United States president-elect Donald Trump paid little to no attention to African affairs during his colorful presidential campaign, focusing primarily on a domestic agenda. When he did talk about international matters it was almost always in the context of national security and trade.
When it comes to US international policy, Africa has a relatively low profile on issues of security and trade, so it hasn’t been a surprise that Trump has said next to nothing about the continent. This is why it’s something of a head-scratcher that Trump’s first meeting with an African leader looks likely to be with Congo Brazzaville’s president Denis Sassou Nguesso. The meeting is expected to happen on Tuesday, according to a tweet by the Congolese president’s spokesman, who said they’ll discuss the Libyan crisis and other African matters. Nguesso is chair of the African Union’s committee on Libya.
The collapse of Libya as a governable state is fuelling a security crisis in the region, allowing the militant group ISIL to take root and creating more instability. There is also a mounting refugee crisis with smugglers take advantage of the absence of rule and law and attempt to move more people via Libya’s coastline to Europe.
Nguesso, 73, has been president of Congo-Brazzaville for 19 consecutive years, and was re-elected in March for another seven years. But in total he has been president for 32 years, when you exclude the only five years he didn’t run the country, between 1992 and 1997.
This March, when he ran for office again, he ordered that the country’s internet be shut down, supposedly to avoid people using social media to organize security challenges.
In other words, Nguesso isn’t exactly the face of the new and progressive Africa. He’s a classic African strongman leader. Maybe that’s the attraction for Trump. There have been countless columns written in the last three months that Trump has ‘strongman’ tendencies, and that his hero is the ultimate modern day-strongman, Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The prospect of the meeting has already being criticized by long-term Africa watchers like journalist and author Howard French.
But Nguesso has had a decent relationship with US presidents in recent years. Despite intense criticism of Nguesso’s democratic record, president Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush have both welcomed him to Washington DC.