United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began his first Africa tour yesterday by meeting with the African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat, discussing security and counter-terrorism, trade and development, corruption and conflict in an hour-long meeting at the continental body’s headquarters in the Ethiopian capital.
However looming over the meeting was Trump’s alleged description of Africa as a “shithole” in January, which forced the president to pen a letter reaffirming his commitment to the continent and dispatch his top diplomat to try to heal rifts.
Faki, however, insisted the slur was now in the past. “I received a letter written by President Trump to myself and I shared that with other African leaders. I believe this incident is in the past,” he said.
Tillerson’s five-nation Africa tour to include Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria has been described by analysts as a “listening tour”, with no deals or initiatives due to be announced.
“The purpose of my trip is to listen to what the priorities of the countries here on the continent are and see where there is good alignment,” said Tillerson.
Tillerson praised the AU as a “force for good”. He and Faki discussed continued US support to African counter-terrorism forces in Somalia and the Sahel but no new concrete commitments were given.
The diplomat met Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu as well as Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who resigned earlier this month amid a political crisis in Africa’s fastest growing economy.
Tillerson urged Ethiopia to move on from a state of emergency “as quickly as possible” and called for citizens in the tightly-run country to be given “greater freedoms”. Analysts highlight the choice of countries visited by Tillerson as a sign of the United States’ focus on security issues on the continent.
Chad, Kenya and Nigeria are all battling Islamic extremism, with help from the United States, while Djibouti hosts the only permanent US military base on the continent. Tillerson and Faki discussed continued US support to African counter-terrorism forces in the Sahel and Somalia but no new concrete commitments were given.
“We have not yet won that battle in Somalia and we must stay at it,” Tillerson said. His visit is also a bid to counter the mounting perception that the continent is a low priority for the Trump administration, with US-Africa policy ill-defined and key ambassadorial and State Department posts unfilled.
Tillerson’s department, meanwhile, submitted a 2019 budget request that would cut US health programs in Africa by a fifth and diplomatic programs by more than a third. However he said his visit was “an indication of the importance the continent plays in the future of the US, both in security and from the economic standpoint.”