Rex Tillerson Spurns Africa In Botched Meeting with African Union Chief

Tillerson invited African Union chief Moussa Faki to Washington to meet, then backed out. His last-minute snub could sour U.S. ties with Africa.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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Just months into office, the Trump administration has rattled allies and partners in North America, Europe, and Asia. Now you can add Africa to that list.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson invited the chairperson of the African Union to Washington for a meeting, then backed out on him at the last minute, infuriating African diplomats, several sources tell Foreign Policy.

Tillerson invited African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki to Washington the week of April 17, after Faki ended meetings at the United Nations in New York. Several sources close to the matter say Faki scheduled his trip to Washington on April 19 and 20 while waiting for the details to be sorted out. But then Tillerson’s office went radio silent for several days, and left the head of the 55-nation bloc in the lurch and fuming, the sources said.

Tillerson’s team eventually got back to Faki’s entourage as he was about to depart New York and offered a meeting with lower-level State Department officials, but Faki cancelled his Washington visit entirely.

Diplomatic and protocol missteps — particularly in dealings with Africa — can have lasting consequences and potentially burn bridges that took decades to build, experts warn. That’s especially important as other geopolitical rivals continue to ratchet up their own global influence. Faki chairs the only continent-wide organization that speaks for Africa as a whole, and has been supportive of U.S. efforts to take a tougher line against terrorism.

The incident also showcases how the understaffed State Department can botch even basic tasks like scheduling courtesy visits, mistakes that send political shock waves through the countries they spurn. And experts say such moves by the administration threaten to unwind years of bipartisan progress on forging close U.S.-AU ties, particularly while China boosts its political clout and footprint on the continent. (The gleaming new AU headquarters in Ethiopia is Chinese bought and built.)

“African Union officials were incensed,” said Reuben Brigety, former U.S. ambassador to the African Union who was privy to Faki’s botched visit. Brigety said the notion of a secretary inviting a top foreign dignitary to Washington, then canceling the meeting and not informing the dignitary until the last minute “is just the dumbest thing in the world.”

“This is ridiculous, particularly at a time when Africans are increasingly becoming more and more aware of their choices in partners around the world,” said Brigety, citing China.

A State Department official told FP it was actually the AU team that requested the meeting and the State Department never guaranteed one would happen. Still, “there was a miscommunication in the Secretary’s availability” and “the situation was very regrettable,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Arikana Chihombori, the AU ambassador to the United States, confirmed to FP that Tillerson invited Faki to Washington and that the meeting didn’t end up taking place.

“The people I dealt with at the State Department were very attentive and did the best they could,” she said, adding that she didn’t expect it would harm relations between Washington and the AU. “We tend to rise above situations like this,” she said.

The African Union is our steadfast partner on the continent and we look forward to strengthening our relationship with Chairperson Faki, the AU, and its member states,” the State Department official said. 

The understaffed State Department, which lacks scores of key middle-management positions including the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, may have played a big role in the snafu.

“Either nobody is home at State and they’re making rookie mistakes, or they’ve decided they’re not going to make this relationship a priority,” said Brigety, who is now dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The Washington-based nonprofit Constituency for Africa was slated to host Faki for an event while he was in Washington, before the whole visit was called off. “This was going to be a courtesy visit, an easy win [for Tillerson],” said the group’s president and chief executive Melvin Foote. “Why would you not want this meeting to happen?”

Sources say the State Department offered Faki as consolation a brief meeting with either Tom Shannon, the acting deputy secretary of state and under secretary of state for political affairs or with K.T. McFarland, a former television pundit named Trump’s deputy national security advisor, who is preparing to be U.S. ambassador in Singapore. One source told FP this offer left the African Union officials “just more incensed.”

The mistake also undermines one of Trump’s own foreign-policy goals, namely putting more teeth into the fight against terrorism. Faki gained widespread praise for being outspoken in the continent’s need to confront terrorism, and is viewed in Europe and Washington policy circles as a hawkish U.S. ally in Africa’s fight against terrorism.

He concurrently serves as minister of foreign affairs of Chad, which is busy waging its own war against the Boko Haram Islamic militants based out of neighboring Nigeria. Chad also hosts the headquarters of France’s major counterterrorism operation in the Sahel.

It’s not the first time the Trump administration has spurned African officials. In March, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, one of Africa’s most influential heads of state, visited Washington and no one at either the White House or State Department would meet with him, Brigety said.

Update, April 26, 2017: The article was updated to include comments from a State Department official. 

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer