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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 13th March 2018

AFRICA/UNITED STATES: After security talks and a bout of illness, Secretary Tillerson returns early to Washington DC to be sacked

Patrick Smith

As the week opens United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's diplomatic career seems to have ended after a brief swing through Africa. Partisans on both sides of the divide in Kenya are asking who got what at last week's summit at State House. Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari opts for negotiations, not military force, to try to rescue the students abducted at Dapchi and pressure mounts on South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa to sack his predecessor's security allies.

AFRICA/UNITED STATES: After security talks and a bout of illness, Secretary Tillerson returns early to Washington DC to be sacked
Billed as an 'apology tour' – in the wake of President Donald Trump's derogatory references to the region – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's trip to Africa last week must rank as one of the most ill-starred diplomatic missions in recent history. Tillerson's schedule of difficult talks on regional security in Addis Ababa, Djibouti, Nairobi, Chad and Nigeria was cut short, first by his illness in Kenya, and then by the news that Trump was about to sack him.

Hours after Tillerson arrived back in Washington late yesterday (12 March), Trump announced via Twitter that he was appointing Mike Pompeo, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, to succeed Tillerson as he thanked Tillerson 'for his service'. Only the timing was surprising.

Relations publicly soured between Tillerson and Trump last year after the Secretary of State declined to disavow press reports that he described the President as a 'moron'. Trump then chose to launch two of his biggest foreign policy initiatives – new tariffs on iron and steel and opening direct talks with North Koreanleader Kim Jong Un – while Tillerson was in Africa, 10,000 kilometres from Washington DC.

Apart from all that, Tillerson's diplomatic efforts in Africa were less than stellar. He launched his tour with a sweeping criticism of China's policy in Africa, accusing Beijing of presiding over an unsustainable build-up of debt in the region and signing opaque and poor-value contracts. For many African politicians, this was a bizarre line of argument when the US was cutting funding to its core Africa projects by more than a third.

After brief discussions on regional security in Ethiopiaand Djibouti, which both have extremely close ties to China, Tillerson's stopover in Nairobi started with a partial success. He tried to claim some credit for a conciliatory meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga on 9 March.

In fact, the rapprochement had followed mounting local and international pressure on the two leaders. Shortly after, Tillerson fell ill and was out of action for two days. He rounded up the trip with the briefest of meetings with Chad's President Idris Déby Itno (the two knew each other from Tillerson's time at ExxonMobil) and Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari.

Although his African interlocutors may have had some sympathy with Tillerson, given Trump's peremptory treatment of him, the management of his trip seems to reinforce the lack of importance that the current President attaches to Africa.

KENYA: Questions about a deal as opposition suspend its People's Assemblies in wake of Odinga-Kenyatta talks
More details are set to emerge this week of what was agreed on 9 March at the first face-to-face talks between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, leader of the National Super Alliance (Nasa) since last year's disputed elections.

Little about the substance of the negotiations has emerged since the meeting. But Odinga's side has suspended its call for People's Assemblies to be set up across the country as a rival power centre to Kenyatta's Jubilee government.

It is also unclear where this leaves the political alliance that underpins Nasa. In recent weeks, there were signs that Odinga's partners – Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi – had strong misgivings about Nasa's direction of travel. Neither Musyoka nor Mudavadi attended Odinga's 'inauguration' as 'People's President' in Nairobi's Uhuru Park last month.

Equally intriguing is what an Odinga-Kenyatta deal might mean for the power dynamics of the Jubilee government, in which Vice-President William Ruto is playing an increasingly assertive role. Some of Ruto's allies regard Kenyatta as a lame-duck president given their man's position as presidential frontrunner in 2022.

Should Kenyatta offer posts in the government to Odinga and allies, that could upset the current balance of forces that favours Ruto so strongly.

NIGERIA: President Buhari chooses negotiations – not military action – for return of kidnapped students
Nigerians were quick to show their outrage at the kidnapping by Boko Haram fighters of 110 girl students in Dapchi, Yobe State, last month and demanded rapid action from their government. Certainly, some of the action was rapid – President Muhammadu Buhari despatched three security ministers to the state within two days of the first reports. Then, the recriminations between rival wings of the security system started to complicate matters.

Buhari's announcement yesterday (12 March), after his meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that he would negotiate for the release of the students illustrates the government's lack of options less than a month after the abductions. It appears that negotiations, apparently involving payments and prisoner releases, have helped secure the release of other hostages held by Boko Haram, more than 18 months after their abduction.

This time, with the government acting more promptly, the negotiating track could yield better results. But it points to Boko Haram's ability, or at least that faction run by Abubakar Shekau, to evade surveillance or military action, particularly in the border area between Yobe state and the southern region of the Republic of Niger.

This latest major abduction is already having political repercussions. The #Bringbackourgirls campaign quickly organised solidarity rallies with the victims and their families. That awoke bad memories of the kidnapping of over 250 schoolgirls by Boko Haramfrom Chibok in Borno State in 2014, a year before national elections.

Whatever Boko Haram's motives – propaganda, recruitment or fund-raising – the Dapchi kidnappings could damage Buhari's electoral chances in the same way that the Chibok attacks undermined Goodluck Jonathan. Aware of these risks, Buhari has been more pro-active on the issue and has announced a presidential trip to the region.

All but Buhari's sternest critics concede that on his watch the military effort against the Boko Haram insurgents has cleared out the militants as an occupying force in the north-east and has been better coordinated with neighbouring states. But there are important provisos, such as doubts about the ability of Nigeria's military to counter Boko Haram as an insurgent, hit-and-run, terrorist force. The Dapchi attack has also shown the danger of inter-service rivalries in Nigeria, as well as the potential consequences of rights violations against civilians by military personnel. Anger at such incidents could bolster support for the insurgents.

SOUTH AFRICA: Pressure builds for a purge of police, prosecutors and spies as key suspects escape
Activists are pushing President Cyril Ramaphosa to launch the next phase of his fightback against corruption and 'state capture' by pushing out some of his predecessor Jacob Zuma's top security and financial officials.  Ramaphosa's campaign needs a shot in the arm if public reaction on the popular talk radio stations in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town is any measure.

News reports suggest that far from being cowed, those accused of wrongdoing such as Zuma's son, Duduzane, and some of the Gupta family are due to appear in parliament this week defending themselves at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

After a show of prosecutorial enthusiasm as Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as President, police efforts against malefactors seem to be running out of energy. Although Police Minister Bheki Celeis regarded as an effective 'hard man', he is battling against legions of Zuma appointees.

He and the other Ramaphosa reformers would be greatly helped by the exit of a band of top officials, widely regarded as Zuma stooges: National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams (Ramaphosa is said to have opened discussions with Glynis Breytenbach for the job); Tom Moyane as commissioner for the South Africa Revenue Service; and Arthur Fraser, Director General of the State Security Authority. As pressure mounts on the system, insiders expect to see some big changes in the coming weeks.

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