Africa featured not at all in the U.S. presidential campaign, and the Trump administration has been silent about the continent since the inauguration. Hence, for American friends of Africa it was encouraging that President Trump spoke with the presidents of Africa’s two largest economies on February 13. However, there has been no White House explanation as to why the president chose the chiefs of state of those two particular countries: arguably, the United States has a closer security relationship with Kenya. As of February 14, the White House has released few details about the conversations, while there have been only brief reports from Nigerian and South African sources. This is not unusual: details of communications among heads of state are rarely made public.
Both conversations must have been short. According to the White House schedule, the President talked to Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari at 9:45 a.m. and to South Africa’s Jacob Zuma at 10:30 a.m. Most of the remainder of President Trump’s day was involved with the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The February 13 focus on Africa telephone calls appears to follow a White House pattern of geographical consolidation. Over the weekend and earlier in the week President Trump or Vice President Pence talked to the heads of state of Colombia and Brazil.
According to South African sources, the presidents talked about strengthening the ‘already strong’ diplomatic relationship, and President Zuma referred to the six-hundred U.S. companies at present operating in South Africa. (Few outside observers would characterize the bilateral relationship as ‘already strong.’) If Nigerian reports are accurate, the conversation between presidents Trump and Buhari was much more significant. According to a Nigerian presidential spokesman, “President Trump assured the Nigerian president of U.S. willingness to cut a new deal in helping Nigeria in terms of military weapons to combat terrorism.” The Obama administration and parts of the U.S. Congress had been reluctant to sell certain types of military equipment that the Nigerians wished to buy. It remains to be seen how the necessary generalities of the two presidents’ conversation translates into a policy change.