John Campbell.*
With his highly critical comments about NATO, the European Union, and the heads of government and chiefs of state of traditional allies, along with favorable comments about Russia and Vladimir Putin, one would think that President Donald Trump had little energy left for Africa. As president, he hosted a lunch for African leaders on the margins of the UN General Assembly, and he invited Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari for a working visit to Washington, but there have been no new Trump policy initiatives with respect to Africa. He has left unfilled important positions in his administration, such as the assistant secretary of state for African affairs and the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, and has tried to cut U.S. development assistance, a large portion of which goes to sub-Saharan Africa. Not only has Africa not been a traditional focus of his, President Trump’s likely best-known involvement with African countries was his characterization of them as “shitholes.”

This seemed to change at a NATO press conference in Brussels on July 12. Among other things, he said, “Africa right now has got problems like few people would even understand,” and “It is so sad. It is so vicious and violent.” He referred to “intelligence” he saw that led him to these conclusions, and called for “peace for Africa. We want peace all over the world. That is my number one goal—peace all over the world and we are building up a tremendous military because I believe through strength you get peace.”

It is difficult to know exactly why the president saw fit to comment on Africa at this particular moment. His reference to “intelligence” suggests the possibility that he read about an especially egregious atrocity in one of the intelligence summaries or cable news feed, perhaps the video of an apparent murder of a family, including a baby and small child, by Cameroonian soldiers. The president’s comments do raise questions about whether he might be contemplating a more active U.S. security role in Africa’s conflicts, but there are no signs of greater U.S. military engagement. In fact, in the aftermath of the 2017 killing of U.S. special forces troops in Niger, the U.S. military has been drawing back from direct engagements. It seems that, rather than foreshadowing a new policy initiative or direction, the president’s comments were spur-of-the-moment, and reflect an episode, not further identified, that caught his attention.

*First published by the Council on Foreign Affairs.
John Campbell is former US Ambassador to Nigeria, and a senior Fellow at CFR