African Ambassadors to Convene in Wake of Trump’s ‘Shithole’ Outburst

U.S. diplomats worry the president’s comments will set back relations. Others wonder why it took the “shithole” comment to get Washington to finally notice Africa.

President Donald Trump attends a luncheon with U.S. and African leaders at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 2017 in New York. (Brendan Smialowski      /AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump attends a luncheon with U.S. and African leaders at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, 2017 in New York. (Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images)

African ambassadors in Washington are convening a meeting next week to discuss a response to President Donald Trump’s Oval Office outburst, in which he called Haiti, Central American, and African countries a “shithole,” multiple African diplomats told Foreign Policy.

During a meeting with lawmakers late Thursday, Trump railed against immigrants from Central America and Africa, reportedly saying, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

The comments, first reported by Washington Post and later confirmed by meeting attendee Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), sent diplomatic shockwaves through Washington and incensed African diplomats. (In two separate tweets on Friday, Trump denied using such language regarding Haiti but didn’t clarify how he addressed African countries.)

“I found the comments insulting, irresponsible, and extremely disappointing,” said Arikana Chihombori-Quao, the ambassador of the African Union in Washington, during an interview with FP.

“This just cements the feeling that we don’t matter. That we are consistently and continually taken for granted,” she said. “At what point are we Africans going to rise up and say enough is enough?”

Chihombori-Quao and several other African diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were convening a meeting of African ambassadors in Washington next week to discuss a response to the president’s reported remarks. In New York, AU ambassadors convened their own emergency session late Friday afternoon to sort out a response to the diplomatic affront.

African diplomats and experts warn the comments could undercut U.S. diplomacy in Africa just as it starts to take shape under the Trump administration and as China boosts its investments and influence on the continent. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also preparing to make his first trip to Africa as early as next month, with tentative plans to visit Angola and Kenya, according to one State Department official, though the trip has yet to be confirmed.

But the diplomats also vented frustration at the way in which Africa has suddenly become the big story. Trump’s comments hijacked scarce attention from the litany of other issues facing the continent that often go ignored in Washington: famines in South Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia; South Sudan’s brutal civil war; growing terrorism threats in the Sahel; and the humanitarian crisis sparked by the effective collapse of the Central African Republic, to name a few.

Chihombori-Quao also pointed out that while Africa is too often negatively portrayed in Western media, it has the fastest-growing middle class in the world, five of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies according to World Bank data, and nine female heads of state and government.

“I want to remind the president these shithole countries [are] where his friends go to get rich,” she added, referring to an awkward meeting last year in which Trump told African leaders, “I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich.”

The State Department sprang into action in what has become an all-too-familiar scene: Trump flings a rhetorical bombshell, and diplomats are left scrambling to do damage control. “We have great respect for the people of Africa and our commitment to our African partners remains strong,” Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said in an email to FP.

Two State Department officials who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press vented frustration at how strong relationships with some African countries that took decades to build have suddenly lurched into a temporary crisis mode because of Trump’s remarks.

“Without question, President Trump’s comments will damage U.S.-Africa relations in the short term and long term,” said Melvin Foote, the president of the Washington-based Constituency for Africa. Foote called the comments an “affront for all Americans of African descent in this country.”

But others said the storm would pass. “So many African countries clamor for more security assistance from the U.S., for more engagement from the U.S.,” said Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation. “Those fundamental interests are not going to change because of this comment.”

One African ambassador in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, told FP that he didn’t think the comments would cause long-term damage, in part because U.S.-African relations don’t start and stop in the Oval Office. “He is one man talking about whole countries, but he doesn’t speak for all Americans,” the ambassador said.

Four other African ambassadors in Washington declined to comment.

A State Department official confirmed that the U.S. ambassadors in Botswana and Senegal have been summoned by host governments to address Trump’s comments. “No other ambassadors have been convoked at this time,” the official said.

But even if the storm passes, some feel U.S. officials won’t be able to shake Trump’s racist sentiments, no matter how much diplomatic wrangling they do. When asked if she thought Trump was racist, Chihombori-Quao didn’t directly answer the question.

“When people show you who they are,” she said, “believe them.”

Correction, Jan. 12, 2018: The U.S. ambassadors in Botswana and Senegal were summoned by their host governments after Trump’s comments. A previous version of this article mistakenly said the U.S. ambassadors in Botswana and Tunisia were summoned. 

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

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