ADDIS ABABA - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the African Union chairman Tuesday in Addis Ababa at the end of a whirlwind Africa tour that included Senegal and Angola.
Pompeo's first official visit to Africa aims to strengthen commercial ties and revamp America’s presence on the continent. But political analysts say restoring U.S. influence will be a challenge.
A key question for the U.S. secretary of state was how the U.S. can overcome Chinese dominance in Africa. China surpassed the U.S. as the continent’s number one trading partner over a decade ago and Beijing is investing heavily in African infrastructure.
But convincing African leaders to look to the U.S. at this juncture is proving a challenge, say analysts.
"I think that many African leaders are going to be quite skeptical," said London University School of Oriental and African Studies professor of international relations Stephen Chan, speaking via a messaging app. "They’re dealing increasingly now with very sophisticated people, who basically want to know where the proof in the pudding is. They’ve noticed President Trump’s volatility in the past and they’ve particularly noticed comments that they would interpret as racist."
Trump reportedly used a vulgar term to describe African countries during a 2018 closed-door meeting.
Just days ahead of Pompeo's arrival, Trump expanded a travel ban that restricts immigrant visas on citizens from Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.
The administration argues the countries have not met U.S. security requirements and information sharing and that the ban would not affect tourist, business, or student visas.
But the European Center for Development Policy Management’s Alfonso Medinilla says the timing on the visa restrictions sends the wrong message. He spoke via a messaging app.
“These are things that African countries are looking at quite closely," he said. "This idea of visa facilitation has always been very high on the agenda and has very significant symbolic value. So, going in the other direction is problematic. To me, what it shows is also this is not necessarily about Africa. It’s more about American internal issues and internal struggles.”
Murithi Mutiga is the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. He says Americans have an outdated view of Africa.
“For a long time, American policymakers have viewed Africa essentially as a problem to be solved, while Beijing perceived the continent as an area that abounds with opportunity," he said. "The Chinese, at least for the last two decades, have been much more strategic in their engagement with the continent and you get the sense that America is essentially playing catch up.”
If the U.S. wants to catch up with China, says Mutiga, it should focus on new realities in Africa, where economies and populations are growing, and people are becoming more educated.