Glimpses of Trump’s Foreign (Human Rights) Policy in Africa [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

“Guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated. These are our values… not our policies…   Policies change… our values never change.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “Remarks to U.S. Department of State Employees”, May 3, 2017.

Author’s Note: When I wrote my first commentary  on Trump’s likely foreign policy in Africa in December 2016, I confidently declared that President Trump would do nothing but “watch Africa mired in corruption, human rights violations, bad governance, wars, conflicts and violence with indifference and nonchalance.” I declared, “I do not expect the Trump Administration to pay attention to my analyses or policy recommendations on Africa.” I audaciously put out the challenge that “if I am proven wrong in the slightest, I ‘shall eat crow’, the ultimate blasphemy for a vegan.”

Given recent developments in the Trump Administration’s policy towards Africa, I am frantically scrambling to find out where they sell the equivalent of vegan chicken for crow.

Trump has surprised the hell out of me in his approach and perspective to U.S. policy in Africa. The questions his transition team sent to the State Department in January were right on the button and mirror the questions I have been raising for years. These are questions about stolen U.S. aid money, how al-Shabaab has been used to milk the American taxpayer for more aid and to avoid criticism on an atrocious human rights record, how the dragon is eating the eagle’s lunch  in Africa, and the bogus trade deals that favor corrupt African regimes. It is all in my letter to Trump.

For years, I have been advocating that the U.S. should starve the corrupt  African dictators and feed the people. Now the Trump Administration says there will be significant cutbacks in U.S. aid to corrupt African regimes. The Trump Administration will impose the biggest cuts to the most entrenched African dictatorships: Ethiopia will lose $132.1 million, Uganda $67.8 million and Rwanda and Tanzania $50.7.

For years, I have been advocating U.S. disentanglement from brutal African dictators. That too seems to be happening. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis went to the Middle East and Africa to discuss counterterrorism, he visited the tiny nation of Djibouti, not Ethiopia, the counterterrorism darling of the Obama administration.  When Trump called African leaders for the very first time for a chat in February, he called  Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari and South African president Jacob Zuma, and no other African leaders. While Obama wined and dined African dictators at the White House, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson canceled  a meeting with the African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki and offered to have him meet with “lower level State Department officials”.

For years, I have been advocating greater accountability and transparency in USAID’s operations in Africa. In December 2016, I recommended to president-to-be Trump to “restructure USAID so that it no longer serves as a mechanism for laundering American tax dollars to African and other tin pot dictators throughout the world.” The Trump Administration will impose a 30 percent cut in USAID’s budget and close down 30 of its 80 field missions.  Not only will USAID’s budget be slashed, it will also be on the block for “reorganization”!

For years, I have been urging the Obama administration to guide U.S. Africa policy by cherished American values. Obama scorned American values when he declared a dictatorial regime in Africa that claimed to have won 100 percent of the seats in parliament, “democratically elected”. The Trump Administration unabashedly declares U.S. policy will be driven by “our fundamental values  around freedom, human dignity, and the way people are treated.”

While I take no credit whatsoever for the impending changes in U.S. Africa policy, I am supremely gratified to know that so many issues I have been passionately writing about week after week for nearly 11 years are now resonating deeply and catching the attention of the Trump Administration.

The various recommendations I have made over the years for a fundamental change in U.S. policy in Africa now seem to be on the verge of becoming a reality in the Trump Administration. Candidly, I have been perplexed by the impending changes. I believed Trump would simply follow in the footsteps of Obama in Africa and watch the American taxpayer taken to the cleaners.

In this commentary, I try to peer through Secretary Tillerson’s recent remarks to State Department employees to get a general sense of the direction of U.S. foreign policy in Africa. The old guard of Chicken Littles at the State Department are proclaiming that Trump’s “America First”-driven foreign policy will mean the end of times. Perhaps, only their own. They cannot accept the fact that a change is gonna come, but it will!

Tillerson is speaking my language on Africa and I like what I hear. Actions speak louder than words, of course. So I shall wait for the other shoe to drop on African dictators!


Last week in “Remarks to U.S. Department of State Employees”, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out the foundations of the Trump Administration’s foreign and human rights policy.

As a human rights advocate jaded on Barack Obama’s forked-tongue empty rhetoric of  the “wrong side of history” and “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institution”, Tillerson’s message was refreshing, unambiguous and encouraging.

