Turns out Rex Tillerson’s voyage to Africa was the trip of no return.
His tenure as secretary of state is finally ending, but with a whimper. His last hurrah as the top U.S. diplomat came in the form of a half-baked tour to Djibouti, Kenya, Chad, Nigeria and Ethiopia — all key U.S. allies on security and counter-terrorism. He got sick in Kenya and called off the day’s activities. He then cut short the Nigeria portion of the trip in order to come home to Washington on Tuesday to the news that President Trump had fired him and seeks to replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
So what was the point of it all? Couldn’t he have just stayed home and sent Africa an email? From an optics perspective, the administration no doubt needed to do something to soften the blow of President Trump’s “shithole countries” remarks (though Tillerson sidestepped the issue at news conferences), as well as address Trump’s nonsensical travel ban on Chad, which fields one of the most dependable fighting forces in West Africa in the fight against Boko Haram. Ultimately, many Africans in the countries he visited were unimpressed.
But Tillerson’s sleepwalker trip was a missed opportunity to signal a new course in U.S. relations with Africa, one that treats the continent as a source of economic growth and opportunities for investment. It was a reminder not only of America’s diminished moral standing, but also that Washington is sitting on the sidelines while other countries are becoming increasingly more engaged in Africa, for better or worse.
In Africa, China is now the rising tiger. It has been building up its military presence and increasing humanitarian spending, though only countries that tend to vote with China in the United Nations seem to get an influx of aid. Puzzlingly, Tillerson gave a tough speech on China-Africa relations not to an African audience, but at George Mason University in Virginia. He said that China’s approach to Africa could leave nations indebted to Beijing. From the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa the next day, Tillerson added a warning about Chinese investments, saying that African countries risked “forfeiting elements of your sovereignty as you enter into such arrangements.”
Such admonitions look weak considering that the United States lags behind China in Africa on multiple fronts. Beijing has been investing heavily in infrastructure, manufacturing and mining. According to a 2017 Ernst and Young report, American foreign direct investment in the continent fell 5.2 percent in 2016, while Chinese-backed projects increased by more than 100 percent over 2015. Most significantly, China is creating jobs: In 2016, jobs created by China hit an all-time high in Africa, according to the report, and were “more than three times the number of jobs created by the next biggest investor, i.e. the United States.” According to a 2017 McKinsey report, a survey of more than 1,000 Chinese firms revealed that China had created some 300,000 jobs for African workers. China has also invested in worker training and exchange programs for students.
As for the accumulation of debts to China, Tillerson’s criticism glossed over the fact that African nations still spend more on servicing their World Bank and International Monetary Fund debts than they do on health care and education.
This is not to play down China’s intentions. Beijing is in Africa to further Beijing’s interests, not Africa’s. Chinese companies have been accused of abusing African workers and of degrading the environment. Still, as an oil businessman serving a businessman president, a better message from Tillerson to Africa would have offered increased U.S. investment, infrastructure projects and help in strengthening the capacity of African regional blocs to trade among themselves. If the Trump administration is concerned about security and terrorism, then jobs, particularly for underemployed youths, are likely the most powerful counter-terrorism tool in the long run and could help stem the migration crisis that has been plaguing the continent and Europe.
In the end, perhaps the most notable gift to Chinese interests in Africa in the short term is the instability of the Trump administration and America’s loss of standing as a voice for democracy and human rights on the continent. An administration that has been riddled with corruption scandals, has attacked the press, has scuttled international agreements and has had its commander in chief retweet Islamophobic posts is in no position to preach respect for the rule of law. Tillerson’s departure, like the final trip that preceded it, sends the message to China that U.S. foreign policy under Trump is unserious, disjointed and not focused on the long term. Africa deserves much better.