Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on the most extensive visit to Africa by a senior official in the Trump administration. Tillerson will visit the continent’s two most populous countries, Nigeria and Ethiopia, both crucial to U.S. regional security interests but which face increasing fragility at home. He will also travel to U.S. allies Chad, Djibouti and Kenya, countries struggling with domestic political stability, and will meet leadership of the continent’s principal regional organization, the African Union. USIP’s Africa experts preview the landscape and key issues for the East Africa leg of Tillerson’s trip to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, and note that broader U.S security and trade interests can only be served if the national challenges for peace and stability in each country are also addressed.

Secretary Tillerson Delivers Remarks at the Ministerial on Trade, Security, and Governance in Africa Luncheon
Secretary Tillerson Delivers Remarks at the Ministerial on Trade, Security, and Governance in Africa Luncheon

Ethiopia and the African Union

Verjee: Ethiopia is a contemporary paradox: There is stability in its foreign relations but instability at home. On foreign policy, Addis Ababa is a reliable U.S. ally. It is an active co-operant on counter-terrorism, the leading contributor of U.N. peacekeeping forces worldwide, a supporter of the U.S.-backed transitional government in Somalia, and Ethiopia leads the regional mediation of the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. But at home, fueled by grievances over land and exclusion, Ethiopia is in a domestic political crisis with no end in sight. A new prime minister will shortly be named by the ruling party, but his installation will not extinguish fundamental domestic grievances.

When visiting senior U.S. officials engage Ethiopia, the focus understandably tends towards foreign relations rather than domestic issues. While the United States should not be telling Ethiopia what to do, it would be helpful if Tillerson indicates support for both short and long-term reform in Ethiopia, including reforms to the electoral system. It is important that the reform processes Ethiopia undertakes are inclusive of all political voices if changes are to be sustained and genuinely transformative.

On South Sudan, recent talks convened under Ethiopian leadership were held from December 18 to 21, adjourned, resumed February 5 and adjourned again on February 16. Talks are due to resume in late March. It’s important that Tillerson convey to the Ethiopians a sense of greater urgency in addressing the political and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. The message should be clear: It is not enough to convene peace talks every other month and hope for the best. Peace talks must be approached with a well-defined mediation strategy.

Stigant: While in Addis Ababa, Tillerson is due to meet Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union (AU) Commission. The AU, based in Addis Ababa, is the continent’s leading intergovernmental organization, comprising 55 member countries working together to promote peace, security, and stability. The AU’s Charter also sets norms for democratic principles and institutions, and for good governance.

Over the past decade, the African Union has taken on a more active role in peace and security on the continent. The AU has advanced important norms and values, and has notably rejected the undemocratic transfer of power. The AU plays an active role in mediating some of Africa’s most intractable conflicts. It has deployed peacekeeping troops to Somalia with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Sudan with the Joint UN and African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

When the U.S. meets with the African Union, discussions about stabilization in Somalia and counter-terrorism in the Sahel tend to receive the most media attention. Indeed, ensuring continued partnership to train, deploy and support African-led peacekeeping missions is critical. These issues, however, must be considered alongside the broader question of how the United States can best be a partner to an AU that delivers durable solutions for development, peace and security, particularly in the midst of the ongoing AU organizational reform process.

We know the U.S. administration is keen to prioritize trade and investment worldwide, and Africa is no exception. But trade and investment should not be viewed as goals separate from preventing violent conflict and mitigating the risks of political instability. There is ample evidence across Africa that growth and trade cannot be sustained without peace and broader prosperity. The AU has made its priorities food security, agricultural development and economic integration. The organization recognizes that inclusive growth and job creation, particularly for women and youth, are critical elements to peace and security.


Stigant: Following Kenya’s elections in 2007, the United States took an active role in halting the violence over the disputed outcome of the presidential race. Further, the U.S. government worked closely with Kenyans to implement a peace deal. Sustained diplomatic attention helped to advance constitutional and institutional reforms. U.S. assistance also helped Kenyans to rebuild their lives and businesses, and find ways to live together again. All of those efforts laid the groundwork for relatively calm elections in 2013.

Now is the moment for the U.S. to again marshal its diplomatic and development assistance to ensure Kenya—a key partner for security and East Africa’s most vibrant economy—gets back on the right footing. As President Kenyatta begins his second and final term, his legacy is being written. There is a risk that his track record of economic growth, technological innovation, and growing international investment will be tarnished by political crisis. Kenyatta needs to find a way forward with opposition leader Raila Odinga and other political opponents. More broadly, Kenyatta and his government have a tall task to regain the trust of Kenyans who feel cheated by the elections and excluded from a growing economy.

At various junctures—including the peace deal in 2008 and the new constitution in 2010—Kenyans have spoken clearly about how they want to be governed. Kenyan youth, women and civil society remain active, mobilized and connected to their communities. The government of Kenya needs to encourage peaceful dialogue and reverse the trend of closing space for independent civil society. This will provide a roadmap forward for the country and for U.S. partnership.

Verjee: Many Kenyans, no matter their political persuasion, are tired of the theatre of presidential politics. They want jobs, education and security, and a government focused on service delivery and rooting out corruption. They are concerned that their government— whether they voted for it or not—is closing down television stations and circumscribing a vibrant free press. Kenyatta’s administration feels justified in these actions, but they are counter-productive.

The media may be a thorn in the side of the Kenyan government, but the solution is not to eradicate all thorny plants. Kenyans know Tillerson may not be particularly fond of the media coverage he has received in his time as Secretary of State, which makes him an all the more influential messenger to affirm in Nairobi that a free press is the foundation of good governance, and that it is essential for all governments to protect the public’s right to information.


Verjee: Djibouti is a small, coastal country with outsized importance to the United States. It hosts the most U.S. troops in Africa including those engaged in counter-terrorism, anti-piracy efforts, special operations and regional stabilization missions throughout the Horn of Africa. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited the U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier in April 2017. Djibouti is well aware of its geostrategic importance; it agreed in 2015 that China could establish a military presence just a few miles away from Camp Lemonnier, and the Chinese base opened in August 2017.

Djibouti is also an electoral autocracy that has failed to meaningfully reform its state institutions. Legislative elections held just two weeks ago, on 23 February 2018, once again saw an overwhelming victory for the incumbent amidst an partial opposition boycott. For now, Djibouti may be a reliable host of U.S. military forces, but one day, its authoritarian tendencies may lead to domestic destabilization. Rather than be reactive to events, and merely express gratitude for hosting U.S. forces, the U.S. should continue to advocate for governance and economic reforms in this dusty corner of the Horn of Africa.

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