When Rex Tillerson toured some of Africa’s “shithole” countries

Right before he was fired, outgoing US Secretary of State visited six African countries. Here's why.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson checks out a traditional Ethiopian coffee at the US Embassay in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 8, 2018. Image Credit: US State Department.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” “Why do we need more Haitians?” “Take them out.” –  these words, allegedly uttered by US President Donald Trump, referred to the immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries to the United States.

These comments garnered various reactions from US lawmakers, Africans –both on the continent and in the diaspora, including their governments — as well as from the international community. Many of these reactions expressed the anger and hurt caused by these comments and included the sharing of beautiful images that directly challenged this perpetuation of negative stereotypes. Most notable was the reaction on the part of the African Union (AU), the continental body, and the African ambassadors serving the United Nations. In an unprecedented challenge to the US, the AU expressed its “shock, dismay and outrage” stating that it “strongly believe[d] that there [was] a huge misunderstanding of the African continent and its people by the current [Trump] Administration.” Not only did the AU denounce these comments but it demanded a retraction and an apology to all Africans and people of African descent in the diaspora. In addition, the African ambassadors issued a statement that strongly condemned “the outrageous, racist and xenophobic remarks” and echoed the AU’s calls for a retraction and apology. This statement went on to highlight that these remarks illustrated the “continued and growing trend from the US administration towards Africa and people of African descent to denigrate the continent and people of color.”

Prior to the 30th AU summit in January 2018, Trump wrote a letter to the African leaders that emphasized the US’s deep respect for the people of Africa and that it “profoundly respect[ed] the partnerships and values [it shared] with the African Union, member states, and citizens across the continent.” Some viewed this as an apology for his earlier remarks but US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley’s position that “Africa is very important for the United States” fell short of that. Now, US Secretary of State (basically the country’s foreign minister), Rex Tillerson, is on a five-country visit of Africa and it appears that all is forgiven.

On the first stop of his official tour of Africa, ahead of visits to Djibouti, Nairobi, N’Djamena, and Abuja, Tillerson paid a visit to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. In a joint news conference with Tillerson, AU Chairperson, Moussa Maki Mahamet, stated that the “shithole” incident was behind them and that Tillerson’s visit was “proof of the importance of relations between the different parties.” When asked about Trump’s comments, Tillerson added that the US commitment to Africa was clear and that, in recognition of this relationship, Trump “himself wrote a personal letter to [Mahamat] reaffirming the importance of this relationship.”

Wait, what? Where is the anger that prompted the AU’s reaction in January? If anything, why was this conversation between the two of them not shared with those that were offended, i.e. the African people?

There is much at stake during this visit considering the United States’ need to regain favor on the continent as evidenced by Tillerson’s critiques on China’s role in Africa. At the onset of his trip, Tillerson argued that China’s involvement on the continent was increasing African debt. Further, at the AU in Addis Ababa, he implied that, by trading with China, African countries were at risk of undermining their sovereignty. However, in making these comments Tillerson is also telling sovereign nations how to manage their affairs raising questions as to how the AU will negotiate this stand-off between China and the US.

While this tour focuses on matters concerning counterterrorism, democracy, governance, trade and investment, there is a clear emphasis on security as essential to stability. In a speech given at George Mason University prior to his departure, Tillerson highlighted the need to prevail against terrorist groups and importance of regional cooperation to “disrupting [these] attacks and denying [terrorist groups] the capability to plan and carry them out in the future.” This position is not surprising given the video recently released by the Islamic State that purports to show the attack of three US soldiers in Niger. As Tillerson stated in his remarks, “terrorism knows no borders” and the reality is that the US needs African countries to serve as its staunch allies in this “war on terror.”

Tillerson’s visit to Djibouti, home to Camp Lemonier, made it clear that the US military prioritizes its ability “respond to threats of terrorism towards the US and African region.” Kenya is also a critical US ally in fighting terrorism in this region but has been dealing with a number of internal issues since its flawed elections last August. However, shortly before Tillerson’s arrival in Nairobi, President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader, Raila Odinga, vowed to begin the process of reconciliation as “brothers,” a development which Tillerson lauded as “a very positive step.” As with the AU’s shift in attitudes following Tillerson’s visit, this sudden call for reconciliation raises a number of questions. Why is now the right the time to resolve their differences after months of violence and appeals for the leaders to address these divisions? Tillerson’s visit might be the answer considering the strategic partnership that exists between the two countries. It appears that the maintenance of strong, stable relationships with the US provides greater incentive for leaders than the assurance of accountability to their citizens.

As a critical point of contact for the continent, the AU and its leaders, are often challenged for the AU’s apparent inability to clarify its position on key political issues. One can understand as financial relationships are a serious consideration for an organization that still depends heavily on external support. For example, the AU’s partners still fund significantly more of its budget than its member states, which causes a serious conflict of interest. What does this mean for the organization and its agency? How can the AU continue to be, as Tillerson called it, “a force of good” on the continent? How can citizens hold these same leaders accountable to this?

Tillerson’s visit could serve as an opportunity for African countries to negotiate their position on the global stage but we will have to wait and see how the next stops on this “shithole” tour go.

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