By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Hours before American secretary of state Rex Tillerson was scheduled to land in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his main political rival, Raila Odinga, held a press conference in which they vowed to mend fences and work together. This was the first time they would meet since a bitter election dispute that started almost 7 months ago. Hitherto, Mr Tillerson’s 5-nation Africa trip, which started this week, was written off as one focused on security and not necessarily concerned with other cogent issues germane to helping Africa move ahead. The five countries Mr Tillerson is visiting, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria, have been grappling with one security issue or the other. Even so, African countries would also be interested in knowing whether they need worry about a negative surprise from the Donald Trump administration in regard of American trade policy; in light of its recent import tariffs on aluminium and steel. How much of a factor Mr Tillerson’s imminent arrival in Kenya was in getting President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga together remains to be seen. But after their public reconciliation today, all the negative headlines about Kenya, most of which were related to their caustic political standoff, have become largely irrelevant. They said the right words. And their body language suggested they were being sincere. Needless to say, it is a very positive development. Of course, there remains the issue of the worrying indebtedness of the Kenyan fiscal authorities and so on.
Look beyond security
Mr Tillerson’s visit is also opportune for Ethiopia, currently in transition and under a suspect state of emergency, as prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn takes a bow. The American foreign minister did not pull his punches upon arrival there, asserting that what Ethiopia needed at this time was a freer society. How much of an impact his words would have also remains to be seen. But judging from recent political developments, the ruling Tigray elite have little choice but to allow for a more representative government. And considering Ethiopia is still largely aid-dependent, Mr Tillerson’s remarks could be differential. The American foreign minister is also expected in Abuja in a few days. It would be the most high profile visit by an American official to Nigeria in recent times. Nigerians, who were more than a tad disappointed that former American president Barack Obama did not deem it fit to stop by, would nonetheless be looking forward to Mr Tillerson’s visit. Incidentally, he would be arriving at a time when the recent abduction of more than hundred school girls in Dapchi, northeastern Nigeria, is still fresh in their memories. I suppose they would want to ask him if America made an offer of assistance to the Muhammadu Buhari adminstration like it did the Goodluck Jonathan government for the Chibok girls. Other African countries would love to get a sense of American policy on their issues as well. South Africans have been a little taken aback for not being on Mr Tillerson’s itinerary, for instance. The American view of the new Cyril Ramaphosa administration’s land expropriation without compensation policy is one some nervous market participants would be interested in. When asked about the matter at a conference call ahead of Mr Tillerson’s trip, acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs Donald Yamamoto did not give a definite view.
Competing for influence
In light of the foregoing, there is a risk of overestimating the influence of the Americans in Africa. They are not as important as they once were. Mr Tillerson has certainly shown a realism in this regard. In fact, the focus of his first speech in Addis Ababa was preponderantly focused on China’s now enviable hold on the continent. He mentions the growing indebtedness of African countries to China, in particular; cautioning them not to sell their sovereignty away. Coming from the Americans, who through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were once similarly overbearing on African politics and policy, and perhaps still are, it seemed a little uncanny. But it speaks to the concern of the Americans about the Chinese. Already, the Americans plan to clarify from China in a meeting scheduled for the spring what their operational military goals in Africa are. That meeting, if it holds, would likely be dominated by Chinese military activities in Djibouti. In February, Djibouti terminated its contract with Dubai’s DP World for the management of Doraleh Container Terminal at the Djibouti port. American intelligence has it on good standing that the Chinese, who already have a military base in the country, would likely be gifted the port; with potentially “significant” consequences for American military operations in the country. Incidentally, Mr Tillerson’s Africa trip coincided with a similar one by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. While in Ethiopia, Mr Lavrov and Mr Tillerson stayed in the same hotel but did not meet. Before arriving in Addis Ababa, Mr Lavrov was in Harare to meet President Emmerson Mnangagwa to agree military and mineral deals. The Americans have more than the Chinese to worry about, it seems.