President Donald Trump continued to make the rounds at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. At lunch, he attended a gathering of African leaders and made a few remarks.
And almost immediately he said this:
“Africa has tremendous business potential, I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich. I congratulate you, they’re spending a lot of money. It has tremendous business potential, representing huge amounts of different markets. … It’s really become a place they have to go, that they want to go.”
As I’ve pointed out a lot of late, there is a tendency to become inoculated to odd or controversial things Trump says because, well, he says them a lot. But, it’s important to take note of moments – like this one – in which Trump says something that, coming out of the mouth of any previous modern president would have caused a medium-to-large international controversy.
(Yes, as the Internet was quick to note, Trump also mispronounced Namibia as “Nambia.”)
What Trump is congratulating the assembled African leaders on feels a whole lot like the colonialism of the continent by European powers in the latter part of the 19th century. As the New York Public Library notes in its “Africana Age” exhibit:
“By 1900 much of Africa had been colonized by seven European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy. After the conquest of African decentralized and centralized states, the European powers set about establishing colonial state systems. The colonial state was the machinery of administrative domination established to facilitate effective control and exploitation of the colonized societies. Partly as a result of their origins in military conquest and partly because of the racist ideology of the imperialist enterprise, the colonial states were authoritarian, bureaucratic systems.”
In previous centuries, the African people have been exploited, repeatedly, by multiple western countries including the US, and the relationship bears the stain of slavery and the slave trade. Many, many books have been written on this topic.
The motivations for colonialism then – as for business interests now – were primarily economic. The rich natural resources of Africa attracted the European titans. But the impact of colonialism on Africa – the partitioning of countries’ borders, the loss of indigenous African culture etc. – has proven to be hugely long-lasting and intractable.
Giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, he was simply congratulating African leaders on the economic growth in their countries in the over-the-top and odd way he often lavishes praise on people.
But, when you use words like “I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich,” it borders on invoking the image of exploitation – and being totally clueless about the history of colonialism in Africa.
Trump sounded a more politically correct note later in his remarks when he said: “Africa, I have to say, is a continent of tremendous, tremendous potential. The outlook is bright.” (Read Trump’s full remarks here.)
Still: He could have done without the first part of his speech.