Trump's G-20 walkout is yet another snub to US-Africa relations
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On Saturday, July 8, 2017, in the middle of a G-20 high-level “Partnership with Africa, Migration and Health” session, President Trump left the gathering to attend a bilateral meeting, tapping his daughter, Ivanka, to take his seat.

The tweet capturing the moment, showing Ivanka sandwiched between the UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Chinese President Xi Jinping, moved with the speed of social media’s outrage at the unconventional decision of the U.S. president to place his daughter at the table with heads of state, when presidential stand-ins are traditionally ministers and other senior government officials.

Reactions flew off like this:

But there was little appetite in Hamburg to openly criticize President Trump’s decision regarding his favored daughter. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, when asked about the unusual diplomatic placement of Trump’s daughter, stated that, “the delegations themselves decide, should the president not be present for a meeting, who will take the chair and Ivanka Trump was part of the American delegation.”

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Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations defended the president, explaining that Ivanka has “certain issues that she focuses on, and when those things come up, then that’s where she is and that’s what she likes to focus on."

 

Social media will eventually exhaust the debate over Trump’s family affair in Hamburg. My issue is not with Ivanka, but with the insensitivity of the maneuver, and how utterly tone-deaf it was to the business of the working session — the well-being of Africa’s 1.6 billion people.

In June I reported that during the May G-7 Summit in Italy, when the president of Mali reached the podium to give the African perspective, President Trump removed his headphones, opting out of the French-to-English translation. Many interpreted the gesture as a disregard for the African agenda.

I expressed optimism that the G-20 would give Trump an opportunity for a do-over, where he could finally connect with Africa experts, who could help him navigate potential U.S. participation in the “Compact for Africa.”

Dubbed by some the “German Marshall Plan for Africa,” the Compact looks to support a financial framework to increase investment opportunities, more sustainable infrastructure, as well as to create jobs and employment in Africa. Angela Merkel sees it as a way to halt the uncontrolled migration to Europe. Her premise is that Africa’s youthful population can either become the next generation of global change-makers and entrepreneurs, or its global disruptors.

The Compact is a shift away from European development aid and towards partnerships, similar in goals to the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. assistance program highly praised, and initiated by the George W. Bush administration. One could even suggest the Compact was MCC-inspired.

But there was to be no do-over at the G-20. No stated U.S. support to the Compact for Africa.  President Trump stood up, and walked out of the session as World Bank President Jim Jong Kim laid out a consensus plan.

And my June hope that the President Trump would travel to the G-20 with a staff of Africa experts also went unsatisfied. A March job offer for the position of the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Africa to Rudy Atallah, a highly regarded Africa specialist, who served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, and speaks fluent Arabic and French, was rescinded.

The failure to agree on senior staff for Africa at the White House, and the still empty assistant secretary post at the State Department, could explain why the U.S. was a no show at the G-20 Compact for Africa preparatory meeting in Berlin in June, where European and African leaders met, along with the presidents of international financial institutions, and members of civil society, to hammer out the agenda. One participant from civil society told me that the absence of a U.S. delegation was both “precedent and jaw dropping.”

And so this brings us back to Ivanka, sitting in for the president at the working session on Africa at the G-20. One could perhaps credit Ivanka’s influence for the U.S. pledge of $331 million towards famine relief announced at the close of the G20. But notwithstanding, it was wrong for President Trump to leave the meeting. And worse still, to have a family member sit in his chair.

For more than a half century, Africans have been battling the vestiges a colonialist system that bequeathed unshakable leaders, one-party states, and authoritarian structures of government which lacked respect for human rights, denied the rule of law, and entrenched corruption and nepotism.

Many in Africa have fought back, reclaiming their future and putting their faith in strong institutions rather than strong men. Vibrant democracies have now taken hold in much of the continent, revealing an emergent middle class, and an empowered, educated and connected young generation.

While in the U.S. President Trump’s elevation of his daughter over trained diplomats and career civil servants might be chalked up to the nature of his eccentric governing style, in Africa and elsewhere, the symbolism will not be easily dismissed. Nepotism, or favoritism to one’s family, one’s tribe, one’s ethnic group for privilege, is still perceived as part of the ills that bestowed upon Africa decades of war and deprivation.

Even in post-conflict countries, where human capacity is woefully lacking, and just as well-educated and accomplished presidential offspring like Ivanka can be found, turning to one’s family provokes cries of outrage as it ushers in fears of return to Africa’s dark history.

Those of us who advocate for Africa walk away from the G-20 grateful for the charity that the Trump administration bestowed on those at risk of dying of hunger, yet disappointed that the U.S. administration has yet to realize the importance of Africa to U.S. national security interests, and America’s indispensable role in continuing to shape the democratic evolution of the continent.

We remain unaccepting of a proposed cut to development assistance of more than 30 percent, and an elevation of military-to-military relations, over institution-building. And will continue to let our voices be heard.

Somebody has to say something. It might as well be me.

K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016), Silver Medal winner Independent Book Publishers Award, Finalist, Foreword Reviews INDIES ‘Book of the Year’ Awards. Follow her on Twitter @RivaLevinson.


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