Rory Johnson adopts the little used lens of US foreign policy in Africa to offer an analysis on ‘Trumpism’.
‘Completely baffling’ was how Richard Moncrieff, the central Africa director for the International Crisis Group, described the recent decision by the Trump administration to include Chad on its latest travel ban list which came into effect on the 18 October. Such bewilderment is understandable when one looks at the presidential proclamation that accompanied the decision. On the one hand, it praised Chad for being ‘an important and valuable counterterrorism partner of the US’, and stated that the US looked forward to ‘expanding that cooperation’ whilst just a few sentences later it admonished Chad for failing to ‘adequately share public-safety and terrorism-related information.’ Simultaneously, Chad’s immediate neighbour, Sudan, has been removed from the list. A new Sudanese alliance and the Trump administration’s inexplicable and frenetic travel ban policy decisions have led to a bizarre game of African dictator hokey-pokey which will have serious ramifications for international politics and safety and security across the Sahel region.
Since seizing power in a military coup in 1990, President Idriss Deby has moulded Chad into one of the more effective counter-terrorist allies in the sub-Saharan region for the ‘West.’ As recently as March this year, about 2,000 US troops took part in joint counter-terrorism exercises with Chadian soldiers near to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. Although details are hard to come by it is understood that the US drone base inside Chad still remains fully operational and that there is a continued presence of special forces units in the country. N’Djamena also hosts the headquarters of ‘Operation Barkhane’, France’s 4,000 strong counter-terrorism initiative that spans the breadth of the Sahel region. Consequently, the French immediately called upon the US to reverse their decision to place Chad on the travel ban list, but these requests fell on deaf ears.
Not only has this penalization of Chad angered a key US ally, but it also risks undermining the successes that have been made in combating the Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram, in neighbouring Niger and Mali with Chad already reducing its troop presence in these two countries. Certainly, supporting an authoritarian military dictatorship such as Deby’s does not come without its ‘moral hazards.’ However, the supposition that such concerns were influential in the decision to include Chad on the travel ban list can be immediately challenged when the US’s policy towards Chad’s immediate neighbour, Sudan, is considered.
When it comes to the issue of terrorism, Sudan has topped the US blacklist for decades. Designated as a ‘State Sponsor of Terrorism’ in 1993, Bashir’s regime hosted Osama bin Laden himself from 1991-1996. Sudan has repeatedly been named as one of the world’s worst states with regards to human rights’ violations, and President Bashir himself still faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in the western province of Darfur. Sudan had been placed on the Trump administration’s original travel ban list, but then, just like that, one African dictatorship was substituted for its neighbour. Just as commentators are bamboozled by Chad’s inclusion, Sudan’s reprieve seems equally unsubstantiated. That is until you dig further. Alone, Sudan has very little lobbying power, however it has recently made a new friend that does – the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE is militarily engaged as a member of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the world’s most overlooked humanitarian crisis. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is more than capable and willing to invest vast amounts of capital in military hardware, namely airpower that rains down terror from a safe distance. They are much more reluctant to put ‘boots on the ground’ and in this the shrewd Bashir spotted an opportunity. In providing more than 1,000 of his own fighters, Bashir secured a powerful new ally: UAE ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. Otaiba is a close personal friend of Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor, Jared Kushner. The link may be indirect but it is highly personal and therefore powerful. This summer Bashir offered to provide a further 6,000 Sudanese special forces to be put at the UAE’s disposal and then, just a few months later, Sudan is allowed back into the fold. Overly cynical or overly coincidental? You decide.
There are many theories of international relations that seek to explain why decisions are made. Although they differ substantially in the main they hold one thing in common: actions are not random, they are made to achieve a result or further an agenda. My suggested explanation for Sudan’s removal supports this idea of premeditation, albeit a dark and corrupt one. Chad’s inclusion, on the other hand, presents a conundrum of inexplicability. Attention has been concentrated on the hunt for a reasonable explanation (running out of passport paper simply doesn’t cut it), or an agenda which is still not forthcoming. The desperation to find a motive stems from the concern that in the absence of alternative explanations, the reason that Trump has included Chad may simply be because he can. When the agenda of the world’s most powerful man is seemingly to have no agenda, the purpose of power itself and therefore all those that purport to wield it is called into question. A potent mix of calculation and spontaneity is fantastic in its simplicity. It transfixes commentators as they struggle to distinguish the one from the other. Whether this hokey-pokey tactic of ‘shaking it all about’ is the product of a genius or a buffoon has captivated popular imagination, but it is neither provable nor relevant. What is overlooked is what it’s really ‘all about’, which in this case is finding ways to mitigate against the detrimental effects that such policy decisions will have on the precarious security situation across the Sahel region.
Rory Johnson is a research intern at UNU-CRIS. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the UN.
Photo by US Army Africa