Seeking to Heal a Rift, Tillerson Pledges New Aid to Africa
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson sought to mend fences with Africa on Tuesday as he embarked on a five-nation tour across the continent, promising $533 million in new aid just months after President Trump disparaged some African countries with a vulgar term.
In a speech before leaving Washington, Mr. Tillerson trumpeted American efforts to improve access to electricity across Africa and provide critical drugs for millions of people to treat H.I.V./AIDS. He did not mention, however, that the Trump administration has proposed slashing funding for both programs, along with other aid efforts seen as vital in Africa. Mr. Tillerson is scheduled to visit Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria.
Though it will be his first trip to the continent as secretary of state, Mr. Tillerson noted that “in my previous life, I spent quite a bit of time in Africa.”
As chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Mr. Tillerson was known as a take-no-prisoners negotiator who pushed deals in African countries such as Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Angola that have been widely accused of corruption and poor human rights. Exxon Mobil received stinging criticism for its work with the government in Nigeria, in particular.
In 2009, Exxon Mobil was under investigation in Nigeria after allegations surfaced that the oil company struck an illegal license renewal deal after being outbid by competitors. The investigation is continuing. Additionally, in 2012, an Economic Community of West African States court ruled that Exxon, along with other oil companies, violated human rights in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta.
Much of Mr. Tillerson’s speech on Tuesday focused on security concerns. It reflected a profound shift by the Trump administration to increasingly center on military measures in Africa, from an approach that had emphasized development and diplomacy.
Africa’s future success, Mr. Tillerson said, “is dependent on security, the condition necessary for economic prosperity and stronger institutions.”
The United States now has about 6,000 troops in Africa, about one-third of whom are Special Operations forces who are training local militaries and hunting groups linked to the Islamic State. The only permanent American installation on the continent is Camp Lemonnier, a sprawling base of 4,000 United States service members and civilians in Djibouti that serves as a hub for counterterrorism operations and training. The recent deaths of four American soldiers in Niger focused attention on the growing militarization of the American relationship with Africa.
The United Nations and other multilateral organizations also have enormous military commitments in Africa, Mr. Tillerson said. He said the United States last year supported more than 27,000 African peacekeepers from over 20 African countries — but did not discuss the administration’s efforts to slash support for those missions and question the utility of peacekeeping.
Mr. Tillerson announced a new commitment of nearly $533 million in additional humanitarian assistance to fight famine and food insecurity resulting from conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Lake Chad Basin. Famine in the region threatens 20 million people, the worst such combined crisis in recent memory.
At every stop on his trip this week, Mr. Tillerson is likely to confront feelings bruised by Mr. Trump’s remarks in January that not only derided African countries with a crude term but also cast doubt on whether Nigerian visitors to the United States, if allowed to enter, would ever go back to their “huts.”
Despite such remarks, Mr. Trump remains broadly popular in Nigeria, where people admire his frankness. But Africa’s most populous country is in political and economic turmoil, racked by violence from Islamist terrorists in its north, bloody feuds between farmers and pastoralists across the nation, and periodic threats of violence from both militants in its oil-lined delta creeks and separatists calling for secession.
Though it is among the world’s top oil producers, Nigeria is facing a fuel crisis — people wait for hours at gas stations in some cities. Unemployment is soaring.
In Kenya, Mr. Tillerson must cope with the country’s stunning slide away from democracy, and in Chad with the outrage that followed that nation’s inclusion last year in Mr. Trump’s travel ban. Chad remains a key ally in the fight against terrorism.
The United States fears such crises will only intensify in the coming decades as Africa’s population growth far outpaces its economic progress. Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050, with 70 percent of residents under the age of 30.
“This growing population of young people, if left without jobs and a hope for the future, will create new ways for terrorists to exploit the next generation, subvert stability and derail democratic governments,” Mr. Tillerson said.
He called for larger private-sector investments. And he criticized the increasingly aggressive push into Africa by China, which has become a crucial source of infrastructure projects and development aid as it seeks to secure the raw materials needed to supply its ravenous manufacturing sector.
China, Mr. Tillerson said, uses “opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them the long-term, self-sustaining growth.” He also promised to push countries in the region to do more to isolate North Korea as part of the administration’s pressure campaign on Pyongyang.
Africa experts, while critical of the Trump administration’s policies toward the region, praised Mr. Tillerson’s decision to travel there.
Brahima S. Coulibaly, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the trip demonstrates that Africa is at least on the Trump administration’s radar. However, Mr. Coulibaly said, the list of countries “reinforces the perception that security, indeed, is the overwhelming focus.”
Gardiner Harris reported from Washington, and Dionne Searcey from Dakar, Senegal. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
SOURCE : NEW YORK