For some 16 months now, South Africa, which is Africa’s second largest economy and its most advanced, has been without a United States ambassador. To the north and much to the chagrin of a US senator, an important ambassorship is also open. When Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State recently appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one senator raised concern that at a time that Zimbabwe is going through a make-or-break transition, the US didn’t have an ambassador in Harare.
Against such background, it is easy to predict what is about to happen to Botswana-US relations as Earl Miller’s tour of duty comes to an end this year. Formally called Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Miller presented his letters of credentials to then President Ian Khama in January 2015, a month after he was appointed. If the new US doesn’t think it is necessary to have ambassadors in major economies like South Africa and Zimbabwe, it is highly likely that the post that Miller vacates will be left open for a long period of time.
Generally, Trump takes no interest in Africa. When the topic of conversation changed to Africa at last year’s G20 summit, he promptly left the room and had his daughter, who is his senior adviser, sit in for him. His State Department has yet to appoint an assistant secretary in charge of African affairs, the top post in charge of Africa policy and Africa remains the only region without a permanent director at the National Security Council. Trump has focused on security and counter-terrorism efforts in Africa at the expense of a humanitarian and development agenda and last year, delayed US$640 million in aid that was approved by Congress. His 2018 proposed budget cuts funds to the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) by roughly a third. He also proposed to reduce funding to the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) by about $1 billion. PEPFAR, which was introduced by George Bush, supports anti-retroviral therapy for over 11 million people, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The latter should be of particular concern to Botswana which has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. Trump has also withdrawn the US from the Paris Accords on climate change which, as climatologists predict, will affect Africa so badly that the continent will become inhabitable. Such development will force Africans to flee to warmer parts of the world but Trump is putting in place immigration laws that will make it increasingly difficult for foreigners (especially Third Worlders) to enter the US. He reportedly wants Norwegians, not “Nambians.” It has been credibly alleged that Trump, whose racism occasionally bubbles to the surface, referred to African countries as “shithole countries.”
Had Miller been a political appointee and not a career diplomat, he would have terminated his mission last year January when Trump took over and the post would certainly still be unfilled. Breaking with tradition, the new US president ordered all of former President Barack Obama’s political appointees to leave their ambassadorships immediately after the inauguration. Tradition has been to allow a grace period for politically appointed ambassadors to leave a country they are posted to. This grace period gives them time to transition their children out of schools and prepare for life back in the US. Miller’s predecessor, Michelle Gavin, was an Obama political appointee and had she been in post when Trump took over, would have had to leave her ambassadorship immediately after the inauguration.