Africans shrug-off Trump's latest Twitter storm, but not his policies

Africans shrug-off Trump's latest Twitter storm, but not his policies
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I was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Monrovia, Liberia, on 14 July when Donald Trump, in a series of Sunday morning tweets, told four progressive Congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from, setting off a political firestorm with accusations of racism and xenophobia against the U.S. president.

Though he didn’t name them, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), critics of his immigration polices, were clearly the targets. Only Omar was not born in the U.S. She emigrated from Somalia.

While President TrumpDonald TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel MORE and Republican leaders denied that the tweets were racist, a majority of Americans disagreed


All the above, I learned when my global data roaming kicked in upon landing at Roberts International Airport (ROB). Trump, being Trump, didn’t walk anything back, but doubled-down, so this episode shadowed me on my West Africa journey.  

It seemed befitting to receive this news in Liberia, the African nation which was founded by an official “go back” policy, conducted through the American Colonization Society, whose mission was to send blacks to Africa as an alternative to abolishing slavery. The ACS was attacked by abolitionists who saw it as a slaveholder scheme, but in 1822, it established Liberia as its first colony. The nation became independent in 1847.

Liberians, for the most part, shrugged off President Trump’s “go-back” implications, as they had his “shit hole” comments 18 months earlier. There was little coverage on the national radio and in the newspapers, as Liberians were more focused on their own heated political discourse. And besides, love of America — and all things American — comes second only to love of country for Liberians.

What did concern them however — and what they took very personally — was the increasingly restrictive visa policies imposed on the country.

In April, the White House designated Liberia one of several nations that had the highest percentage of short-term business and tourist visas overstays, imposing a greater scrutiny over all future applicants. It now seemed like every Liberian knew someone who couldn’t get a visa to the U.S. to visit family, conduct business, see a doctor, meet a grandchild or to attend a graduation.


A Liberian who works for an international organization expressed her frustration that Liberia’s special relationship with the United States, born from a shared history, was being cast-off by “soulless statistics.” She called it Liberia’s own, “family separation policy.” A sentiment clearly shared by many.

Six days later, I travelled to Accra, Ghana, and the U.S. news cycle on Trump’s tweets continued to rage on. But as in Liberia, the local media in Accra, for the most part, chose not to interject commentary, leaving it to CNN International, Al Jazeera, and BBC to stream the controversy into hotel rooms.

That said, for the Ghanaian people, the timing felt regrettable, and the message discordant, as the country neared the crescendo of its designated “Year of the Return, Ghana 2019” — a marketing campaign to the American and diaspora community launched 10 months earlier by the country’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, to mark 400 years since the first recorded arrival of a slave ship from Africa to the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia in August of 1619.  

While there would be memorial remembrances of the loss, pain and sacrifice, the “Year of the Return” would also be a celebration to unite Africans on the continent with the diaspora, strengthening personal, business and tourism ties.

Against this back-drop, Trump’s words were largely left for the Americans to debate, though not without some sadness, particularly amongst Ghana’s democracy activists, who saw America’s democratic brand being weakened by the dysfunction in Washington.  

“I feel sorry for us Africans,” one activist told me. “Not for the words Trump chose, but because we in Ghana idealize America, its strong democratic institutions, checks and balances, and the growing perception is that America is retreating, turning inward.”

“I do not want to live in a world where American ideals do not lead the world, what would be the alternative? China? Russia?” he said.

11 days after my departure from Washington Dulles, I was sitting at the AKWABA Lounge in Kokata International Airport waiting for the midnight flight back to D.C. when I ran into a friend transiting from Liberia. He had Liberian and American citizenship, so was not subject to visa restrictions.

I pulled out my pad to record some final thoughts from Africa. “Close your notebook” he said, “and just watch this.” 

My Liberian-American colleague opened his WhatsApp and played a 4-minute video of Ronald Reagan’s final address to the nation, on 11 January 1989, where Reagan said the following:

“America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American’ . . .  This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.”

“That’s all I have to say of that Riva, that’s all I have to say.”

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson