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How Trump can turn a blunder on Africa into a win for democracy

December 29, 2016


Africa watchers were scrambling the day after Christmas, when the spokesperson for president of the Republic of Congo, Thierry Moungalla announced on his Twitter feed that President-Elect Donald Trump would meet with Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

It would be Trump’s first encounter with any African head of state!

The purported topic of conversation was to be Libya, a country where ISIS has taken root and an uncontrolled flow of refugees threatens to destabilize neighboring states and undermine the security of Europe.

Plausible. … Sassou is the chair of the Africa Union’s Committee on Libya.

 From that single tweet date-lined Brazzaville, the nation’s capital, the story exploded across the internet and was picked up by US and international media.

“Trump’s first meeting on Africa over Libya, with Congo’s Sassou Nguesso,” wrote Reuters. The Hill reported “Trump will meet with the President of Congo.” “Who is Sassou Nguesso?” the International Business Times wrote. The Francophone media likewise pushed the story out on their platforms.

By early evening on Dec. 26, PST, my iPhone started to ping continuously with notifications based on the Congo news.

“Does this mean that Trump will place the fight against terrorism in Africa ahead of long-standing support for democracy and human rights?” a representative from a prominent NGO asked me on WhatsApp.

“This is a president who changed the constitution so he could run for a third-term, extending his 32 years in office to perpetuity!” She was outraged.

Then a friend living in the West African nation of Liberia, originally from the Diaspora, started a chat with me on Facebook, “Sassou Nguesso represents the strong-men of the past. Is American policy going backwards? Please tell me no!”

Everyone seemed to be tracking the story. A journalist based in London reached out to me by email and asked, “Any idea how this (meeting) got scheduled? And why? Do you know when the Trump people will assign someone to Africa?”

I was just as perplexed as everyone else, but fortunately I didn’t have to speculate for long, because by mid-day on the 27th, Hope Hicks, spokeswoman for the Trump transition team, after being prompted that the story was spiraling, told Reuters, “No meeting had been set with Sassou Nguesso.”

It’s not surprising to me that a single tweet, date-lined Brazzaville, without even secondary verification, went viral on mainstream media. After all, Africa policy has been a black hole for candidate — Trump and the incoming Trump administration.

The continent was mentioned only anecdotally during the campaign, and according to reports, as of Dec. 2, none of the calls Trump and Vice President-elect Pence conducted with foreign leaders included an African head of state.

While it would be convenient to attribute this unforced error to another instance of fake news, it would only be half-true. As in a vacuum of emptiness, rumor and speculation rule. And that’s why the Congo story got legs.

The Trump transition team needs to take the Congo experience to heart, and recognize that an entire part of the world, one where approximately 1.2 billion people reside, a continent that is critical to U.S. food, energy and national security, with vast and untapped potential, needs a placeholder.

Rather than let the Africa policy void be filled by the speculators, or it wait out until the confirmation hearing of the Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, the new administration should indicate early that it will support the bi-partisan/bi-cameral policy that has defined U.S.-Africa relations for decades — a policy grounded in democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, private-sector led development and transparency.

And with that as a basis, a good place to start its African outreach would be shouting out to Ghana, which just completed its fourth consecutive peaceful transfer since the country returned to civilian rule in 1993.

Earlier this month, on Dec. 9, the Chairwoman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, Charlotte Osei, declared Nana Akufo-Addo the president of the Republic Ghana with 54 percent of the vote.

Akufo-Addo, from the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), beat the sitting president, John Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), in a highly contested campaign, where many feared violence. It was the first time in Ghana’s history that an incumbent president was defeated.

And in gestures of grace and political maturity, President Mahama called Nana Akufo-Addo to concede the election, and Akufo-Addo, in his acceptance speech, promised to be the president of all the people of Ghana.

Johnnie Carson, the former U.S. assistant secretary of State for Africa Affairs leading the U.S. observer mission from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) called the process one of the best run elections that he had witnessed in the past 20 years. He cited Ghana as “the gold standard” for African democracy.

On Jan. 7, 2017, Nana Akufo-Addo will be inaugurated as the fifth president of Ghana’s Fourth Republic.

So how about it team Trump? Signals are important. Maybe a congratulatory letter to Akufo-Addo and the people of Ghana are in order early in the New Year.

*The Hill.K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a DC-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016).

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