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Africa is often an afterthought for US policymakers, generally ranking just above Australia and New Zealand in priority. The Middle East, China, Russia, and North Korea represent political and security threats. Europe is crowded with US allies. South America is geographically and economically vital to America. 

Africa Not a Priority for Washington

Africa, however, provides little reason for Washington to take notice, except in the infrequent event of military casualties. In 2017, four US servicemen were killed in Niger during an ambush. Prior to that, few can forget the attack in Benghazi attack when extremists killed four Americans in 2012. Both events unfolded in Saharan states. Nations below the desert line have their own significant security and economic issues, often under-reported in US mainstream media.

Trump Admin’s Renewed Focus on Africa

The Trump administration has begun to take notice, though, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stopped over in three sub-Saharan states on an African tour, the first for any US diplomat in nearly two years.

In Senegal, Angola, and Ethiopia, Pompeo and African heads of state discussed boosting military and economic ties. Islamic State terrorists and Al-Qaeda affiliates have commonly sought sanctuary in African strongholds after being pushed from the Middle East. The sub-Saharan part of Africa boasts a strong Muslim population, which Pew Research Center projected will grow to 385.9 million by 2030, making it a ripe area for terrorist organizations to recruit.

Senegal

In Senegal, Pompeo expressed appreciation for the problem of countering insurgents and pledged more US support following an ongoing military analysis. For Washington, security and economic growth across Africa are interlinked.

“We did have a lot of conversation about security issues here, about America’s role in those. We’ve made it clear that the Department of Defense is looking at West Africa to make sure we have our force levels right,” Pompeo said. “I was here as CIA director, so I know these security issues very, very well. We’ll get it right, we’ll get it right collectively; I’m convinced of that.”

Pompeo: ‘We’ll Deliver an Outcome That Works for All of Us’

“We have an obligation to get security right here, in the region — it’s what will permit economic growth and we’re determined to do that. And I’m convinced that when our review is done, we’ll have a conversation with not just Senegal, but all the countries in the region … We’ll deliver an outcome that works for all of us,” he continued.

Senegalese President Macky Small and his foreign minister, Amadou Ba, directly asked Pompeo for increased US military support. Presently, American forces on the continent primarily assist with training and intelligence missions.

Angola

In Angola, Pompeo praised anti-corruption efforts by the state government. It is currently cooperating with the International Criminal Court to bring former President José Eduardo dos Santos as well as pursuing fraud charges against his daughter, Isabel dos Santos. 

“A few weeks ago someone asked me what surprises me the most when I travel around the world and I have to tell you, it’s the absolute level of corruption,” Pompeo said. “Corruption is the enemy of nations’ growth and progress,” he told the group. “Here in Angola, damage from corruption is pretty clear.”

Washington desires a “sovereign, prosperous, and peaceful” Angola, he added. The US Treasury Department has assisted the Angolan government by developing a program to aid its fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism. 

Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the challenge is more economically-oriented. To that end, Pompeo announced $8 million more in US aid to combat a locust plague that threatens crops, bolstering a previous $800,000 commitment.

The state has made strong gains at becoming more democratic in the eyes of the Trump administration. The Ethiopian released thousands of political prisoners, taken strides to transition its economy from public-sector to privatisation, and permitted public protests without cracking down. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. 

Speaking from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Pompeo railed against socialism, China, and a South African land seizure plan. 

“Centralized planning hasn’t worked – look at the failed socialist experiments of years past in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and right here in Ethiopia. Even now, South Africa is debating an amendment to permit the expropriation of private property without compensation. That would be disastrous for that economy, and the South African people.” Pompeo declared. 

A free market with a strong private sector is the only way to stimulate the economy of any state, sub-Saharan nations included. With a majority of Ethiopia’s population under the age of 25, its economy depends on the jobs that only the private sector can provide, which will also encourage foreign investment. 

Pompeo Warns African Countries Against Accepting Chinese Help

China has increasingly devoted more attention to Africa through foreign direct investment, often developing infrastructure and cultural centers. Pompeo warned African leaders about accepting help from Beijing.

“Be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises,” he said, without naming names. “They breed corruption, dependency and instability.”

Pompeo’s African tour was sound in messaging and rhetoric, but it remains to be seen how much assistance the US government will actually provide. Talk is one thing, but action is something else entirely. With the American presidential election on the horizon, the Trump administration may run out of time to carry out new policies on the continent, potentially leaving the commitments for Trump’s successor to fulfill. 

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