In the United States, the reaction to the bigoted comments that President Donald Trump made on Jan. 11 about black-majority nations in Africa didn’t take long to shift its focus to domestic American politics, obscuring the shock of those abroad who have been maligned.
Around the world, a very different story is taking shape. Country after country and the people who live there are reacting in anger and hurt.
The phenomenon of an American president consigning much of an entire continent and countries closer to home like Haiti to “shithole” or “shithouse” status is as inexplicable as it is offensively racist. Trump, who spends hours on Twitter, should know better than most how fast social media can spread the news of his notorious insults to millions of people around the world.
Furthermore, if the White House had any understanding of international affairs it would have handled the fallout expeditiously and with apologies. Instead, Trump’s team, boasting of making America “great” again, revealed by its silence that it was ignorant or uncaring about the damage they were causing the US, some of it potentially long term. (American diplomats have been told to listen to complaints but to offer no judgments, according to reports from the State Department.)
Officially and in street talk, Africans began to respond immediately with a mixture of disbelief, revulsion, sorrow and occasionally ridicule at an American president some had already written off as an idiot. In Niger, for example, where the United States is building a $100 million armed-drone base, people in the capital, Niamey, generally laughed off Trump’s remarks because they were not surprised by his attitude, according to an American visiting the country who talked to PassBlue.
Botswana, a stable southern African country with an established democracy, albeit guided by one family, was the first of more than half a dozen countries — and counting — to condemn the American president and pose some questions: Would the US “clarify if Botswana is regarded as a ‘shithole’ country, given that there are Botswana nationals residing in the US and also that some Botswana may wish to visit the US,” the government asked in a press statement on Jan. 12. Why would the US use this “derogatory word” when talking about countries with whom the US has had cordial relations for many years?
Ghana, Haiti, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa joined the condemnation. Within a day, 54 nations of the African Union, through its United Nations mission, demanded “a retraction of the comment as well as an apology, not only to the Africans, but to all people of African descent around the globe.”
The 15-member group of Caribbean nations known as Caricom, which includes Haiti, condemned Trump’s “repulsive language.”
In a roundup of reaction at citizen level in Africa by Agence France-Presse, a prominent Kenyan commentator, Patrick Gathara, said that the comments were nothing new from a “racist and ignorant” administration.” He added: “This is no different from what Hollywood and Western media have been saying about Africa for decades. We have consistently been portrayed as shitty people from shitty countries.”
On social media, Nigerians, South Africans and others described the US as a country of mass shootings, unemployment and other ills that would hardly make anyone want to go there, even while fearing that American visas will be much more difficult to obtain. A few others admitted in informal comments that African governments may have contributed to the image of a failed continent. AFP quoted a woman in Juba, South Sudan, saying that it was “thanks to our African leaders that we are insulted that way.”
As this bitterness in Africa toward the US grows daily, the tragedy may be that there will be a loss of confidence in America after more than two decades during which both Democrats and Republicans in the White House have been working to rebuild African trust through new development policies and projects. The creation by Congress of the Millennium Challenge Corporation during the administration of President George W. Bush in 2004 is one such project.
The Millennium Challenge was designed to establish development and investment partnerships between the US and governments with countries that demonstrate good governance and sound economic and social policies. Of 33 countries that have qualified over the years, 20 are African. Some projects include the development of solar power for Benin, an antipoverty program in Malawi expanding electricity services and in Zambia, improving water supplies, drainage and sanitation.
In other fields, the US military has increased cooperation and assistance across Africa, most recently in Nigeria and nearby countries where national armies as well as UN peacekeepers are trying to contain and stop threats from jihadist groups, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
Contemporary African history reminds people on the continent how fickle American support can be, however. In 1993, the US under President Bill Clinton withdrew troops hastily from Somalia when a battle for the capital, Mogadishu, against a powerful local warlord, cost the lives of 18 American soldiers. In 1994, also under Clinton, the US stopped the UN Security Council from authorizing more peacekeepers for Rwanda just as it was descending into a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsi.
Now, given Trump’s obvious contempt for Africans, there will be questions about counting on the US on any front: economic, political or military.
John L Hirsch, an American diplomat with more than three decades of service in Africa, including as ambassador to Sierra Leone, is a senior adviser for the International Peace Institute in New York. He recently published an article in the institute’s Global Observatory, describing the youth generation of Africans and suggesting that the cosmopolitan young, better educated and more active in government and the private sector could bring Africa to a positive turning point.
“Will Africa’s youth and women be able to bring about a new polity based on the principle of democracy and human rights,” Hirsch wrote, “or will it continue to be constrained by the politics of corrupt leaders? The great majority of African youth want a better future for their families and children, where their governments are held accountable, based on free and fair elections, allowing for alternation of power and where public resources are used in the interests of their populations.”
These young Africans are children of the social media age. While they seem to be logical partners for a strong and open American democracy, that vision is suddenly and brutally clouded by an American president who not only doesn’t want them in the US because they are black but is also intent on demeaning them and dismissing their cultures and achievements in the name of white supremacy. Because these young Africans are tuned in and media smart, they haven’t missed the message.
Nor has the message been lost among African delegations at the UN. Outside the Security Council, the delegation of Ivory Coast, which is a newly elected member of the Council for two years, muttered its reaction to Trump’s racism, saying, “Ask Americans why they voted for him in the first place.”
This article was updated.