Jason Burke, The Guardian, February 6, 2020
New travel bans imposed by President Trump on four African countries have prompted anger, concern, disappointment and resignation on the continent.
The measures significantly restrict visas that could end with permanent residency in the US for Eritreans and Nigerians, and end so-called “diversity” migration visas from Tanzania and Sudan.
Chad Wolf, the acting homeland security secretary, said the countries hit by the new measures failed to meet US security and information-sharing standards. Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar were also included in the list.
Trump has made cracking down on immigration a focus of his 2020 re-election campaign, and his travel ban policy is popular with Republican supporters – but experts say that it will harm US efforts to roll back the growing influence of Russia and China in Africa.
A previous ban, introduced in 2017, barred nearly all immigrants and travellers from three African countries – Libya, Somalia and Chad – and five elsewhere. The policy sparked outrage and was revised amid court challenges before the US supreme court ultimately upheld it in June 2018.
“I think we are seeing a domestic political agenda steamrolling foreign policy concerns,” said Matthew T Page, associate fellow with the Africa programme at Chatham House, London.
Eritrea is a minor economic and diplomatic player on the continent, but is strategically situated on the Red Sea. The repressive, authoritarian regime has been courted by Moscow, which wants to build a major logistics base there to rival the vast US base in nearby Djibouti.
The Eritrean foreign minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, said the government saw the ban as a political move that would hurt the country’s relations with the United States.
“We find this move unacceptable,” he told Reuters by telephone.
An official statement from Asmara said the measure was an “unfriendly act”.
Page said that the new measures sent an alienating and patronising message toNigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 206 million inhabitants – and its biggest economy.
The country sent 7,900 immigrants to the US in 2018, by far the biggest number for any African nation. Almost all visas went to relatives of US citizens.
Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, said he was “disappointed” by the decision, and President Muhammadu Buhari has appointed a minister to examine the problems that led to Nigeria’s inclusion.
Nigeria has been a key ally of the US in Africa, consistently voting with Washington in international forums. Economic and cultural ties between the more than 400,000 Nigerian Americans and the country are strong.
Atiku Abubakar, an opposition leader, said he was saddened by the decision.
“The ban does not take into account the pro-American sentiments of the Nigerian public … and the solidarity previous Nigerian administrations have had with the United States,” Abubakar said on Twitter.
The ban also seems to run counter to a new US policy for Africa – unveiled in 2018 by Trump’s then national security adviser, John Bolton – prioritising trade and the fight against Islamic militants. At the time, Bolton accused “great power competitors, namely China and Russia” of “predatory practices”.
In recent years, Russia has sought to increase influence in Nigeria, offering military cooperation to help Abuja’s weak military fight a tenacious Islamic extremist insurgency in the country’s north-east. The country is also a fast-growing market for Chinese exports, and Beijing’s state-owned companies have built airports and railways financed by major loans from Chinese banks.
Beyond the geopolitics, the new US measures will have significant impact on individuals.
“Trump’s new law is very hurtful for us,” said Awet, an Eritrean refugee who is now a US citizen.
Awet, who used a nickname to avoid reprisals against his family, was resettled to the United States in 2009. When a 2018 peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea made it possible for his four children to leave Eritrea safely, Awet began trying to bring them over on family visas.
“At least let the children in … those who want to come to be with their mother or father,” he said.
According to official figures quoted by Fox News, 1,674 such visas were awarded in Sudan last year.
A fierce battle for influence in Khartoum is under way, pitting western powers against Middle Eastern states as well as Russia and China. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who took power following the fall of the dictator Omar al-Bashir last year, recently received an invitation to visit Washington as part of a new push by the US to improve relations.
But the decision to restrict visas has disappointed many Sudanese young people.
“It was disappointing. I was thinking that could be an opportunity to upgrade oneself in terms of work and study in America”, said Muzamil Abdulmola, 31, who has a degree in agricultural engineering.
Trump is viewed coolly across much of the continent – though he has significant popularity in some places, including Nigeria. The president prompted fury after it was credibly reported he had described African nations, as well as Haiti and El Salvador as “shitholes” and questioned why so many of their citizens had ever been permitted to enter America.
Ahmed Abdulkarim, a Sudanese who works with an NGO helping refugees and has applied three times for the diversity visa, said the ruling had dismayed many family members and friends.
“Trump is racist and hates Sudan … I hope opportunities open up and we get treated equally like other nations,” Abulkarim, 41, said. “It could have been an opportunity to let my daughter have a decent life in the States.”