Trump Comments, Infuriating Africans, May Set Back U.S. Interests
CAPE TOWN — South Africa and Nigeria have joined a chorus of nations condemning President Trump’s inflammatory remarks on immigration, as Africa experts warned that the controversy threatened to set back American interests across the world’s fastest-growing continent. Since Thursday, when several participants in a meeting with Mr. Trump said he had asked why the United States should take in migrants from “shithole countries,” including Haiti and African nations, the Trump administration has been erratic in its account of what happened.
On Friday, Mr. Trump insisted on Twitter that “this was not the language used,” and on Sunday, he told reporters, “I’m not a racist.” On Monday, Mr. Trump said that a Democratic senator who attended the meeting, Richard J. Durbin, had “totally misrepresented” his comments.
The State Department, meanwhile, has instructed diplomats not to deny Mr. Trump’s remarks, but simply to listen to complaints. Botswana, Ghana, Haiti, Namibia, Senegal and the African Union have all protested Mr. Trump’s remarks; Botswana asked the United States “to clarify if Botswana is regarded as a ‘shithole’ country. Africa and the African diaspora has contributed significantly to the United States and to its development into the country that it is today,” Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation, said on Monday. “The African and international reaction to the alleged statements clearly serve as a united affirmation of the dignity of the people of Africa and the African diaspora.”
Reuben E. Brigety II, who was the United States ambassador to the African Union from 2013 to 2015, said on Monday that he had been in touch with African ministers and ambassadors throughout the weekend. “The appropriate word to describe their reactions to the president’s comments is fury,” he said, “notwithstanding the fact that the president has said that he didn’t say what was attributed to him. They don’t believe it.” Mr. Brigety said that Mr. Trump’s remarks were on the agenda for the annual African Union summit meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this month.
“A red line has been crossed,” he said. Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said the protests from Botswana and from the African Union reflected a deep undercurrent of frustration and anger. “Strong statements from other African countries show that the continental body won’t just put up with Trump’s views,” she said. The United States has many interests in Africa: battling Islamist insurgencies like Boko Haram in West Africa and the Shabab in the Horn of Africa; reducing political instability and improving governance, particularly in conflict-torn nations like South Sudan and Somalia; and taking advantage of the dynamism of a rapidly urbanizing continent that is rich in natural resources and has a young and growing population.
“Obviously we have been competing with the Chinese for engagement and influence in Africa,” Mr. Brigety said. “It is an understatement to say that the president’s remarks do not help in this regard. To have insulted an entire continent in the most vile terms is manifestly harmful to our interests.” Patrick Gaspard, the United States ambassador to South Africa from 2013 to 2016, said that progress on trade, public health, security and education, among many areas, had been “thrown into question by the irresponsible and vulgar comments made by the president.”
Mr. Trump’s long history of racially insensitive or insulting comments include several that have rankled Africans: Last June, he mused that Nigerians in the United States would not “go back to their huts” in Africa, and he told African leaders in September: “I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich,” a comment that critics said smacked of colonialism. “There’s clearly profound ignorance here and some profound blind spots,” Mr. Gaspard said. R. Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who was ambassador to NATO and an undersecretary of state for political affairs during George W. Bush’s presidency, said the remarks had created real damage.
“Of all the vile, offensive Trump statements, what he said about Haiti and Africa might have been the worst in the eyes of people overseas,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday. “It was a cruel, ignorant, blanket indictment of entire countries. The blow to U.S. credibility is real and long-lasting.” Even observers willing to put Mr. Trump’s remarks in the most generous light — perhaps he was invoking longstanding problems of poverty and corruption — were unwilling to defend them. “In objective terms, many Africans live in ‘shitty’ situations and if asked would probably agree with some of Trump’s sentiments,” said Sithembile Mbete, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Pretoria. “But his comments matter hugely in the realm of politics. Once again, he’s shown that he has no interest in even pretending to uphold U.S. values like tolerance and equality. This has become a symbol of his racism and forged a solidarity throughout the African diaspora that we don’t often see in international politics.”
In Haiti, some saw one bright spot.
“We are being flooded with emails and phone calls from average Americans expressing their solidarity with us, expressing their anger at what was said,” Paul G. Altidor, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, told CNN on Monday. “In some ways the apology came from the American people already.” Mr. Trump spent Monday, the federal holiday commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., golfing. But in a recorded address marking the holiday he said that “Dr. King’s dream is our dream, it is the American dream,” and added, “It is the dream of a world where people are judged by who they are, not how they look or where they come from.” source.Kimon de Greef reported/and Sewell Chan/www.newyorktimes