Last week, President Donald Trump hosted a luncheon for African heads of state in New York City as part of a U.N. General Assembly session. Video of the meeting sparked widespread ire on social media after he referred to the nonexistent country “Nambia” and told his guests, “I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.”
President Donald Trump hosted a luncheon for African heads of state in New York City as part of a U.N. General Assembly session. (za.usembassy.gov)
But Trump’s comments also belie a larger issue, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a researcher with the Brookings Institution. Since he assumed office in January, Trump has nominated only 12 ambassadors to African nations. The lack of representation means the majority of countries on the continent do not have a conduit to maintain diplomatic relations with the U.S. Prior to his inauguration, Trump recalled all ambassadors who served under former President Barack Obama.
“The problem isn’t that Africa isn’t a front-burner issue in the White House, that is only the case in exceptional circumstances,” Felbab-Brown told Al Jazeera. “It’s that the competent, highly skilled bureaucracy has been made totally dysfunctional by so many positions not being confirmed.”
Out of the 54 African countries, Trump has only nominated ambassadors to 12 countries: Algeria, Angola, Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and South Sudan. Neither Trump or White House representatives have offered an explanation as to why so few ambassadors have been named.
However, Kim Elliott, a trade expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development, believes bilateral diplomacy with Africa is little more than an afterthought for Trump’s administration.
“This administration has just shown almost zero interest in Africa,” Elliott told Reuters. “It has not been a big focus, there is no sign at all that it has engaged the president’s interest.”
Trump’s proposed 2018 budget includes significant cuts to multiple environmental protection, education, public housing and social services programs throughout Africa. Perhaps most significant is his call to slash funding for the African Development Foundation, which provides thousands of dollars in grants to business enterprises on the continent. The foundation’s Web site says its efforts yielded “$100 million in local economic activities” in 2016.
Trump’s decision to reduce funding for community-serving programs may also hamper public perception of the U.S. across the African continent. According to a recent Pew survey, “U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership,” South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Senegal and Kenya showed a 15 percent drop in positive perception of the U.S. under Trump’s presidency.