Human Rights

Tillerson emphatically asserted that the guidepost for U.S. “foreign policy and foreign affairs” will be  the creed of “America first”. “Translated” in practical terms, “America first” means three things: 1) The U.S.  will “enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military”, and America’s military allies must carry their own weight and will not get an easy ride on the backs of American taxpayers. 2) U.S. trade and economic relations with the rest of the world, particularly China, must be “brought back into balance”. This could require renegotiation of trade deals which give undue advantage to other countries. 3) U.S. foreign policy will be propelled by “our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, and the way people are treated.” Tillerson emphatically asserted, “policies change, our values never change.” Those who do not  like or share our values should not come to the U.S. with cupped hands and panhandles for handouts. In a speech of 6511 words, Tillerson devoted a stunning 1,057 words to talk about American values and their role in the future of American foreign policy.

Tillerson rhetorically asked, “How do we represent our values?” He offered a realistic answer. If “we condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.” He insisted, “we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people” and act consistent with our values.

In developing an “overarching strategic approach” for the “execution” of foreign policy, Tillerson said the salient question will be, “where are our allies?” The U.S. will determine its allies and partners on a county-by-country and region-by-region basis.

Tillerson said many governments do not like the American values-based foreign policy song he is singing. “And I hear from government leaders all over the world: You just can’t demand that of us, we can’t move that quickly, we can’t adapt that quickly, okay?” Tillerson’s answer is like it or not, a change is gonna come. It is not going to be business as usual.

I would like to sing Sam Cook’s song, “A change is gonna come” to Africa’s dictators. “It’s been a long, a long time coming/ But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will…/”

Changes in U.S. policy in Africa

Tillerson mentioned Africa 15 times in his speech. The telltale signs of policy changes to come are becoming more apparent.

U.S. policy in Africa “really boils down to” effective counterterrorism actions to defeat ISIS and depriving it a haven in Africa. The question for the Trump Administration is, “How do we develop policies and bring regional players together to address these threats of ISIS and counterterrorism?”  How can the U.S. stop the cancerous terrorist networks from spreading in Africa?

Tillerson’s stated that U.S. policy will principally focus on preventing Africa from becoming a terrorist haven and to safeguard African nations by “disrupting” “terrorist networks that weave their way through Africa”. He said,  “The continent of Africa is so important from a national security view [that] we cannot let Africa become the next breeding ground for a re-emergence of a caliphate for ISIS.”  The U.S. will continue “looking at Africa for potential economic and trading opportunities” and pursue  “health initiatives, because Africa still struggles with huge health challenges.”

The U.S. will be selective in its counterterrorism partnership and will take a hands-on approach in getting the job done. When U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited the Middle East and Africa recently to “reaffirm key U.S. military alliances” and engage with strategic partners”, he visited the tiny nation of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa where the U.S. maintains its largest military base. Ethiopia was conspicuously absent from the “strategic partner” lineup.

In late March, Trump ordered airstrikes against al-Shabaab and approved a Department of Defense proposal “to provide additional precision fires” to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces.  U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM) announced recently that a contingent from the 101st Airborne Division has been deployed in Somalia, the first since 1994, to assist the Somali government with logistical and training support. Last week, an American soldier  was killed and two others wounded in Somalia during an attack.

U.S. Aid to Africa 

The self-serving African doomsayers and Chicken Littles are proclaiming the end of days in Africa if U.S. taxpayers cut back on the free money they send to African dictators. The African scaremongers  are using all sorts of tactics to continue with business as usual and keep American tax dollars flowing into their pockets.

Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank told the Financial Times that American taxpayers must continue to fork up aid money to prevent Africa’s “triangle of disaster of high youth unemployment, extreme poverty and environmental degradation related to climate change from taking over”. He argued that if the U.S. cuts back on aid, that will be tantamount to driving Africa’s unemployed youth in to the hand of terrorists. He claimed that the preferential trade access to African countries under the  African Growth and Opportunity Act had helped nonoil African exports to the US reach $4.5bn annually and contributed to $18bn of US exports to Africa. Adesina did not mention China built a USD$4 billion ghost city in Angola called Kilamba using Angola’s credit line.

