Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized the real and potential threats posed by extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa in a wide-ranging speech Tuesday, which centered on the administration’s plans to help African governments strengthen their institutions and governance.
Speaking at George Mason University just hours before he heads to the region for his first official visit, Tillerson spoke of the immense challenges and opportunities presented by huge population growth in Africa, which could threaten global security in the decades ahead.
“The growing population of young people, if left without jobs and a hope for the future, will create new ways for terrorists to exploit the next generation, subverting stability and derailing democratic governments,” said Tillerson. “Leaders will be challenged to innovate to manage limited financial resources they have.”
He recalled the attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the late 1990s and more recent attacks, such as those perpetrated by Boko Haram in Nigeria. He further pointed to the threat posed by ISIS and al Qaeda-affiliated groups on the continent.
“To prevail against such evil forces, the United States has committed to working with African partners to rid the continent and the world of terrorism by addressing drivers of conflict that lead to radicalization and recruitment in the first place, and building the institutional law enforcement capacity of African nations,” said Tillerson. “We want to help African states provide security for their citizens in a lawful manner.”
He praised the role the African Union and G5 Sahel Group have taken on the security and counterterrorism front. Last year, Tillerson pledged $60 million from the US to the G5 security force.
Tillerson said a central pillar of the Trump administration’s policy toward Africa is to make its countries “more resilient and more self-sufficient” to meet this challenge.
“The United States’ role in these and other regional and multilateral efforts is to build capacity – not dependency – so our partners can provide for their own security. That’s true of our approach to peacekeeping on the continent as well,” said Tillerson.
In his speech, Tillerson announced nearly $533 million in additional humanitarian assistance “to fight famine and food insecurity, and address other needs resulting from conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Lake Chad Basin.”
“The American people, as we always have been, are there to partner with African countries to ensure their most vulnerable populations receive life-saving assistance,” said Tillerson. “However, this assistance will not solve these ongoing conflicts, but only buy us time – time to pursue diplomatic solutions.”
Tillerson’s visit to the region is an opportunity for him to strengthen the administration’s relationships with leaders on the continent, some of whom were openly disturbed by President Donald Trump’s reported disparaging remarks in January about African countries and Haiti.
Many African countries ‘holding back’ on North Korea
Tillerson also spoke of the administration’s peaceful pressure campaign targeting North Korea, stressing – as he often does – the need to ensure the campaign is global in nature.
“North Korea threatens the entire global community through its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs and proliferation activities, including its arms exports to Africa,” said Tillerson. “It doesn’t just involve our allies in Europe or Asia. It doesn’t just include countries with longstanding ties to the DPRK, like China and Russia. This is and must be a global effort.”
“Nations in Africa need to do more,” said Tillerson, noting that “many African nations are holding back.”
Governments across Africa have been conducting business with the rogue regime in Pyongyang for many years, recently attracting the attention of the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea.
The State Department has been pushing these governments to cut trade, military and diplomatic ties with North Korea, using a mix of carrots and sticks. Last year, for example, Sudan pledged not to pursue future arms deals with Pyongyang after the US government suggested such sales were standing in the way of major sanctions relief.
Threat posed by corruption and China
Tillerson ended his remarks with an appeal to African governments to tackle the threat posed by corruption and bad governance.
“Bribes and corruption keep people in poverty, they encourage inequality and undercut citizens’ faith in government” said Tillerson. “Legitimate investment stays away, and insecurity and instability grows, creating conditions ripe for terrorism and conflict.”
Tillerson also took aim at China, which has been investing heavily on the continent and is constructing its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
“The United States pursues sustainable growth that bolsters institutions, strengthens the rule of law and builds the capacity of African countries to stand on their own two feet,” said Tillerson. “This stands in stark contrast to China’s approach, which encourages dependency – using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them the long-term, self-sustaining growth.”
“Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap, but its approach has led to mounting debt and few if any jobs in most countries,” he added. “When coupled with political and fiscal pressure, this endangers Africa’s natural resources and its long-term economic and political stability.”