In a news conference with Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commission, the men were asked by a reporter from the China Global Television Network about President Trump’s description of Africa as filled with “shithole countries,” a remark the reporter said “Africa is still digesting.”
Wearing the tight smile he used on a recent tour of Latin America, where he was asked to respond to similarly insulting remarks from Mr. Trump, or in Europe, where his reception was as chilly as the wintry weather, Mr. Tillerson said that relations between the United States and Africa remain strong.
“The United States commitment to Africa is quite clear in terms of the importance we place on the relationship,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Faki said, “I believe this incident is of the past, and with the visit of Secretary of State Tillerson, and the evidence of the relations between Africa and the United States is personified through his visit.”
To round out the global distancing that friendly nations are doing with the Trump administration, representatives from 11 countries — including Japan, Canada and Australia, close American allies — were in Santiago, Chile, on Thursday to sign a trade pact that President Trump rejected in his first days in office.
Yet again Mr. Tillerson warned Thursday against Chinese investment. But with the Trump administration slashing assistance programs in Africa just as the Chinese are ramping up investments, he got as prickly a response in Ethiopia to his China-bashing as he had in South America.
China has invested $15 billion in Ethiopia in recent years compared to about $550 million by the United States. Besides the African Union’s headquarters, China has built a light-rail system, a vast ring road and a host of other structures in Addis Ababa.
“I think Africans are mature enough to engage in partnerships of their own volition,” Mr. Faki said.
Mr. Tillerson also got trolled by Russian officials.
Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was in Ethiopia at the same time as Mr. Tillerson and even stayed at the same hotel. The Russians insisted on social media that they had asked for a meeting between the two but had been rebuffed.
A taunting post on the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Washington said such a meeting “would be a great opportunity to discuss a range of accumulated issues on regional and global agenda not through the press but directly.”
In a news conference, Mr. Tillerson dismissed the Russian taunts as “silly,” saying he had met with Mr. Lavrov more times than he could remember and that the two knew each other’s phone numbers.
Mr. Tillerson’s trip to Africa comes as the chaos in the administration appears to be increasing and his own place in it remains uncertain. Gary D. Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser, announced his resignation while Mr. Tillerson was in the air. And just after he landed in Ethiopia, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top adviser, was in Mexico for meetings with its president and foreign minister — meetings that excluded the American ambassador — Roberta S. Jacobson, who plans to resign in May.
Mr. Tillerson could hardly complain about her exclusion — since he has often refused to include ambassadors in his own meetings with top foreign officials. But Mr. Kushner’s continued efforts to serve as the administration’s intermediary in crucial foreign relations have undercut Mr. Tillerson’s authority.
Mr. Tillerson is out of Washington just as South Korean officials fly in to brief their American counterparts about their talks with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The administration’s pressure campaign against North Korea is one of Mr. Tillerson’s signature efforts, something he mentions all the time.
But fence-mending was needed in Africa, where Mr. Tillerson is making a five-nation tour. He arrived in Ethiopia just as this country has plunged into political turmoil. A police state with a democratic veneer, Ethiopia is buffeted by violent clashes in diverse ethnic enclaves where activists are demanding political and economic reform. The government recently declared a state of emergency.
After his meetings at the African Union, Mr. Tillerson rode by motorcade across town to meet Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister, and Workneh Gebeyehu, the foreign minister.
Mr. Desalegn announced weeks ago that he would resign, although he has remained in power while a successor is chosen.
In a news conference with Mr. Gebeyehu, Mr. Tillerson said that while North Korea had sent “potentially positive signals” in talks with Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang remained “a long ways from negotiations.”
“The first step is to have some kind of talks about talks,” Mr. Tillerson said.
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