Trump Transition on Africa: Asking The Wrong Questions


I am a Republican. And I am an Africanist. 20 years a Republican, and more than that working in Africa. So naturally, I read with keen interest the first indications of Trump’s Africa policy as reported on Friday January 13, by Helene Cooper of the New York Times, where she revealed the questions that the Trump transition team sent to the Department of State. The memo was unclassified.

In official Washington, questions submitted through the interagency process, or between branches of government, are indicative of priorities and policy preferences. They are telling.

My first reaction was, “No way!” This is just another example of fake news, like a month earlier, when the media suggested that the first African leader to meet President-elect Trump would be Congo’s Sassou-Nguesso, a man who altered the country’s constitution so he could extend his 32-year rule indefinitely. Within 24 hours of this report, Hope Hicks, a transition spokesperson, debunked the story. “No meeting had been set,” she said.  

But as of this writing on January 17, there is no comment from Hope Hicks and, according to Cooper, no one from the Transition Team would respond to the inquiries.

So I must conclude that these questions did indeed come from the Trump transition. I have worked with successive administrations on U.S. policy towards Africa, from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama. I have also worked with members of Congress, who, regardless of party, have been at the forefront of supporting peace, democracy, human rights and development.

I am utterly dismayed.

I have been trying to give the incoming Trump administration the benefit of the doubt, with the hope that a businessman, who broke down traditional barriers to entry into U.S. presidential politics, could serve as a model for an emerging entrepreneurial class in Africa, one seeking to change the entrenched political culture in their own countries. But so far, no luck.

The questions submitted to the State Department display an indifference, if not ignorance, of a rapidly changing Continent of 1.2 billion people. Here are the most offending questions as reported by the New York Times.

“With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen? Why should we spend these funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the U.S.?”

Where to start? First, anti-corruption efforts are now embedded in U.S. foreign assistance. The most sought after programming by African governments is the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) which is only accessible to nations if they pass indicators for good governance and investing in their people.

African leaders have become some of the greatest critics of institutional corruption like businessman, Mo Ibrahim. His annual Mo Ibrahim Index, which measures good governance, names and shames. And an empowered middle class is now throwing out of office leaders who self-enrich.

The second part of the question, why should the U.S. do anything when we have our own problems?  Because, Africa matters to energy, economic, health, environmental and U.S. national security, and if we abandon our space, it will be filled by America’s enemies and competitors. Do we not have enough recent examples in the Middle East where ISIS and Russia have replaced U.S. influence?

“Is PEPFAR (the Bush Administration policy which dedicated billions of dollars to fight infectious diseases, most specifically, HIV-AIDS) worth the massive investment when there are so many security concerns in Africa? Is PEPFAR becoming a massive, international entitlement program?”

Let’s look at the raw data and you tell me. Is it worth it for the US, according to the 2016 PEPFAR fact sheet, to control the epidemic of HIV-AIDS in African countries where the disease was decimating an entire generation? Is it worth it to test and give counseling to 74.3 million people on an annualized basis, to provide 11.5 million men, women and children with life-saving anti-retroviral treatment, to prevent 2 million babies from being born with HIV?

And the follow-on inquiry from the transition, has PEPFAR become a “massive entitlement?” Really? How can the word “entitlement” even be in the vernacular when the average per-capita income in sub-Saharan Africa is about $800.00 per year? That’s about two dollars a day. Entitled exactly, to what?

Space limits me from dissecting all of the questions, but this one I could not leave dangling as it is the wrong question, entirely: “How do we prevent the next Ebola outbreak from hitting the U.S.?”

The Trump team should have cared to know, “what interventions to support African nations were critical in arresting a disease that was estimated to infect 1.4 million people in just six months? How did we prevent one of the deadliest contagions in the world from killing a single American? What have we done to support the families of the more than 10,000 Africans killed, their orphans, the destruction of their livelihoods, and the decimation of the existing healthcare infrastructure?”

It is unlikely that we will know who wrote these questions on African policy. Who cleared them? If they represent the views of president-elect Donald Trump, or if their views are supported by Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State nominee? And unfortunately, there were few questions on Africa directed to Tillerson during last week’s confirmation hearing.

Good thing for continued checks and balances. Hopefully Africa’s friends on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will find opportunities to submit questions for the record to Rex Tillerson, to flesh out his views, and see if the report from the New York Times truly represents an early policy direction on Africa, or if we can put this opening salvo in the trash bin of the transition, where it belongs.

Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a DC-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016)