THE first official visit by then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria was greatly anticipated because it was seen by many as a sign that President Donald Trump was finally focusing on African issues, after a low-key approach to the continent since he came to power in January 2017.
But Trump once again put a spanner in the works by unceremoniously sacking Tillerson just as he ended his trip – overshadowing the visit. For Tillerson, his tenure lasted for just 405 days, the shortest for any Secretary of State at the start of an administration since 1869 when Elihu B. Washburne served for only 11 days.
This month’s trip was not Tillerson’s first to the continent, having made several trips there while heading ExxonMobil between 2006 and 2017. However, given the sacking of Tillerson, who had a strong interest in Africa, many on the continent are now wondering where things will lead to with the change at the helm at the State Department
One Africa analyst in London explained: ‘Despite the anti-climactic end to Tillerson’s first official visit to Africa, I believe that the underlying message from the US is that the Trump administration will support Africa in its attempts to provide electricity to the majority of the people on the continent who do not have access to it right now.’
The Power Africa programme launched by former President Barack Obama in 2013 is still a strong focus for the Trump administration although the current approach is different from that of the Obama administration’s. Unlike Obama’s opposition to the use of coal to provide electricity, Trump supports the use of this fossil fuel for generating power.
African countries with massive reserves want to access coal to generate power that will spur the continent’s economic growth and poverty reduction programmes.
Tillerson had prepared for his trip by setting out his mission in a speech at George Mason University in Virginia. He said that planning of the trip began last November after a ministerial meeting with 37 African countries and the African Union hosted at the State Department in Washington.
‘Our conversation during that summit focused on counterterrorism, democracy and governance issues, and strengthening trade and investment ties with the continent. As we look ahead, this administration seeks to deepen our partnership with Africa, with an aim of making African countries more resilient and more self-sufficient.
‘That serves our partners, and it serves the United States as well by creating a stable future for all of our children and our grandchildren.’
The issue of terrorism was at the top of his agenda, noting that its ‘long reach…threatens to steal the future of countless individuals.’ Tillerson said that terrorist attacks in Africa rose from less than 300 in 2009, to more than 1,500 in each of the years 2015, 2016, and 2017.
‘In response to this growing threat, I designated, and the United States sanctioned, seven ISIS-affiliated groups, including ISIS-West Africa and ISIS-Somalia and their leaders in an effort to cut off the resources that these groups use to carry out attacks.’
In bolstering security in Africa, Tillerson argued that “greater stability will, of course, attract greater United States trade and investment with African nations, leading to further development, building on what we have accomplished through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA.’
It has been the cornerstone of US trade policy in Africa for almost two decades now, with substantial progress being made. For instance, total trade in non-oil goods has more than doubled from $13 billion a year to almost $30 billion.
Tillerson said the US was ‘encouraged by the actions of many of our African partners who are seeking ways to expand trade with” his country. He referred particularly to Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo’s recent trip to the US where he addressed the National Governors Association, the first African president to do so.
‘He talked about his desire – his people’s desire – to transition from poverty to prosperity in a generation,’ Tillerson said. ‘The United States wants to help enable the public and private sectors in Africa and here at home to make that a reality.’
Tillerson said of Power Africa 2, which is to expand the programme: ‘Our aim is to provide 30,000 megawatts of power by the year 2030 – or 60 million new connections – to reach 300 million Africans.’
At the “Powering Africa Summit” in Washington earlier this month, Mark Green, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which oversees Power Africa, spoke of ‘expanding beyond our previous targets of increasing energy generation and access and looking to make gains in the area of distribution and transmission.’
This was welcomed by Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, chairman of the Nigerian Senate’s Committee on Power, Steel, Development and Metallurgy. ‘We’re also having very great difficulties in moving the generated electricity to the consumers and there’s so much investment opportunities,’ he said.
The US plans to assist African countries through a mix of technical assistance, loan guarantees, and financing, according to USAID officials
Earlier this month, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced plans for a global fossil fuel alliance that will help countries in Africa develop and increase the supply of electricity. He said that the US ‘would welcome and help lead a global alliance of countries willing to make fossil fuels cleaner.’
Perry added: ‘By exporting our energy technology, and the know-how that goes along with that, we can help developing countries in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa create their own energy renaissance.’
He also confirmed that clean coal technology would be a part of the new alliance. ‘What are the people without electricity supposed to do? Remember what we have done through technology. We have not only produced more fossil energy with it; we’ve made that energy cleaner,’ Perry said.
‘Since we’re making coal cleaner and since our technology can affordably extract massive amounts of lower-emissions natural gas, we’re likely to continue to reduce the overall emissions of our fossil fuels,’ he added.