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Vol 58 No 3

Published 3rd February 2017

Calling Trumpsville

Washington's radical changes in policy and alignments are starting to hit African governments and economies

Until the outgoing Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, told the organisation's summit in Addis Ababa on 30 January that the United States' travel ban on seven countries with Muslim majorities presaged 'turbulent times', the continent's reaction to Donald Trump's presidency had been muted. The best guess among many African officials was that the lack of any reference to Africa in Trump's election campaign – bar a sideswipe against his rival Hillary Clinton on Libya – suggested that there wouldn't be big changes in US policy.

That now looks mistaken, especially on migration and security. As Dlamini-Zuma was sounding her warnings about the Trump government's entry ban, backed up more diplomatically in a subsequent speech by the new United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, hundreds of thousands of people were protesting against the order in the USA and Europe.

The ban includes AU members Libya, Somalia and Sudan and although it was introduced as a security measure, many officials now see it as a prelude to a wider crackdown on immigrants in the US, particularly the millions of undocumented people living in the country. Estimates of how many Africans fall into that category start in the low millions. One New York-based civic activist predicted deepening social divisions if a government-backed immigrant round-up gathered momentum, as well as fierce legal battles over the status of 'sanctuary cities' in the USA where illegal migrants can get local legal protection.

An African diplomat at the UN echoed a memorandum by dissident officials in the US State Department, arguing that the entry ban would prove counter-productive, boosting accusations of Islamophobia. It would also risk 'serious blow-back', with several countries rethinking security cooperation, he added.

Such warnings would not have overly concerned retired General Michael Flynn, Trump's National Security Advisor, who takes an extremely robust view on countering Islamist movements, armed and unarmed. He set these out in a book, co-authored with historian Michael Ledeen, called 'Field of Fight: How we can win the Global War against Radical Islam'. Among policy ideas circulating in Washington, we hear, is placing the Ikhwan al Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) on the US terrorist list.

Ban of brothers
Such a measure would be warmly endorsed by President Abdel Fatah el Sisi, who has banned the Ikhwan in Egypt, where it was founded by Hassan el Banna in 1928. El Sisi was also the first foreign head of state to congratulate Trump on his election win on 7 November. Yet his influence among some of the Trump team extends much further, particularly with regard to policy towards his western neighbour, Libya.

Cairo knows how Libya resonates in Washington. Trump's Republican Party allies accused President Barack Obama's government, particularly Secretary of State Clinton, of criminal negligence in failing to provide heavier security for US diplomats in the eastern city of Benghazi, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US officials died during an attack by Islamist fighters on 11 September 2012. Since Trump's election, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up support for their ally in Libya, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and his Libyan National Army (see Libya Feature, Front lines in flux).

Haftar's political stock has been rising, as has his financial muscle, since his forces wrested control of Sirte from Da'ish (Islamic State) in November and seized the surrounding oil facilities, outflanking the Misuratan militias. Visiting Russia the following month, Haftar was promised more arms and weapon systems. Then one of his special envoys flew to Washington to meet the incoming government. We also hear credible reports of US private military companies operating out of the Jinja military airbase in Uganda to train more militia fighters in Libya. Haftar, who was once financed by the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow Colonel Moammar el Gaddafi's regime, is following a script close to Gen. Flynn's book.

Indeed, Flynn's co-author Ledeen takes Haftar extremely seriously. Close to French businessman and security consultant Jean-Yves Ollivier and Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Ledeen wants the USA to get more active in Libya (AC Vol 41 No 17, Bemba's boys). That may have prompted an ill-fated but much-publicised bid by Sassou-Nguesso, the AU's envoy on Libya, to meet Trump to discuss Haftar and North African security. That would have given Sassou some kudos in Washington and delivered a snub to Obama's officials, who had declined to give him an audience with the President.

After the news leaked, it was announced that Trump, who was enjoying his Christmas holidays in Florida at the time, would have no scheduled meeting with Sassou. Yet a new Libya policy involving US support, diplomatic and perhaps financial, for Haftar is under discussion. That would mean pushing against the current UN-backed peace plan and the government in Tripoli under Faiez el Serraj. It would also put Washington and Moscow in close cooperation on North African security, cutting out most of the European governments but reopening Libya to US oil companies and technology.

One Libyan politician called the policy 'Syria light', comparing Russia's weapon deliveries and air support for Haftar with its backing for President Bashar al Assad in Damascus. Flynn and his team are understood to be highly critical of African counter-insurgency efforts, including those backed by US forces, in Nigeria, Somalia and the Sahel.

