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'Frankly alarmed': Africans furious at Trump’s reported insult

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on prison reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, on Jan. 11, 2018.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

He has banned their immigrants, mispronounced the names of their countries and ridiculed their homes as "huts." But when he reportedly described the entire continent as a "shithole," Donald Trump finally triggered the storm of outrage that many Africans had politely refrained from voicing in the past.

The U.S. President's vulgar reference to African countries and Haiti as "shithole countries" – reported by U.S. media on Thursday night and later denied by Mr. Trump – has provoked a wave of anger around the world. A spokesman for the United Nations human-rights office said the comments were "racist" and "shameful." Canada's former governor-general, Michaëlle Jean, who was born in Haiti, said the comments were offensive and disturbing.

Mr. Trump's denial did not end the uproar. One of those in the room when he made the remarks, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, rejected the denial and insisted that Mr. Trump had repeatedly used the word "shitholes" to describe the African countries where immigrants originated.

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Related: From 'bill of love' to vulgarity: Trump roils U.S. with offensive comments on immigrants

The reaction was strongest in Africa, where most politicians have been relatively quiet in their response to Mr. Trump in the past, despite behaviour that often seemed insulting or ignorant.

The furious response on Friday suggested that his latest comments have done real damage to U.S. relations with Africa – a continent that U.S. diplomats have carefully cultivated because of American business and military interests in the region.

The African Union, which up till now had said almost nothing about Mr. Trump's statements, said it was "frankly alarmed" by his latest comments.

"This statement flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice," AU spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo told the Associated Press on Friday. "We believe that a statement like this hurts our shared global values on diversity, human rights and reciprocal understanding."

There were similar protests and sharp criticism from a range of African governments, politicians and ruling parties, which had largely refrained from reacting to Mr. Trump in the past, even when he had mocked the "huts" of Nigeria and had mistakenly cited the African country of "Nambia" – a country that does not exist.

Most African countries have been reluctant to confront Mr. Trump because they want to maintain good relations with the United States, to keep foreign aid and investment flowing. Some African leaders had criticized the Trump administration previously for its temporary bans on immigrants from Somalia, Sudan and Chad, but there has never been such widespread condemnation from across the continent as there was on Friday after the overnight reports of Mr. Trump's comments.

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"Ours is not a 'shithole country,' and neither is Haiti or any other country in distress," said Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary-general of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress.

The comments by Mr. Trump were "extremely offensive," she told journalists on Friday.

"It's not as if the United States doesn't have difficulties," she said. "There are millions of unemployed people in the United States, millions of people who don't have health care or access to education, and we would not deign to make comments as derogatory as that about any country that has any kind of social or economic difficulties."

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the largest South African opposition party, said Mr. Trump's comments were "abhorrent" and would damage Africa's relations with the United States. "He confirms a patronizing view of Africa and promotes a racist agenda," Mr. Maimane said in a tweet.

The government of Botswana said Mr. Trump's comments were "highly irresponsible, reprehensible and racist." It said it had summoned the U.S. ambassador to a meeting to express its displeasure. It called on other countries to "strongly condemn" the comments.

Senegal President Macky Sall said he was "shocked" by the comments. "I reject them and condemn them unequivocally," he said on Twitter.

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Uganda's international-relations minister, Henry Okello Oryem, said the comments were "unfortunate and regrettable." And an opposition politician in Ghana called for a boycott of the United States by developing countries to protest Mr. Trump's "bigoted, divisive" politics.

While the insulting language by Mr. Trump might play well among his political base in the United States, it could damage U.S. economic and geopolitical interests in Africa.

With its vast resources and growing consumer market, Africa represents a key region of interest for many U.S. business investors – as Mr. Trump himself admitted in a meeting with African leaders last September. "It has a tremendous business potential and representing huge amounts of different markets," he told them. "I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich."

The United States also needs co-operation from African countries in order to fight Islamist terrorist groups, which are active in countries such as Somalia and Mali.

The U.S. military presence has dramatically expanded in Africa in recent years. In 2006, only 1 per cent of U.S. special-operations forces were deployed in Africa. By last year, nearly 17 per cent were in Africa, according to Nick Turse, an independent researcher on the subject. This included 1,700 U.S. commandos who were active in at least 20 African countries. In total, there was a U.S. military presence in 33 of the 54 African countries last year.

Meanwhile, there was also strong reaction to Mr. Trump's comments in Haiti, including protests from Haitian media and Haiti's ambassador to Washington.

Ms. Jean, Canada's former governor-general who now leads the Francophonie organization of French-speaking countries, said the Trump comments were "an insult before humanity."

The comments were "troubling and offensive," she told The Globe and Mail.

"Today, Jan. 12, marks the commemoration of the earthquake that devastated Haiti eight years ago, and it was so disturbing this morning to hear President Trump's comments reported all over the news calling my poor native land and African countries 'shithole' nations," she said.

With a report by Sherrill Sutherland

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