Trump's Derogatory Comment Dogs Tillerson's First Day in Africa

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(Bloomberg) -- It didn’t take long for President Donald Trump’s derogatory comment about African nations to come up in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to the continent as top U.S. diplomat.

At a press conference with African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, a journalist asked Faki and Tillerson whether the U.S. should apologize for the remark. The reporter said the comment, which Trump has denied, “is something that Africa’s still digesting.”

Faki assured reporters that the incident was over and his brief discussion with Tillerson on Thursday morning had focused on areas of cooperation, such as the possibility of the U.S. providing financial support for an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

“I believe that this incident is of the past,” Faki said. “This partnership has produced results. It is useful for both parties.”

Tillerson himself declined to address the remark, despite being asked about it twice. Trump allegedly made the comment about African nations and Haiti during a meeting on U.S. immigration legislation in January.

“The United States’ commitment to Africa is quite clear in terms of the importance we place on the relationship,” Tillerson said. In his opening remarks with Faki, he said the U.S. and Africa have “enjoyed many, many years of positive relationships.”

Diplomats Summoned

Tillerson’s trip has been planned for months and was immediately overshadowed in January by Trump’s remarks. Numerous governments called in U.S. diplomats to demand an explanation. Trump later sent a letter on Jan. 25 to Faki and other African leaders underscoring the U.S.’s commitment to the continent.

Tillerson, on a five-country swing across Africa, has emphasized his trip is aimed at hearing African leaders’ concerns. Aside from the announcement of more than $500 million of food and medical aid to fight famine in several countries on the continent, made before he left, he has tamped down expectations for big announcements or new initiatives during the visit.

“The purpose of my trip to this continent is that we listen,” Tillerson said. “I think it is important to listen to what the priorities of the continent are.”

China Warning

A central theme of the trip -- as it has been with stops in the rest of the world -- has been to warn countries against entering into too many financing deals with China, which has for more than a decade made deep investment and trade inroads into the continent, sometimes by saddling countries with heavy debt to fund infrastructure projects.

“We are not in any way attempting to keep Chinese investment dollars out of Africa, they are badly needed,” he said at the briefing with Faki. “However, we think it’s important that African countries carefully consider the terms of those investments.”

Faki minced no words, all but rejecting Tillerson’s argument.

“Africans are mature enough to engage in partnerships of their own volition,” he said. “There is no monopoly, we have multifaceted, multifarious relations with parts of the world.”

Investments underscore just how much China is outpacing the U.S. in Africa. China is the continent’s largest trading partner and has invested in infrastructure across the continent.

In a symbolic display of that connection, the African Union headquarters where Tillerson and Faki met was built by China; there is a plaque inside the building that notes senior official Jia Qinglin attended the opening ceremony in 2012.

A further signal was the identity of the Ethiopian journalist who asked Tillerson and Faki about Trump’s “shithole” comment: he’s an employee of CGTN -- the state-run China Global Television Network.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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