On the third leg of her trip to what her husband calls the ‘shithole countries’ of Africa, Melania Trump dressed like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa – pith helmet, jodhpurs, riding boots – and bottle fed a baby Kenyan elephant. A couple of days ago in Ghana, she visited a slave fort, held a baby and distributed teddy bears. In Malawi she gave out footballs. When she jets off to Egypt tomorrow, who knows what she will do – but one suspects there will be pyramids and a camel.
The FLOTUS entourage, whose arrival closed down an entire terminal of Nairobi’s international airport for several hours, announced Melania’s Africa tour would, under the banner of her children’s initiative Be Best, focus on ‘child welfare, education, tourism and conservation’. I therefore got the footballs and the elephant – but otherwise I missed the point in the same way Be Best misses ‘the’ in the middle. Wikipedia says Be Best is all about cyberbullying and opioid abuse among kids. These are not really priorities in Africa. Just four per cent of all Ugandans have smart phones. In Somalia folks are hoping to score basic life-saving drugs like penicillin before they get around to overdosing on Fentanyl.
In the search for significance and meaning, the media indulged in a sort of Kremlinology of Melania’s clothes. In Accra it was an expensive stripy Celine dress that the wind so, so nearly blew up like an inside out umbrella. In Malawi the wind nearly caused another wardrobe malfunction and this time it was a beige shirt dress of the kind celebrities might wear while adopting African babies. Today’s swinging safari garb (no riding crop sadly) was widely seen on social media as insulting because it was ‘colonial’. Did Melania mean anything by it though?
‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,’ says Meryl Streep at the start of Out of Africa – and her version of a Danish accent sounds a lot like Melania’s Slovenian accent to me. I wondered if Melania was planning her escape to Africa, after Moscow finally releases the pee pee videos. Kenya is the ideal place for her, for this has long been where the famous, the royals and ultra-rich come to play or lie low. Before her death, rumours were rife that Princess Diana was about to immigrate to Kenya. How bitterly ironic it would be if Melania settled in the country her husband claimed was Obama’s real birthplace.
Or perhaps Trump deployed Melania to Africa on a charm offensive to make amends for his ‘shithole countries’ jibe, for praising progress in the republic of ‘Nambia’, or for calling the continent a ‘crime ridden mess waiting to explode’. Nope.
It turns out that none of what Trump has ever tweeted about Africa (‘every penny going to Africa will be stolen’…‘elephants in Zimbabwe are so abundant they are devastating the National Forest’) has damaged him.
A Pew Research Center poll across 25 countries released on Monday found that Trump is more popular in Africa than in any other continent. Some 56 per cent of Kenyans interviewed gave Trump the thumbs up and reckon he’s a positive influence on world affairs. Some 59 per cent of Nigerians agree, against a global median of 27 per cent. A massive 70 per cent of Kenyans have a favourable view of the United States, compared to 30 per cent among Germans.
It is an inconvenient truth for Westerners on the Left, so keen to be on the right side of Africans, that Republican presidents have often been popular in the continent – sometimes more so than the Democrats. Obama was greatly liked across Africa until people here saw he was not behaving the way a loyal son should. He did not distribute largesse to his kin. He almost shunned Africa, and apart from ramping up counter-terrorism operations and drone strikes, none of his initiatives have had a lasting legacy. By contrast under Clinton the African Growth and Opportunity Act expanded the continent’s trade access to the US.
In 2006, George W. Bush gave Salva Kiir Mayardit, the extremely violent president of South Sudan, a ten gallon hat – and while butchering multitudes of his own people Salva has never been seen in public since without a Stetson. But Dubya also launched PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which funded the provision of anti-retroviral drugs in poor countries, mainly in Africa. That initiative has saved more than 11 million lives and helped test, treat or counsel tens of millions of others.
Many Westerners throw their hands up in despair that Trump threatens to pull funding from the United Nations, which relies on the US for 22 per cent of its budget. But many Africans have a very jaundiced view of the UN’s performance, which has failed to lift millions out of poverty and allows peacekeepers who rape children to walk free. Last month the head of the UN Environment Programme found himself in hot soup for diddling his expenses and clocking up travel claims of $488,519 ‘contrary to the ethos of carbon emission reduction’. UNEP’s global headquarters are in Nairobi, where it has long been known as UNEPT.
Trump wants to draw down the counter-terrorism operations ramped up by his predecessor which put 7,000 US forces in Africa, fighting Al Qaeda and its franchises Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. For Western human rights workers it might turn out that the one thing worse than US Predator drone strikes is no drone strikes, given what jihadists do to school girls – but a recent Rand Corporation analysis found that US military assistance to the security sector in Africa over the last 25 years has cost billions and been ‘highly inefficient’.
The US still gives Africa around US $8 billion a year. This is more money than China gives the continent – and yet everybody you meet and everywhere you go in Africa today is talking about Beijing’s influence on the continent. The Chinese may be eating all our sea slugs and forcing us into debt while building sub-standard highways, but they have the attention and respect of Africans in a way that the West can no longer match. One reason for that is that people in Africa want the infrastructure, loans and business that China offers more than they want the cereal harvests of Nebraska dumped on every plate from Zanzibar to Timbuktu.
For the Westerners who reckon capitalism is bad, capitalism in Africa is the worst thing in the world, but despite hoping the local inhabitants will agree with them, the fact is that this is a continent of private enterprise. Poverty does that to you. People here do not much care that Trump cheats on Melania or that he has a Manhattan apartment that is so tasteless in its dictator chic that Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Empire would have looked at home there. These things are pretty common among the Big Men of Africa. But when Trump told African leaders last year that he saw ‘tremendous business potential’ in the continent and that he had a bunch of friends ‘trying to get rich’ there, he was speaking a language many understand.