President Donald Trump received international opprobrium when, in 2018, he referred to sub-Saharan Africa as being full of “s***hole countries.”
Trump’s team could do little to put lipstick on the pig — there was no way to interpret what the president said as anything other than unvarnished racism. The State Department’s Africa Bureau and U.S. Africa Command advancing regional partnerships with African counterparts did little to mitigate the damage Trump had wrought.
Such statements by Trump were one reason why so many diplomats and national security professionals breathed a sigh of relief when former Vice President Joe Biden won the Oval Office. They might not have agreed with his policies, but they believed he would guide foreign policy with a steadier, more moralistic hand.
When it comes to Africa, however, the tone of Biden’s rhetoric might have changed but the casual disdain toward the continent has not.
Last Friday, a fire broke out in the central market of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, one of Africa’s democratic countries. The scale of the conflagration was astounding, as this drone footage shows. So was the economic devastation. The fire occurred at the start of Ramadan, when many stores purchase extract stock on credit to meet holiday demand. Early estimates suggest total damages exceed $2 billion, or more than twice the annual budget of the Somaliland government.
Within hours, promises of emergency assistance poured in.
“Your city will rise again and the U.K. will do what we can to support Somaliland’s rebuilding effort,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted. A British diplomat toured the devastation the next day to determine how best to provide assistance, as did the Ethiopian Finance Minister.
“As you rebuild, please be assured of our unwavering support,” the Kenyan Foreign Office promised.
Contrast that with the lackluster, noncommittal response of the State Department. The U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu tweeted sympathy but notably did not promise assistance. Instead, the USAID Administrator tweeted a celebration that the State Department would soon issue passports with “X” as a gender option and pictures of herself meeting a Nobel Laureate — but she was silent on Hargeisa. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted photos of himself meeting Bono.
Somaliland is the rule rather than the exception. Five weeks into his tenure, Sahel nations — facing drought, insecurity, and terrorism — held a summit attended by heads of state, the Russian deputy foreign minister, and even French President Emmanuel Macron, who attended via videolink for several hours. Blinken figuratively phoned it in with a five-minute, prerecorded address with language plagiarized from his predecessors.
Then there is Niger. While Africa has suffered a rash of coups, Africa’s sixth-largest country has celebrated a democratic transition between elected presidents. Scores of delegations attended, but the White House neglected to send one, relying instead on the ambassador who, per protocol, had to sit with other ambassadors rather than with heads of state or their special representatives. Africans noticed.
Blinken has made one tour of sub-Saharan Africa in his 15 months in office, but this disappointed: Its legacy was to exculpate Nigeria’s Islamist president for his growing persecution of Christians. As Rwandans and South Africans fight the latest Islamic State upsurge in Mozambique, America is again absent. For the Biden administration, black lives matter except perhaps in Africa.
Biden is not Trump. His aides rarely allow him press availability, perhaps because of his own history of racist gaffes. Biden may still impose Africa bans, but he omits the over-the-top rhetoric. But when rhetorical style is stripped away, there really is not much difference between Trump’s attitudes toward Africa and Biden’s practices.
Biden’s team will deny racism shapes their policy, but the only other explanation is dysfunction and neglect. Either way, the response to the Hargeisa fire is only the tip of the iceberg to a very disturbing trend within the White House and the State Department when it comes to Africa.
by Michael Rubin
Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.