Every year, I begin my African Politics classes by giving the students a map of Africa with the state borders drawn, but their names missing. Filling in the blanks is a humbling exercise, and most manage only a handful: South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, perhaps Kenya or Tanzania, although the two are often mixed up. But in all the years of repeating this test, no student has ever managed what President Trump just did — inventing a whole new African country called “Nambia”!
The president was addressing a lunch-time meeting of African leaders at the UN, when he twice referred to the non-existent country of “Nambia.” The charitable interpretation is that it is easy to mispronounce an unfamiliar name in the heat of the moment, and that the president (hopefully) had quite a lot on his mind during the UN meetings. A less generous view would hold that the president would fail the map quiz, and that he quite simply didn’t do his homework before coming to class.
A closer look at President Trump’s six-minute speech favours the latter interpretation. While his address to the UN General Assembly has been widely commented on for its breach of diplomatic conventions and bellicose language, his speech to African leaders struck a gentler, kinder tone, praising and congratulating them on all their “great” achievements. In familiar Trump-style, however, there was no shortage of baffling statements and diplomatic faux pas. The strangest one came right at the start:
“I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.”
The president appears to have diverged from his script at this point, he pauses, looks at his audience, as if waiting for applause or approving laughter. There is only stony silence. It takes only a minimum of familiarity with African politics to realize that a reference to white men getting rich will touch the raw and still exposed nerve of economic exploitation and colonialism. What for President Trump was (probably) a compliment and a mark of respect for the “tremendous business potential” offered by a rapidly developing continent, reveals a striking lack of appreciation of Africa’s history and politics, not to mention the consequences of its unequal integration into the world economy. Put differently, “Nambia” signals that the president needs more than simply an elocution lesson.
It’s tempting to continue the rant about all the oddities and absurdities that we have come to expect from the current president, and social media outlets have certainly had no end of fun locating “Nambia” on the map, perhaps next the country of “Covfefe”— another Trumpism. But let’s instead be serious, and look at what the speech — despite all its incoherence and mistakes — tells us about what we can expect from Trump’s policies towards Africa.
The answer is not much. The emphasis in the luncheon address on Africa’s “tremendous business potential” has to be understood in the context of a general downgrading of the importance of Africa in the administration’s foreign policy. It also chimes with its more isolationist policies and the insistence that other countries need to share the financial burden of international obligations like peacekeeping and development assistance. The reference to “economic partnerships” with countries “committed to self-reliance” translates into an emphasis on foreign investment and trade, not development and humanitarian aid. The mantra of “trade not aid” sounds attractive, but more often than not African countries get less out of these “partnerships” than their Western counterparts, with profits flowing to foreign companies through complicated financial arrangements, low taxes, and minimal royalties. Meanwhile, poverty persists. All the president’s friends may well be trying to get rich in Africa, and going on past evidence, chances are they will succeed. Just don’t wait for the applause.
The speech also confirms that security and counter-terrorism is the other key priority of US Africa policy, with the president stressing that many countries are “going through some very, very tough and very dangerous times” and that the US is “proud to work” with them “to eradicate terrorist safe havens, to cut off their finances, and to discredit their depraved ideology.” To be fair, there is a brief mention of health and the achievements of Uganda and “Nambia” in this area, but no mention of the fact that Trump’s budget proposal included a 17% cut to the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
The president is right that Africa “is a continent of tremendous, tremendous potential.” He may also be right in saying that the “outlook is bright.” It is doubtful, however, that the president and all his friends’ adventures in “Nambia” will do much to realize that potential.