible and racist” and said that the US ambassador had also been “summoned to clarify whether the nation was regarded as a 'shithole' country after years of cordial relations”.

Uganda’s foreign affairs minister called the remarks “unfortunate and regrettable”.

The African Group of UN ambassadors confessed to being “extremely appalled at, and strongly condemns the outrageous, racist and xenophobic remarks by the president of the United States of America as widely reported by the media”.

The African Union said it was alarmed by Trump’s language. “Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice”.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane chimed in, stating that “the comments referred to are abhorrent”.

“He confirms a patronising view of Africa and promotes a racist agenda. Africa/US relations will take strain from this, with a leader who has failed to reconcile humanity.

“The hatred of Obama’s roots now extends to an entire continent.”

All these statements come from a moralising standpoint, and miss the fact that the continent is capable of incredible agency vis-à-vis the US - this is equally true of the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the more than 300 pages which compose Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, there is not a single paragraph that speaks on Africa. This is telling.

It betrays not only a disregard for the continent, which is nominally seen as a bastion of dictators and disease in Washington, but also the extent to which Trump’s cabinet, especially the State Department, are not exercising their minds on Africa, and its importance to the US.

It has often been said that American presidents, including Barack Obama, have a certain level of cynicism regarding Africa, but they have always subscribed to the classic diplomatic maxim, most eminently phrased by the 19th century French diplomat Maurice Talleyrand: “God gave man speech so he could conceal his thoughts.”

But this is a new low; one which will leave a number of ambassadors with a lot of cleaning up to do.

For President Trump to label Africa, along with other developing regions, as “shitholes” is to betray a glaring ignorance of Africa and its overwhelming importance to America’s strategic objectives, global soft power and economic partner.

It is also worth asking how these places got to be in the state which he defines in these unseemly words.

His ignorance therefore is not only towards Africa, Haiti and El-Salvador but also about the United States; an empire of such far-reaching power that it has touched, and tarnished, every continent on the face of the Earth; including these three regions.

To begin with, the Haitian economic situation is incomplete without understanding the role of the US.

The creole pig species was unique to Haiti, where it was a significant part of the rural economy - it was relatively easy to maintain, the droppings from the pigs could be used to fertilise the coffee crops which could then be sold for profit.

In the early 1980s, an African swine fever epidemic broke out in neighbouring Dominican Republic.

There was a fear among US officials in the United States Agency for International Development that the disease would spread to Haiti and then the US where it would hurt US agriculture.

All the pigs in Haiti were executed by US officials with permission from the Haitian dictator, driving the species into extinction.

The farmers were compensated with Iowa pigs imported from the US. But these replacements proved difficult to maintain, as they needed expensive feeds.

Consequently, the living standards of the already impoverished Haitian rural dwellers declined considerably further.

The White House also disparages - and therefore forfeits any prospective conciliatory activities with pockets of Africa wherein it has done considerable damage.

From sponsoring coup d’etats (Liberia, the DRC), to imbalanced trade deals, to beggar-thy neighbour policies proliferated through the arms of the IMF and the US-controlled World Bank, and the stubborn agricultural subsidies which benefit no one, least of all the US population, except the agricultural lobbyists.

Most glaring are Libya, today in a power vacuum and a site of slave auctions after the US, under Obama and Clinton, removed its leader.

Even attempts at apologising were patronising. The US government’s Africa Media Hub made an effort to limit the diplomatic damage of the president’s words.

Without directly referring to Trump’s statement, a tweet said the “US remains committed to working together w/Africans to realise the promise of a more peaceful, more productive, more prosperous 21st century Africa”.

In other words, Africa is seen as a beggar to be helped rather than the important strategic partner that it is.

The statement fails to take the full scope of the sacrifices made by Africa in support of America, and America’s strategic interests. US bases straddle the totality of the continent, from Morocco to Kenya, Egypt to Eritrea.

After the attacks of September 11, the US established the headquarters for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in Djibouti.

The task force works with nations in East Africa to detect, disrupt and defeat transnational terrorism in the region. By 2003, some 2000 US troops were thought to be in Djibouti to monitor terrorist movements in the region as part of the new task force. The 2000 US troops based in Djibouti also conducted military exercises in preparation for the war in Iraq.

Uganda has been the most active in co-operating with the US in its war on terror indeed it was the first to deploy troops under Amisom into Somalia in March 2007.

To date, Uganda has deployed 12 battle groups into the Mission area. This has not been without controversy, as it has come with US aid it has been portrayed as a “proxy war” on behalf of the US.

Al-Shabaab gained much of its notoriety for its responsibility for the 2013 attack in Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 67 people were killed and 175 were injured by gunfire. The act was in vengeance for Kenyan deployment of its troops against the fundamentalist militia in Somalia a few weeks before at America’s prodding.

And herein lies the tragedy; nothing will likely come of it. The powerful do as they will, while the less powerful must be content. The structure of the world is one that is fundamentally lopsided, defined by imbalances of every kind.

The AU, UN, and the litany of offended countries will merely be offended. That is, until they start recognising their leverages and harnessing their agency.

Renegotiating their relations with the US is a starting point - failing which, Africa risks being a furnace for mere “condemnation in the strongest terms”, decrying “racism” and not much more.

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