Scaring the American taxpayer to fork over more billions to African dictators is the stock in trade of prominent “experts” and “philanthropists”. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has argued that “there are now sixty years of experience in deploying development assistance as a tool in promoting economic development in low-income settings.” Last month, Bill Gates in an op-ed piece argued that giving aid to African countries to promote health, security and economic opportunity “keeps Americans safe.” He urged, “aid delivers phenomenal benefits, and for a bargain. It represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget, not even a penny out of every dollar. It is some of the best return on investment anywhere in government.”

Prof. George Ayittey counters, “The “more-aid for Africa” campaign has become so steeped in emotionalism, overt racial sensitivity, and guilt (over colonial iniquities) that pragmatism, rationality, and efficiency have been sacrificed.” He argued, “Helping Africa is a noble exercise that has become a theater of the absurd, in which the blind are leading the clueless.”  Economist Dambissa Moyo similarly argues, “Giving alms to Africa remains one of the biggest ideas of our time”, but the “evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made Africa poorer and the growth slower.” Moyo blames the “insidious aid culture” for making “African countries more debt-laden, more inflation prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment.”

As a lawyer and political scientist, my questions about the endless flow of American tax dollars to African dictators are completely different.

Should an African dictatorship that spends nearly $2 million for lobbying to wine and dine American politicians to get more aid from American taxpayers?

On January 18, 2017, the regime in Ethiopia signed a  “Memorandum of Understanding” agreed to pay SGR Government Relations, Lobbying (Washington, D.C) $150,000 per month for a total of USD$1.8 million to wine and dine American politicians to help them get more American tax dollars. Should hardworking American taxpayers bankroll such a regime?

Should American taxpayers continue to dole out their hard-earned dollars when there is “so much corruption in Africa” and taxpayers do not know “how much of our funding is stolen?”

The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa asserts, “illicit flows from Africa could be as much as US $50 billion per annum. This is approximately double the official development assistance (ODA) that Africa receives and, indeed, the estimate may well be short of reality.” Why should American taxpayers bankroll African empires of corruption?

How long must Africa be the beggar continent of the world? When will the culture of panhandling in Africa end?

In 1967, at the 4th Summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity, Chief Obafemi Awolowo spoke prophetically: “Today, Africa is a Continent of COMPETING BEGGAR NATIONS. We vie with one another for favours from our former colonial masters; and we deliberately fall over one another to invite neocolonialists to come to our different territories to preside over our economic fortunes.”

In 2017, Africa is still a beggar continent!

If U.S. taxpayers continue to bail out African regimes year after year, what incentive will they have to solve their own problems?

Because of U.S. aid, African regimes shift the risk of economic mismanagement, incompetence and corruption to the U.S., which to date has imposed no penalty or disincentive for poor governance, inefficiency, corruption and repression. U.S. aid has become  a fail-safe insurance to repressive African regimes buffering them from a tsunami of democratic popular uprising.

(There is a joke about the current “prime minister” of Ethiopia who was  asked if he was concerned about drought and the spreading famine in his country. He replied he was not concerned about drought in Ethiopia. His only concern is drought in the wheat fields of Kansas, where his meal ticket comes from.)

Why shouldn’t the U.S. demand the highest standards of accountability and transparency in the aid it gives to Africa?

USAID in Africa is a hot mess. The USAID’s Inspector General’s Audit of USAID’s Financial Statements for Fiscal Years 2016 and 2015 pointed out “significant deficiencies pertaining to USAID’s processes for (1) reconciling intragovernmental transactions, (2) complying with Federal accounting standards for reimbursable agreements, (3) maintaining adequate records of property, plant, and equipment, and (4) promptly investigating and resolving potential funds control violations.” Is it not high time to reorganize USAID?

Should the U.S. give into the threat that if the U.S. stops giving money to Africa, Africans will get their aid from China giving China controlling influence?

This is the biggest lie perpetrated on American taxpayers. The fact of the matter is that “The bulk of Chinese financing in Africa falls under the category of development finance, but not aid. The billions of dollars that China commits to Africa are repayable, long-term loans.”

Why should American taxpayers continue to bankroll African dictators who do not have the simple decency to say, “Thank You”?

In September 2016, Taban Deng Gai, the first vice president of South Sudan “thanked China and other members of the international community for helping the world’s youngest country in its efforts to end the conflict and rendering humanitarian aid to the people in need.” He did not thank the U.S of A. Suffice it to say, without American arm-twisting and pressure, it is unlikely that there would have been a South Sudan.

