Many African leaders were incensed by reports that Trump used a derogatory term to refer to African countries in a private White House meeting in January. Tillerson’s trip was announced in the wake of the uproar and was interpreted as an attempt to make amends.
Witney Schneidman of the Brookings Institution said that for Tillerson, the trip will probably be focused on hearing African leaders’ concerns.
“I think this trip seems to be pretty much a listening tour by Secretary Tillerson,” he said at a briefing ahead of the trip.
In a speech ahead of the tour, Tillerson, who visited the continent many times as chief executive of ExxonMobil, laid out the challenges Africa faces.
“By the year 2030, Africa will represent about one-quarter of the world’s workforce,” he said at George Mason University on Tuesday. “And by the year 2050, the population of the continent is expected to double to more than 2.5 billion people, with 70 percent of them under the age of 30.”
“To understand where the world is going, one must understand that Africa is a significant part of the future,” Tillerson added.
The 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 United States’ signature programs.
In his speech, Tillerson lauded these same programs, including free-trade initiatives, a program to bring electricity to Africans and one to provide AIDS treatment to millions across the continent.
Ultimately, however, the main theme of the trip may be one of security. Ethiopia is one of the biggest contributors to peacekeeping troops on the continent and, together with Kenya, one of the key allies in the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia. Djibouti is the home of the sole American base in Africa, and Chad is a major ally in the fight against extremism in the Sahel region.
Under Trump, there have been more-aggressive U.S. attacks against extremists in Somalia, and recent deaths in Niger have highlighted the growing role played by U.S. special forces in training regional militaries.
Increasingly, the United States has been eclipsed in Africa, at least economically, by China, which has aggressively boosted its activities on the continent — extracting resources, providing loans and building much-needed infrastructure across the continent.
In Ethiopia, Tillerson’s first stop, China has built an electric rail line connecting the capital to the port in neighboring Djibouti and is involved in scores of other projects throughout the country that have made Chinese nationals a ubiquitous sight on the streets.
Tillerson, however, laid out a robust defense for the contrasting style of aid given by the United States on the continent, opting for capacity building and private-sector development rather than loans for projects.
“The United States pursues, develops sustainable growth that bolsters institutions, strengthens rule of law and builds the capacity of African countries to stand on their own two feet,” he said. “We partner with African countries by incentivizing good governance to meet long-term security and development goals.”
American aid also tends to be accompanied by American views on human rights and governing, and Tillerson will probably have to address the political crises in Kenya and Ethiopia, while Nigeria is facing a key election next year. Djibouti and Chad are also often criticized on human rights issues.
Many African leaders have noted that these concerns rarely come up when dealing with China.
The United States remains the biggest contributor of humanitarian aid to Africa, and Tillerson announced during his speech Tuesday a new package of $533 million to combat ongoing crises in several parts of the continent.
The aid, which includes tens of thousands of tons of food, is divided among Ethiopia, parts of which are ravaged by a severe drought, Somalia, Nigeria, South Sudan and the countries of the Lake Chad basin, where millions are teetering on the edge of famine.
Since the start of 2017, the United States has provided nearly $3 billion in humanitarian aid, despite earlier threats from the administration to cut funding.
Max Bearak in Nairobi contributed to this report.