U.S. President Donald Trump revealed deeper levels of ignorance about Africa than many thought possible during a luncheon speech this week to a group of African leaders. During his brief, 800-word speech, Trump twice mentioned the non-existent country of “Nambia.” Immediately after the speech, there was widespread disbelief and even confusion as to whether the president was referring to Gambia, Namibia or Zambia. Later, the White House confirmed that the president had indeed spoken in error about Namibia.
While the gaffe itself is insignificant, it comes amid a broader context of growing U.S. detachment from Africa as Washington’s policy for the continent appears increasingly rudderless. Wednesday’s speech was the first major address (which is being generous) the president has given about Africa since he came to office, while policy for the continent drifts amid turmoil over at the State Department. Trump was slow to nominate an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs whose confirmation is now stuck in the Senate.
Reaction to the “Nambia” speech largely ranged from ridicule to “what else do you expect from this guy?” African social media commentary, which are usually quick to criticize foreign leaders who disrespect Africa, were surprisingly benign, just laughing it off. Namibian president Hage Geingob, for his part, even went so far as to suggest that Trump’s error was actually a blessing as it will invite more attention to be focused on his country.
What’s interesting here is how the United States, despite any sense of a coherent policy, declining corporate investment and steadily expanding military presence in Africa seems to get a pass from critics who level charges of “neo-colonialism” and “imperialism” towards other countries including China, Japan and some European states.
In this edition of the China in Africa podcast, Eric & Cobus discuss the different narratives about the U.S. relationship with Africa compared to that of China’s and some of the reasons why African perceptions vary so greatly between the U.S. and China.