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Mike Pompeo woos Africa, but it’s a tough sell


ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s whirlwind tour of Africa in recent days had hoped to revamp America’s business interests on the continent and counter years of Chinese dominance.

Instead, he was made to explain a series of contradictory messages coming out of Washington, from threats to pull U.S. troops out of the war-scarred Sahel region to a travel ban that restricts immigrant visas for citizens from Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.

What’s more, America’s struggle to provide Africa with a clear strategic plan for its future relationship with the U.S. stands in stark contrast to Europe’s recent pivot to the region. The EU’s new top brass have made a point of staking out a new approach to the continent since taking office in December, with trade and supporting the African Union top of the agenda.

“These decisions [by Washington] are not expressions to me of an integrated strategy or ambitions strategy of the U.S. to partner with Africa,” said Alfonso Medinilla, a policy officer at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, referring to the recent U.S. visa ban and an upcoming decision to reduce military spending in Africa. “Whereas on the European side what we’re seeing is very different thinking. At the start of the political cycle in the European Union, all you hear about is Africa.”

Pompeo’s visit on Tuesday to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, where he met with the country’s firebrand Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, came days after a check-in by European Council President Charles Michel. The Belgian’s message was that Brussels wants a deeper strategic partnership with Africa that benefits both sides.

“For a long time American policymakers have viewed Africa essentially as a problem to be solved, while Beijing perceived the continent as an area that abounds with opportunity” — Murithi Mutiga, analyst

EU officials say Europe is preparing new financial mechanisms designed to guarantee private investment in infrastructure projects so that Africa can achieve its challenging goal of implementing a continental-wide free-trade zone.

But while Pompeo said Tuesday that “American businesses are looking to get in” to Ethiopia and prioritize investments that “uphold transparency and sovereignty,” it’s unclear if his message has been heard. African leaders are particularly wary of a U.S. strategy on Africa that focuses more on America’s global power struggles with China and Russia than opportunities for African countries.

That, analysts say, only feeds Chinese dominance in the region.

“For a long time American policymakers have viewed Africa essentially as a problem to be solved, while Beijing perceived the continent as an area that abounds with opportunity,” said Murithi Mutiga, project director for the Horn of Africa at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

China’s President Xi Jinping, second left, speaks to Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh in Beijing last year | Pool photo by Madoka Ikegami/Getty Images

“The Chinese, at least for the last two decades, have been much more strategic in their engagement with the continent and you get the sense that America is essentially playing catch-up.”

Pompeo’s visit to Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia, the first visit by a sitting U.S. Cabinet official to Africa in nearly 19 months, appeared aimed at doing that.

In talks with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew on Tuesday, Pompeo praised the reforms underway by Abiy’s government. He also recommitted to America’s efforts in the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia and said the U.S. would provide $8 million to curb the spread of locust swarms in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

But such top lines are unlikely to obscure the adding of “insult to injury” from Washington’s travel restrictions, said Stephen Chan, a professor of international relations at SOAS University in London.

“He’ll be received very politely. He’s a very important person. So the red carpet will be out,” he said, “But this will disguise a very, very pronounced skepticism on the part of most African heads of government.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s EU in Africa series. Sign up here to receive more coverage by email.



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