(Los Angeles) I just returned from a month long business trip to Africa. One of the questions I was asked everywhere I went was: “what can Africa expect from the Trump administration?” When I arrived home a few days ago I got an answer much different from the diplomatic response I tried to spin during the trip.
At the recent African Global Economic and Development Summit held at the University of Southern California there were no Africans from the continent in attendance. The reason being, not one African that applied for a visa to attend the conference was granted one. Yes, you read the sentence right. Not one African from Africa was allowed to attend the conference on African economic development. This is as absurd as it sounds on a number of levels.
Let’s start with common sense. Hosting a conference on African economic development and banning Africans from attending makes as much sense as holding a seminar on fried chicken and telling Colonel Saunders he can’t come. Okay, maybe I could use a better analogy, but you get the point.
Even if one accepts the premise of Trump’s recent travel ban, the executive order only covers three African countries – Libya, Sudan, and Somalia. Business people from those countries thought it the better part of valor to not even apply for visas to attend. The people that applied for visas, and were denied, came from such countries as South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana. South Africa has Africa’s strongest and most diverse economy. Nigeria is one of the U.S.’s major suppliers of oil. Ghana has one of the continent’s strongest democracies, as reflected in President Obama singling it out for his first trip to the continent during his first term as President. So, even based on the executive order, which some view as specious, the visa denials make no sense.
Beyond having no common sense or legal basis, this broad-based denial of visas to Africans interested in discussing trade and development with their U.S. counterparts makes no sense from an economic perspective. The value that countries like South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana bring to the trade equation, aside, Africa is a place where some of the world’s strategic minerals are located. For example, graphite, which the U.S. and the U.K., have designated a “strategic mineral”, is found in abundance in places like Tanzania. Graphite is a critical component for batteries like those being developed by Tesla, a California based company. As a composite in airplane fuselages it makes planes lighter, it makes solar technology more efficient. Graphite is a new age mineral that is critical to the growth and development of the 21st century global economy. Need one say more about why such a travel ban makes no sense.
It might not be fair to lay the blame for the visa fiasco directly at the feet of the Trump administration, but what the new administration needs to appreciate is that the anti-immigrant fervor that seems to have been fanned by the president’s rhetoric is having an impact. It is not the sort of impact that will position American businesses to be competitive in the global economy. Beyond eroding any competitive advantage we might have, it concedes whole swaths of the world economy to countries like China.
Whether this wholesale ban was an unintended consequence of a poor immigration strategy, or not, this is the sort of thing the Trump administration needs to fix because it puts America’s leadership as the lynchpin of the global economy in jeopardy. With false starts and missteps like this, other countries are gearing up to fill the void we’re leaving. Or to put it another way, things like these recent travel bans won’t make America great it makes us look goofy
Ambassador Stith is the Chairman of the Pula Group, a U.S. based pan Africa company. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania during the Clinton administration and is a member of the Africa Advisory Committee to the U.S. Trade Representative.