Secretary of State Rex Tillerson begins his first official trip to sub-Saharan Africa with a pledge to help shore up trade, civic freedom and good governance in countries that President Donald Trump has harshly criticized.
U.S. budgetary priorities tell a different story. Tillerson heads to the continent with the Trump administration advocating cuts of more than a third in aid to African countries and programs, along with deep reductions to global health initiatives.
With several U.S. allies struggling to rein in Islamist extremist groups, and China increasingly making inroads on the continent, the U.S. security relationship will be the focus.
While the top U.S. diplomat has a broad itinerary on his five-nation trip, Africa experts say Tillerson’s planned stops in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria underscore the emphasis on security — and away from the traditional U.S. role as advocate and partner for good governance and development.
“The common thread among them all is a security partnership,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The substance of what he conveys may be more diverse, but given the signals coming out of the White House and administration to date, I imagine that security is top of the order, along with cementing relationships with partners that the U.S. considers important security players.”
While Tillerson announced $533 million in new aid to fight famine and food insecurity on the continent in a speech Tuesday before his departure, State Department officials have downplayed the possibility of big announcements or new initiatives during the trip.
Adding to a sense of drift, U.S. exports to Africa in 2017 hit their lowest since 2006, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, while senior State Department posts for the continent remain unstaffed.
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