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Diplomacy And Damage Control: Tillerson Tours Africa After Trump's Comments


We're going to begin the program today by focusing on Africa where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a five-nation tour heading to Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. Before he left, aides said the themes of the trip are governance and democracy, trade and investment and counterterrorism. Before he left, he laid out his U.S.-Africa strategy this way...


REX TILLERSON: The United States pursues, develops sustainable growth that bolsters institutions, strengthens rule of law and builds the capacity of African countries to stand on their own two feet.

MARTIN: Over the next few minutes, we'll take on each of these threats and we're going to start with Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She served as ambassador to Liberia and as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Presidents Obama and Trump.

Ambassador, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: And I think as many people will remember, the last time the U.S.-Africa relationship was very much in the news was when President Trump made his reported, now-infamous derogatory statements about certain African countries. So the question is, is this trip primarily damage control?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I think it's a little bit of that, but it's also what the secretary announced, and I would probably put it in a different order. It's security, it's trade and investment and then democracy and governance is a far number three.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense that this administration has defined a posture toward Africa apart from, frankly, these derogatory comments?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think that remains to be seen. I think the fact of the secretary's trip says to all of us that they are trying to make an effort to develop a policy and to reaffirm the relationship with African countries. They realize that Africa matters one year into the administration, and they realize that they have to engage with Africa. So I think that's a positive thing, but I do think they are still working to develop a coherent policy.

MARTIN: Has anybody even been nominated to replace you as assistant secretary of state?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don't think anyone has been nominated. I did hear a name on the news last week - Tibor Nagy, who I know quite well - and we were very pleased to hear that, finally, there's a name out there.

MARTIN: But what does that say, though?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I think it says that, for this administration, Africa was not important.

MARTIN: This visit is occurring just weeks after another mass kidnapping of schoolgirls by this insurgent group Boko Haram of which we've heard so much. He's also visiting Chad which is one of the countries included in the president's travel ban. What is the secretary of state hoping to accomplish in terms of counterterrorism by visiting? I mean, what kinds of conversations will they be having?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I think, in Nigeria, they certainly will be having discussions about how the U.S. can be more engaged with the Nigerians. During the Obama administration, we had discussed providing military equipment that never came forward. I suspect that the Nigerians will bring that issue up, and they will look for ways that we can cooperate more in helping them to address the threat of Boko Haram, and I hope that they talk about the most recent kidnapping of these girls. A hundred young girls, in school, kidnapped - that's a huge, huge story, and I heard very little in the press about it.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, is a trip like this helpful even if he seems to be rather thinly staffed, even if the programs that he is touting are slated for drastic cuts under this administration's budget? I mean, does that - just the trip itself make a difference?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The trip does make a difference. If you've seen some of the readouts from his stop in Kenya and his stop in in Ethiopia, they've been very, very positive. And I think that, again, it sends a message to these key partners that the United States cares.

MARTIN: That's Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She served as ambassador to Liberia and as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Presidents Obama and Trump, serving until 2017.

Ambassador, thank you so much for being here.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.