When China built and delivered the African Union headquarters in 2012, African dictators were falling head over heels thanking the “people and government of China” and fawning over the “generosity of the Chinese government.”  But after the U.S. gave Ethiopia billions of dollars in aid, there was not a single publicly recorded thank you by the black apartheid regime in Ethiopia!

Since the mid-1960s, U.S. taxpayers have bankrolled African dictators. African regimes still relentlessly demand more and more money from American taxpayers. There must come a time when Ethiopia and the rest of Africa must be forced to kick their addiction to aid and charity. The time is now!

The 2018 Department of State/USAID Budget

The President’s 2018 Budget request for the State Department and USAID is $25.6 billion in base funding, a $10.1 billion or 28 percent reduction from 2017. There will be continued funding at current levels on HIV/AIDS treatment under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and anti-malaria programs. U.N. contributions to the U.N. will be reduced and the U.S. will not contribute more than 25 percent for UN peacekeeping costs. Economic and development assistance will be directed “to countries of greatest strategic importance to the U.S.”, and to minimize corruption, there will be “rightsizing of funding across countries and sectors.” There will be “significant funding of humanitarian assistance” but only “on the highest priority areas”. The U.S. will insist on “asking the rest of the world to pay their fair share” of humanitarian assistance.

There will be “reorganization and consolidation of the State Department and USAID  in order to enable effective diplomacy and development.”

There will be cuts to “multilateral development banks, including the World Bank, by approximately $650 million over three years”.

The African Development Foundation will see a $28.2 million cut in funding.

According to one report the State Department budget will be cut by $10.9 billion (28 per cent), from the current $38 billion, to $27.1 billion. Among African countries, “Ethiopia will suffer the biggest cut at $132.1 million followed by Uganda at $67.8 million. Rwanda and Tanzania will suffer a cut of $50.7 million each while Kenya will see a funding cut of $11.78 million, South Sudan $10.6 million and Burundi $9.4 million.” Somalia will get an increase of  $36.1 million.

Is it all too good to be true?

African dictators who have been living high on the hog on American taxpayers’ dime are screaming bloody murder. The army of USAID “experts” and “professionals” (whom I affectionately call international poverty pimps) picking the pockets of the American taxpayer will now be forced to find an honest living. The old foreign policy establishment is up in arms about Trump’s “America first” foreign policy stance. They proclaim the advent of doom and gloom. They say the Great Tribulation is at hand, in Trump’s hand. The fact of the matter is that they never thought they could lose their privileged position of running American foreign policy out of their back pockets (connected to the American taxpayer’s pocket, of course) catering and pandering to African dictators.

Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice laughed uncontrollably when she said with a straight face that the regime in Ethiopia which claimed to have won 100 percent of the seats in the 2015 election was “democratically elected.”  U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had no qualms declaring the same regime a “young democracy”. The Washington Post condemned Sherman for her “make-believe” statements. Gail Smith, USAID Administrator, completely exonerated the ruling regime from responsibility when she claimed famine and starvation in Ethiopia is solely attributable to “drought”.

I laugh at the scaremongering foreign policy experts and professionals and has-been diplomats. I am glad to see an end to their fake diplomacy of coddling African dictators.

The naysayers say Trump will change his mind in a New York minute and he is completely unpredictable. He will flip-flop in his Africa policy as he has in other areas.

I do not believe Trump will flip-flop on Africa. The reason is simple. In his policy towards Africa, he started by asking the absolutely right set of questions. Asking the right questions almost always yields the right answers!

Some have already complained to me privately that I stick out like a sore thumb writing approvingly of Trump’s Africa policy. The fact of the matter is that the Trump administration is starting and planning to do what I have been begging the Obama administration to do for years. I defended Barack Obama’s Africa policy for years and made all sorts of excuses for him. In the end, I declared, “Shame On Me For Being Proud of President Obama!”

As I have previously said, I do not care about the motives of those in power when they do the right thing. I rarely question when the right thing is done for the wrong reason. It is never too late to do the right thing; but there is never a right time to do wrong thing.

Is Trump’s emerging policy right for Africa? Will he follow-up? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I shall be going around discreetly to find out if there is the equivalent of vegan chicken for crow.

Just in case!


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