Peter Pham, who is likely to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (see Box, Roll call of the Trumpeteers), is outside these discussions, despite his deep interest in security. Instead, he has been making a more conventional case for US involvement in Africa. Pointing out that over a quarter of the global labour force will be in Africa by 2050 and that it currently hosts six of the world's fast growing economies, Pham painstakingly lists the continent's reserves of platinum, chrome, phosphate, bauxite and cobalt, as well as extensive deposits of rare earth elements.

Pham is also a strong supporter of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade deal which gives African countries better market access in the US. Some Trump officials question its value, partly because it helps oil-producing states, but Pham argues that it boosts productivity and has created more than 120,000 jobs in the USA (AC Vol 49 No 5, Bush, the farewell tour). Richer states such as South Africa will face more push-back on trade terms from Washington as it tries to boost US companies.

If Pham gets the post, US policy could harden against Congo-Kinshasa, where he wants much more pressure on President Joseph Kabila to leave office. As a convinced backer of Morocco's claims to the Western Sahara, Pham would have welcomed Rabat's readmission to the AU at the latest summit.

On foreign aid, Pham argues for greater national self-interest and more rigorous monitoring. He cites a
US$110 million credit to Mali, which used the money for an energy contract with China's Sinohydro. Compared to its $5.5 billion aid to Afghanistan and $3.1bn. to Israel, the US aid of $10 bn. for all 54 states in Africa (including $1.8 bn. for Egypt) is far less significant on a per capita basis. Many expect that most aid budgets except Israel's will be cut.

Trump's choice for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has publicly endorsed the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a multi-billion dollar programme introduced under President George W. Bush to boost distribution of anti-HIV and tuberculosis drugs. Tillerson was backed by two of Bush's top officials, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who regard the PEPFAR initiative as part of their government's legacy.

Although some Trump officials have referred to it as 'global welfare', PEPFAR is likely to survive. The future of other US funding for international health programmes is understood to have been the subject of a private meeting between Trump and US philanthropist Bill Gates early last month.


Roll call of the Trumpeteers

In the fraught days after the 7 November presidential election, questions to policy specialists in Washington about who would be on President Donald Trump's Africa team were met with blank stares and long silences. After which the name of Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, would invariably come up as the most likely choice as the next Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. Born in Paris to Vietnamese parents in exile, Pham speaks several European languages but his main academic interests are security in Africa and the Middle East. That gives him a chance with the new order in Washington DC. He also argues fluently that doing more in Africa is in the US national interest.

Also in the frame for the top Africa job at the State Department are: veteran military intelligence officer and specialist on international crime syndicates, Charles Snyder (AC Vol 45 No 23); Kate Almquist Knopf, Director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in the Department of Defense, with strong academic credentials but with a brand of Republicanism, including friendships with Democrats such as the outgoing US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, which might be too liberal for the current zeitgeist (AC Blog, AFRICA/UNITED STATES: Tussling for influence in Trumplandia); and Jeffrey Krilla, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Rex Wayne Tillerson, Trump's choice for Secretary of State was, as Africa Confidential went to press, likely to be confirmed after Senate hearings on 1-2 February. He would then make the final choice for the top diplomatic posts. As a long time Chief Executive of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson has a close knowledge of Africa's big oil producers, Nigeria and Angola. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil's Director for Africa, Walter Kansteiner, in Washington recently, is tipped for a senior job in government, perhaps Under Secretary for Political Affairs. Kansteiner, who was Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in George W. Bush's government is taken seriously by Tillerson and they share similar views on economic policy and government relations (AC Vol 44 No 19). On the periphery of that network is Emmanuel Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources in Nigeria, who was formerly legal counsel to ExxonMobil in a particularly tricky patch for the company there (AC Vol 57 No 19).

With the appointment of the uncompromising retired General Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor, who does not have to be screened by Congress, Trump sent a clear message about his priorities (see Feature, Calling Trumpsville). Flynn, whom President Barack Obama dismissed as Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, wants robust backing for nationalist, anti-Islamist leaders in North Africa and the Middle East. His Africa Director, former US Marine Corps Sergeant Robin Townley, strongly shares this view. Townley has extensive experience as a counter-intelligence officer and interrogator in Africa and the Middle East.

If he doesn't get the State Department job, Snyder would also be a strong candidate to replace Amanda Dory as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs. Insiders see Snyder as a 'cool head' with an encyclopaedic knowledge of conflicts in Africa and the proliferating armed factions dating back to the days when Chester Crocker ran Africa policy under President Ronald Reagan. Once the State Department's Senior Representative on Sudan, he took the US lead on the talks that brought South Sudan to independence. 

If Krilla doesn't get the top Africa job, a well-informed lobbyist tells us that he may replace Amos Hochstein as Special Envoy in the Bureau of Energy Resources, an office in the State Department that specialises in relations with major oil producers around the world, especially in Africa and the Middle East.

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