ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — All is well now between the United States and Africa with the visit of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the chairman of the African Union commission said Thursday as he received the top U.S. diplomat.
Tillerson is on a five-nation tour that began in Ethiopia with a visit to the African Union. It is the highest-level visit to sub-Saharan Africa by a member of the Trump administration and comes after derogatory comments by President Trump in January outraged leaders around the continent.
“The incident is behind us; the visit by the secretary of state today is proof of the importance of relations between the different parties,” Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a joint news conference with Tillerson. “I want to add I am satisfied with the discussions I had with the secretary of state, notably the engagement of the United States to support Africa in the battle against terrorism.”
Tillerson ignored two questions about the comments attributed to Trump, emphasizing only the U.S. relationship with Africa, which until now has been largely undefined by the administration.
“I think the U.S. commitment to Africa is quite clear in terms of the importance we place on the relationship,” he said. “The president himself wrote a personal letter to the chairperson reaffirming the importance of the relationship.”
The letter came after Faki in a speech to the African Union described Trump’s comments as “profoundly” shocking and “conveying contempt, hate and desire to marginalize and exclude Africans.”
During the trip, Tillerson will also visit Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria, even as many top Africa posts in the State Department remain unfilled and little has been said of the administration’s priorities for the continent.
“The purpose of my trip to this continent is to listen,” Tillerson said Thursday. “I think it’s important to listen to what the priorities of the continent are and see where there is good alignment.”
Tillerson added that Africa’s growing population and economies make it increasingly important to the world.
The main theme of the trip appears to be one of security, as each of the countries on the itinerary plays an important role in the U.S. security strategy for the region. Ethiopia is one of the biggest contributors to peacekeeping troops in Africa and, alongside Kenya, a key ally in the fight against the Islamist militant faction al-Shabab in Somalia. Djibouti is home to the sole permanent American base in Africa, and Chad is a major ally in the fight against extremism in the Sahel region. About 7,500 U.S. troops and contractors are in Africa, mostly in the eastern part.
Faki of the African Union said discussions were focused on U.S. support for African efforts to maintain security on the continent, particularly in the arid Sahel region bordering the Sahara Desert and the African force in Somalia.
“We asked the United States to support current initiatives to set up more durable funding for ongoing African operations, including AMISOM and in the Sahel, the G-5 Joint Force,” he said, referring to the African Union Mission in Somalia.
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.
In Ethiopia, Tillerson’s first stop, China has built an electric rail line connecting the capital to a port in neighboring Djibouti. Beijing also 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 with often dubious terms.
“We think it’s important African countries carefully consider the terms of those investments,” Tillerson said. He added that Chinese-funded projects do not “bring significant job creation locally” and risk stripping countries of control over their resources and development projects.
“Our message is for countries to consider what the terms of those agreements are and not forfeit any elements of sovereignty,” he said.
U.S. aid also tends to be accompanied by American views on human rights and governing. Many African leaders have noted that these concerns rarely come up when dealing with China.
The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia last month issued a strong statement about the state of emergency recently declared in the country following the resignation of the prime minister and unrest in the countryside. The U.S. ambassador was even summoned to explain the statement.
Tillerson, however, did not back down, citing the excellent nature of the countries’ relationship, which he said meant he could urge Ethiopia to increase freedom in the country and end the state of emergency.
“We recognize and share concern with the government about incidents of violence and loss of life, and we do firmly believe the answer is greater freedom for people and not less,” he said. “We recognize the transition underway in Ethiopia, the first voluntary transfer of power, and I view this as a positive symbol of this very young democracy in Ethiopia.”
The leaders of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition will meet Monday to begin the process of selecting a new prime minister. There have been clashes throughout the country over the past two weeks, including fatalities, as protesters have called for greater democracy.