US diplomacy can play a useful role in Africa, but nobody in the State Department is picking up the phone right now.
When Kenya‘s top court annulled last month’s presidential election results, Donald Trump‘s mind was elsewhere. The US president was tweeting about stock market growth and his old political nemesis, Hillary Clinton.
In fairness, the billionaire has a lot on his plate at the moment – from Hurricane Harvey’s devastation trail to North Korea’s nuclear arms test. But, as is often noted, sub-Saharan Africa struggles to place high on the global agenda.
Nearly eight months into his presidency, Trump has yet to nominate an assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Other jobs lower down in the State Department, Pentagon and White House are vacant; there is no US ambassador in either South Africa or Congo.
Officials and experts told Al Jazeera that an inattentive US made violent flare-ups in South Sudan, Burundi, and other hotspots more likely, while giving China space to capitalise on sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth at Washington’s expense.
“The problem isn’t that Africa isn’t a front-burner issue in the White House, that is only the case in exceptional circumstances,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a researcher with the Brookings Institution think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s that the competent, highly skilled bureaucracy has been made totally dysfunctional by so many positions not being confirmed,” she said.
After Kenya’s Supreme Court scrapped that country’s election results on September 1, a statesmanlike phone call from the West Wing could have put the brakes on any sabre-rattling from President Uhuru Kenyatta or his opponent, Raila Odinga, she said.
“It was a massive and unprecedented decision by the court and, right or wrong, it’s made a volatile situation in Kenya even worse. It’s a moment like this that you really want high-level officers calling from the White House, and that’s not necessarily happening,” Felbab-Brown said.
Africa is home to 1.2 billion people in 54 diverse countries, but also some of the world’s most protracted conflicts in Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. Two areas are particularly worrisome to policymakers right now.
Burundi has suffered from periodic low-level violence since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a third term in office. The International Crisis Group, a watchdog, warns of tensions spiralling into “mass atrocities and a regional proxy conflict”.
Others point to South Sudan, which collapsed into civil war two years after winning its independence from Sudan in 2011. Fighting has since claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced 3.5 million people to flee their homes.
Last month, it emerged that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to abolish his department’s special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan and a second diplomatic trouble-shooter to the Great Lakes region and Congo.
In a letter, he wrote about combined savings of more than $5m from scrapping the envoys and support staff – in line with the Trump administration’s goal of slashing the State Department’s budget by 30 percent.
“Dissolving the office of a special envoy is usually done when their task is complete,” Raymond Gilpin, an expert in the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“With what’s going on in South Sudan and the humanitarian catastrophe that’s unfolding in northern Uganda, and refugees crossing the border from South Sudan, I think that task is far from complete.”
Cuts are already having real-world consequences. In July, Trump pushed back a deadline on whether to lift US sanctions against Sudan by three months, amid divisions in his administration and a lack of staff in key posts, including in the National Security Council.
Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for Africa was on display at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, that same month. It was closed-door talks on African development that Trump famously stepped away from, giving up his chair to his daughter, Ivanka.
Tillerson argues that, despite swinging cuts, US diplomacy will still “be effective”. According to reports, the appointment of J Peter Pham, a scholar, as assistant secretary on Africa was held up in Congress and an alternative was being sought.
The US footprint in Africa has not vanished. This month, Trump appointee Mark Green, head of the US Agency for International Development, has been in South Sudan, urging President Salva Kiir to work harder for peace and warning that US support for the country was under review.
Last month, US trade envoy Robert Lighthizer visited the tiny West African nation of Togo to review a Clinton-era free trade deal with sub-Saharan Africa, though little progress was made on renewing the so-called African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Aubrey Hruby, a scholar at the Atlantic Council and co-author of The Next Africa: An Emerging Continent Becomes a Global Powerhouse, said Trump’s pro-business team was missing a trick on a mineral-rich continent with a growing middle class.
US exports to sub-Saharan Africa have doubled to $21.81bn from $10.96bn in 2000, according to US Commerce Department data, but they were dwarfed by China’s $102bn in exports to the region in 2015.
Washington cannot catch up with Beijing’s huge road, rail and other infrastructure schemes in Africa, but businesspeople can turn good profits there in the finance and entertainment sectors where US firms excel, Hruby said.
“We haven’t developed anything like a Trump administration business programme for Africa yet. A lot of us have been waiting to have someone in the right seat in the White House and the State Department, but we can’t wait forever,” Hruby told Al Jazeera.
African diplomats in the US say they are looking to the upcoming UN General Assembly, an annual political jamboree in New York, to spotlight the African security issues that are failing to get enough international attention.
Ethiopia’s UN ambassador, Tekeda Alemu, said he hoped to use his country’s presidency of the UN Security Council this month to spotlight South Sudan, where internecine fighting has forced a million people to flee into neighbouring Uganda.
Applied correctly, diplomatic pressure could end the ethnic bloodletting, he said.
“It’s achievable; it’s doable. If there is a necessary goodwill commitment you could make progress,” Alemu told Al Jazeera. “If the countries of the region speak with one voice, if the Security Council speaks with one voice.”
But, he noted, despite Trump’s presence in midtown Manhattan for United Nations the confab, the US had not confirmed whether the president, Tillerson, or any other American heavyweight would take part in Ethiopia‘s debate on peacekeeping on September 20.