Throughout his entire tweeting career, before his inauguration and after, President Trump has mentioned Africa only a handful of times, so it is safe to say that Africa appears to be far down on his agenda. Secretary of State Tillerson’s public involvement with Africa appears to be minimal. There is still no permanent assistant secretary of state for Africa, and it wasn’t until early September that Don Yamamoto, a career diplomat and former ambassador with a deep knowledge of Africa, was appointed as an interim. Similarly, filling Africa-related positions on the National Security Council was a very slow process, though it is now largely complete. Cyril Sartor, a career government analyst also with a deep knowledge of Africa took up his duties in August. Ambassador Mark Green, a former congressman and ambassador to Tanzania assumed the leadership of USAID in August as well. Despite this slow progress, there remain numerous ambassadorial vacancies, including South Africa and South Sudan. In general, the administration’s Africa water—such as it is—has been carried by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, mostly in the venue of the Security Council.
U.S. military involvement in the struggle against terrorism in Africa has been no secret. It has always been small and as such, does not receive much media attention. The U.S. Africa Command’s headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany, not on the African continent. Just how many U.S. military personnel are present on the entire continent is unclear; in part, it depends on the definition used and distinctions between support personnel, soldiers, contractors, etc. Altogether, estimates range from five to eight thousand, with half associated with Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. The only U.S. base in Africa, it has a focus on the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea in addition to Africa. Of those not at Camp Lemonier, personnel are mostly deployed in small groups in multiple locations to assist training host-nation forces. The French military presence in Africa is far larger.
In the aftermath of the killing of four U.S. soldiers in Niger and the ongoing humanitarian disasters associated with South Sudan, the Trump administration’s disinterest may be changing. In October, Ambassador Haley traveled to Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, becoming the most senior Trump administration figure to visit Africa. Press reports indicate she spoke plainly about the lack of accountability by political figures and UN agencies. Furthermore, it seems the Trump Administration has promised $60 million to a five-thousand strong African force to combat human trafficking and fight extremists in the Sahel. Closer to home, members of congress are demanding details about the deaths of the four servicemen in Niger. They are also asking questions about the U.S. military presence in Africa in general, including how large it is and what its mission is. Heightened congressional attention to the U.S. military presence in Africa, and perhaps Africa policy more generally, is likely. At a more popular level, the episode involving the president’s condolence telephone call to the widow of one of the soldiers has heightened public awareness of U.S. military involvement.