Experts review importance of Melania Trump's Africa tour Featured

  • Written by  AGGREY MUTAMBO
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Experts review importance of Melania Trump's Africa tour

Melania Trump, the wife of US President Donald Trump, was already used to the limelight before she became First Lady.

A former model, the runway and magazine covers were part of her life.

But when she toured four African countries this week, ostensibly to market her new campaign called ‘Be Best’, observers of international politics saw it as soft diplomacy following President Trump’s apparent disinterest — even disdain — towards the continent.

“She is a very strong emissary for cleaning up that Trump mess. This is a woman who has disagreed on attacks against minorities because she knows her background,” Prof Maurice Amutabi, Vice-Chancellor of Lukenya University and a commentator on African political issues, told the Sunday Nation.

“She is an immigrant herself, having come from Slovenia, so that presents her as an amiable person to Africans who also have many of their people in the US,” he added.


BE BEST

This week, Mrs Trump visited Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt — making some international media to describe the trip inaccurately as a visit to every corner of the continent.

But the New York Times described her presence as providing acts of grace for a government with tense relations with Africa, including “softening the image” of the Trump administration.

The President, an avid Twitter user, told millions of his followers in what was miles apart from his previously reported view of the continent as a “sh*thole”: “Our country’s First Lady is doing really well in Africa. The people love her, and she loves them! It is a beautiful thing to see.”

Initially known as Melanija Knavs, Mrs Trump kept a low profile in the White House until May this year when she launched the ‘Be Best’ campaign.

The White House website says the programme focuses on “social, emotional, and physical health” of children, targeting cyberbulling, drug abuse and other aspects.

Mrs Trump’s soft side contradicts President Trump’s use of a vulgar reference to the continent and policies that appear to target aid, trade and immigration.

OBAMA

During her relatively low-key solo tour, only interrupted traffic flows and scenes of Secret Service agents could tell there was a VIP around.

So, was there politics in the visit? Prof Amutabi says there was, since President Trump has not visited the continent and rarely mentions Africa in his speeches, notwithstanding the White House visits by presidents Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt), Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria) and Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya).

To many in Africa, Prof Amutabi says, it would be difficult to reconcile the US President’s dismissal of Africa and Mrs Trump’s goodwill gestures.

Yet for Africa’s bruised ego, the Trumps will have to work more to regain the warmth Barack Obama enjoyed, for example — with the added advantage of tracing his roots to Kenya.

Mr Kenneth Okwaroh, a researcher at local think-tank Africa Centre for People, Institutions and Society, told the Sunday Nation there will be no particular political shift from the visit.

“I don’t think (President) Trump cares about what we feel. However, Melania Trump is trying to occupy a particular space, a softer stand focusing on humanitarian work.

"The question is: what is she coming to do? Has she brought the money to help improve lives of those women and children?” he asked.

DIPLOMACY

Mr Okwaroh did agree that spouses of presidents may influence the perception of their foreign audiences, but it may not necessarily ease bilateral tensions unless she engages in a programme that can determine relations.

“These perceptions are very strong. In international relations, what that mechanism (of soft diplomacy) can achieve is very minimal unless she has a specific message for the head of state,” he said.

However, there are some who see Mrs Trump’s visit as a sign of easing tensions.

“Generally, US-Africa relations have not been at their very best under President Trump. However, there seems to have been some change of heart as evidenced by the recent visit by President Kenyatta to Washington and now the visit by the US First Lady to the continent and Kenya in particular,” George Mucee, the Practice Leader at Immigration consultancy firm Fragomen-Kenya, said.

“Although not an elected official of the US government, that President Trump allowed the visit is a good signal and I will not be surprised if, after she goes back, we hear of plans by President Trump to visit Africa in the near future,” he said.

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