Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) visited Nigeria at the end of August, leading a bipartisan and bicameral Congressional delegation (CODEL). During that trip, the Senator delivered an important speech in Lagos in which he reaffirmed the American commitment to a “deep and lasting relationship with Africa.” This commitment, he emphasized, is shared by both Republicans and Democrats alike, and by presidents from both parties. For a Nigerian and an African audience more broadly, perhaps the most important point he made was this: “don’t expect that suddenly with a new president, there will be a new priority, and it will not be Africa.”
In commenting on the CODEL’s highly positive visit to Nigeria, the Senator specifically mentioned cohorts of Americans directly involved in building the U.S.-Nigeria bilateral relationship: those with non-profit organizations (NGOs) working for famine relief in northeast Nigeria, members of the U.S. diplomatic service, and the military. And the Senator also referred to specific programs established by Democratic and Republican presidents that help make the U.S.-Africa relationship strong, ranging from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to the President’s Plan for Emergency Aids Relief (PEPFAR) to Power Africa. He made it clear that building the U.S.-African relationship has always been a bipartisan goal.
He also emphasized commonality between the United States and Nigeria: “We are both federal republics. We are both multi-faith, multi-party, multi-lingual robust democracies with vibrant media and a great history of tradition of entrepreneurship and creativity.” And he paid tribute to the enormous economic potential of Nigeria. The CODEL was in Africa during the period of severe flooding in southeast Texas; the Senator appropriately called attention to common problems, including susceptibility to severe weather events; much of Lagos, perhaps Africa’s largest city, is at sea-level or below.
Thus far, the Trump administration has been remarkably silent about Africa, with the exception of Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. However, the administration has not yet named an assistant secretary of state for Africa, and Secretary of State Tillerson in a recent review of U.S. foreign policy priorities said not one word about Africa. Hence, the CODEL’s reassurance to an African audience of the broad, ongoing commitment to Africa is of great importance to the relationship over the long term. Further, the administration’s seeming inattention to Africa will not last forever. As the Senator said: “Know that all of us served before our current president, and hope to serve after our current president, and that the relationship between the United States and Africa has been strengthened by those who have visited a dozen times, and those who are visiting for the first time.”
The CODEL’s visit and the Senator’s speech were a timely reminder that U.S. policy toward Africa is made by more than just the executive branch.