Tillerson Makes His First Trip To Africa As Secretary Of State

Mar 7, 2018
Originally published on March 7, 2018 5:25 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Ethiopia today, the start of his first trip to Africa as America's top diplomat. He announced some new money to help countries in the region deal with famine and conflict. But his trip comes at a time when many in Africa question the U.S. commitment. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a speech outlining his trip, Secretary Tillerson announced $533 million in humanitarian aid for Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Lake Chad Basin.

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REX TILLERSON: The alarming levels of hunger in these areas are largely manmade, as conflicts erupt and people flee their homes.

KELEMEN: The aid won't help solve the conflicts, he says, but should buy time to pursue diplomatic solutions. But don't expect Tillerson to tackle vexing political problems in Ethiopia and Kenya, says Johnny Carson, a former top State Department official on Africa. He says Tillerson is mostly focused on fighting terrorism. And he believes Tillerson will have a lot of explaining to do on this trip.

JOHNNIE CARSON: This administration has lost the enormous ground and influence in Africa.

KELEMEN: Carson says, African officials see a U.S. president who reportedly made derogatory comments about their countries, has pulled out of a global climate deal and has been slashing diplomacy and aid budgets.

CARSON: The diminishing role that the U.S. is playing across Africa will not become a void.

KELEMEN: China and others will fill in, says Carson, now with the U.S. Institute of Peace. He points to Djibouti, one of the stops on Tillerson's trip where the U.S. has a key military base. China has become a significant player there, too.

CARSON: They've just constructed a huge new railroad from Djibouti to landlocked Ethiopia. And they, just in the last 18 months, have opened up China's first military base, not only in Africa but in the world outside of China.

KELEMEN: Secretary Tillerson says countries need to be wary of China, which he says is encouraging dependency in Africa.

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TILLERSON: Using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long term self-sustaining growth.

KELEMEN: The secretary of state is not expected to announce any major new initiatives on this trip, which will also take him to Chad and Nigeria. Those are countries where he's done business before as Exxon Mobil's former CEO.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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