For a while now I have been itching to write something non-speculative about what South Africa and the rest of the continent can expect from President Trump, but the truth is, two months into the new administration, there is no way of knowing for sure what, or who, this strange crowd has in store for us.
Personnel-wise, things are still up in the air. As of Tuesday night, 495 of the 553 key positions requiring Senate confirmation had yet to be nominated by the White Houses, let alone confirmed.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, was supposed have the inside track for Assistant Secretary of State for Africa but has apparently stumbled. Now the mentioners are mentioning James Dunlap of the Scowcroft Group, the international advisory firm founded by Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the President Gerald Ford and then the first George Bush. Scowcroft endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump, but perhaps his sin — a mortal one for hopefuls thus far — will not be visited on his associates.
Dunlap would be an interesting choice. He knows southern Africa well, having lived in SA, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He has been involved in energy, mining and telecoms deals in Angola, DRC, Ethiopia and Tanzania. He did a spell in government as Special Advisor in State’s Africa Bureau, focused on energy.
Promoting his nomination, I’m told, is Walter Kansteiner, a founding member of the Scowcroft Group, who had the Assistant Secretary job for a couple of years in the second Bush administration. Currently, he’s based in London as ExxonMobil’s honcho for relations with Africans governments, so he has the ear of his former CEO, now Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
As for the ambassadorship to SA, Breitbart editor-at-large Joel Pollak, once favoured, is off the pace. Rumour has it Pretoria was unenthusiastic about granting agrement to this former Tony Leon speechwriter turned hard-right Trumpian imbongi.
The son-in-law of Business Day guest columnist Rhoda Kadalie, he probably didn’t deserve the savaging he was given by the Daily Maverick, but as a protege of Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right Rasputin, he would still have been an odd choice. Should White House spokesman Sean Spicer fall or trip on his sword, Pollak would be a contender for the Goebbels Memorial Podium.
Alternatives for SA are said to include Anthony Carroll, a regular at the Mining Indaba who hangs his hat at Manchester Trade, a Washington advice and advocacy shop deeply involved with shaping and advocating for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Carroll is highly regarded by Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of House International Relations Committee. Just as there were Good Germans, so these are both Good Republicans.
Also mentioned is investment banker Peter O’Malley, a dual US and Irish citizen who represented Credit Suisse in Johannesburg in the 90’s after serving as an election observer in 1994. His resume says he “help(ed) establish Black Economic Empowerment vehicles and investments”, “advised and structured $100 million in investments in SA” and that he “maintain(s) business and ministerial relationships”.
What’s going on over at the National Security Council remains a mystery. The top Africa slot was initially filled by a Marine intelligence officer, Robin Townly, a protege of Trump’s first NSC adviser, the whackjob Michael Flynn. The CIA reportedly vetoed Townly’s application for clearance to see “sensitive compartmentalised information”, the kind that includes the identities of sources. He had to go. Flynn was then forced to resign for being economical with the truth about his contacts the Russia’s ambassador. By all accounts, the agency was happy to see the backs of both.
On the trade front, Florie Liser, the Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa since 2003, has gone, taking her grace and immense institutional memory with her to the Corporate Council on Africa where she has replaced Steve Hayes as CEO. The job is more about organising meetings and raising money to survive, which Hayes was good at, than about contributing to the formulation of policy, where Liser would shine. If and by whom she is to be replaced must await Senate confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, the neanderthal protectionist Trump has named to put America First as US Trade Representative.
President Trump’s sole engagement with Africa, as far as can be told without straying in #FAKENEWS, has been telephone conversations with Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and our own Jacob Zuma. It’s hard to read much into the pabular official readouts beyond noting that Buhari got an invite to DC (or Mar-a-Lago) and Zuma didn’t. That would seem to signify that Trump, a dolt on so much else, has grasped that Nigeria is the bigger and more influential power and likely to remain so as long as Zuma is in office. And, of course, Nigeria has real skin in the fight against jihadism, plus the capacity to project power regionally, both important ticks in Trumpian boxes.