DAKAR, Senegal — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled this weekend from a security conference in Germany to Senegal, where he emphasized economic partnership, even as tensions festered over the Trump administration’s recent restrictions on visas for citizens of four African countries and a potential drawdown in military assistance just as extremist attacks have surged across West Africa’s arid interior.
Pompeo’s arrival on Saturday in Dakar, Senegal’s seaside capital, marked the first time in more than a year and a half that an American Cabinet official had stepped foot in sub-Saharan Africa. Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, cut short a trip in March 2018 and was fired shortly afterward. Pompeo is scheduled to travel to Angola on Sunday night and to Ethiopia on Monday.
In Senegal, Pompeo met with business leaders and announced five projects that would involve U.S. companies, including a new 100-mile-long highway.
Speaking alongside Senegal’s economy minister, Pompeo said his visit’s purpose was to “celebrate these great accomplishments between our two countries and, importantly, between our two private sectors.”
The United States has lagged far behind China in establishing trade relationships with African countries, and China has been the continent’s biggest trade partner for more than a decade. Much of China’s economic relationship with Africa is driven by investments by state-owned companies that have contributed to a boom in factories, ports, power plants, railways and paved roads across the continent.
Meanwhile, U.S. engagement with many African countries has largely revolved around humanitarian aid and cooperation on security matters, including troop training, a constellation of new bases and the sale of military equipment.
Pentagon officials have briefed Congress on their intention to shrink the U.S. military presence in West Africa, where some 1,400 soldiers are stationed. Congress has urged the Pentagon to reconsider, as have European and West African leaders. France maintains the largest non-African troop presence in the region.
“I’m convinced that when our review is done, we’ll have a conversation with not just Senegal but all the countries in the region,” Pompeo told reporters in Dakar. “We’ll talk through why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it, [and] we’ll deliver an outcome that works for all of us.”
The U.S. Commerce Department hopes to deepen trade and investment ties through a program called Prosper Africa, though Pompeo’s trip to the continent is the first time a high-level official has traveled here to promote it. Coupled with the new visa restrictions and looming troop withdrawal, Pompeo’s pitch for economic partnership may come with more questions than answers, analysts said.
“When the U.S. imposed, the week before last, a travel ban on Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania, I think, this sort of sends a conflicting signal to American business. Certainly, the announcement that they’re considering cutting the American security assistance on the continent is also puzzling,” said Witney Schneidman, the senior adviser for Africa at Covington and Burling, an international law firm. “Pompeo’s going to have his hands full in terms of explaining the different messages coming from Washington.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. trade representative announced the beginning of talks between the United States and Kenya on a bilateral free-trade agreement, which would be the first for a sub-Saharan African country.
Speaking in Washington, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said shared ideals made the two countries natural partners, but he also cautioned against seeing Africa as an arena for an economic proxy war with China.
“We don’t want to be forced to choose,” he said. “We must begin to look at Africa as the world’s biggest opportunity, and I believe that you can dare to look at it with a fresh eye.”
Angola and Ethiopia, Pompeo’s next stops, have deep economic ties to China. In Angola, about 70 percent of the national debt is owned by China. In Ethiopia, the sense of closeness is enough that its national airline has continued flying to China amid the coronavirus outbreak, partly out of a desire not to harm that relationship.
Pompeo “risks getting caught up in, sort of, a China-China-China dynamic and really needs to convey to African leaders that Africa is genuinely a priority for the United States,” Schneidman said.
Bearak reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.