by Richard Mammah
As Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari prepares to meet his US counterpart in the White House on Monday, analysts are wondering whether this engagement could mark the belated beginning of the Trump administration’s Africa policy.
Most observers did not expect US President Donald Trump, who was elected on a promise to always put “America First”, to immediately focus his efforts on Africa after taking office. Yet they also did not expect him to completely disregard an aggregate mass of 55 nations that make up over a quarter of the globe’s sovereign political entities.
Unfortunately, this has largely been the case so far.
It took the Trump administration seven months to attempt filling the position of assistant secretary of state for African affairs, with the current occupant being given only an acting role and a one-year term.
Also, the US president himself did not try much to engage with Africa. The only direct engagement Trump has had with leaders from sub-Saharan Africa was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January this year. He met up with some leaders on the sidelines of the summit, and he also had a one-on-one meeting with his Rwandan counterpart, the then-incoming president of the African Union, Paul Kagame.
Yet these meetings have not been perceived by many as genuine attempts by the US president to reach out to African nations, mostly because the Davos summit came only days after Trump’s alleged “sh****le countries” remark which generated furore in Africa and beyond.
Some African leaders even threatened to boycott Trump’s headline speech at the summit in protest of his alleged disrespectfulness towards the continent. So, most discerning observers classified Trump’s meetings with African leaders at the summit as “damage control” efforts and nothing more.
In the following days, the administration continued with its attempts to ease Africa’s concerns about US attitudes towards the continent, with Trump penning a flattering “open letter to African leaders”, designed to mollify them before the January summit of the African Union.
In the letter, Trump laid out some general parameters for his administration’s future relations with Africa. The US president said that he wants to “underscore that the United States deeply respects the people of Africa” and that he is committed to “strong and respectful relationships with African states as sovereign states”.
He also made reference to American soldiers “fighting side by side” with their African counterparts in combating extremism on the continent, and that he is committed to expanding “free, fair and reciprocal trade” with Africa and ensuring better safeguards for “legal immigration”.
While generally well received, the letter was criticised for being vague and not revealing any specific policy plans. The only concrete commitment in the letter, after all, was the announcement that the then-Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, would make an “extended visit” to the continent in March.
However, Tillerson’s African tour also failed to be a turning point in the Trump administration’s relations with the continent. He had to cut the trip short after finding out that he was to be dismissed from his position.
In light of this problematic history, all eyes are now on Buhari, who will be the first leader from sub-Saharan Africa to meet up with Trump in the White House. So far, the limited information we have on the nature of the upcoming meeting suggests that Trump and Buhari plan to mainly discuss the future of bilateral relations between the two countries.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement about the meeting issued on April 15 that “President Trump looks forward to discussing ways to enhance our strategic partnership and advance our shared priorities.”
The priorities include “promoting economic growth and reforms, fighting terrorism and other threats to peace and security, and building on Nigeria’s role as a democratic leader in the region”, she said.
While it is understandable for the two leaders to focus on their respective country’s interests, Africa expects Buhari to not only represent his country, but also use this opportunity to remind the US president the importance of US-African relations and the necessity for a clear, proactive Africa policy.
Rather than exclusively addressing his own trademark three-point agenda of “fighting corruption, tackling Boko Haram and kick-starting the Nigerian economy”, the Nigerian leader should also make the bigger case for policies that affect all of Africa during the visit.
In this regard, he has good precedence in another former Nigerian leader, General Murtala Muhammad, who had spoken truth to Western power at the extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in 1976.
“When I contemplate the evils of apartheid, my heart bleeds and I am sure the heart of every true blooded African bleeds. Africa has come of age. It is no longer under the order of any extra-continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful,” Murtala had said.
Now, Africa expects Buhari to follow his predecessor’s steps and speak for Africa in front of a US president who has managed to not only ignore, but also offend, an entire continent in the short time that he had been in office.
Not many people, however, are convinced that Buhari is up to this task. Only a few weeks ago, the Nigerian leader snubbed African leaders who gathered in Kigali, Rwanda to sign the most ambitious self-help economic growth initiative in recent African history – the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement. Buhari said in a statement that he decided not to attend the signing ceremony “to allow time for broader consultations”. Yet, his decision was seen by many African leaders as a “stalling” strategy signalling that Buhari believes Nigeria will be worse off under the deal.
In other words, Monday’s meeting will be between a US president who puts “America first” and a Nigerian president that puts “Nigeria first”. Yet the reality is that the only way for Nigeria, and any other African country, to stand up to Trump’s America is to band together. For the sake of not only Nigeria, but also all of Africa, Buhari needs to step up to the task and use this meeting as an opportunity to demand respect, attention and most importantly a well-articulated policy towards Africa from the US president.