In his first meeting with an African leader, Trump called Muhammadu Buhari’s homeland ‘beautiful’ and said he would like to visit
Donald Trump was described as “the perfect African president” way back in October 2015 when the comedian Trevor Noah drew parallels between the then long shot candidate’s xenophobia, mendacity, braggadocio and lavish lifestyle with certain leaders on the continent. “Donald Trump is presidential,” Noah, from South Africa, said on the Daily Show. “He just happens to be running on the wrong continent.”
The US president has said little about Africa since taking office except when inventing a new country – “Nambia” – and slandering “shithole countries” (allegedly). On Monday, he hosted a leader from sub-Saharan Africa for the first time: Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria. The gaffe potential was immense.
On a sunny day in the White House rose garden, a journalist brought up the “shithole” affair, which was described by Nigeria at the time as “deeply hurtful, offensive and unacceptable” if true and prompted it to summon a US official for an explanation.
Buhari, 75, wearing shades, was diplomatic. “I’m very careful with what the press says about [people] other than myself,” he said. “I’m not sure about the validity or whether that allegation against the president was true or not. So the best thing for me is to keep quiet.”
Then Trump interjected. He did not confirm the remark but did not exactly deny it either. “We didn’t discuss it,” he said. Buhari laughed.
Trump continued: “You do have some countries that are in very bad shape and very tough places to live in. But we didn’t discuss it because the president knows me and he knows where I’m coming from and I appreciate that. We did not discuss it.”
Trump and Buhari touched on aid and removing trade barriers, agriculture and oil, military and intelligence cooperation and the fights against corruption and Islamist terrorism. The US president described Boko Haram’s infamous kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls as “tough stuff”.
He also seemed to offer a peculiar, ethically questionable quid pro quo: “I hope all African countries and countries throughout the world, that we also will be supporting you and that they will likewise support us in our bid, along with Canada and Mexico, for the 2026 World Cup.”
Trump added ominously: “We will be watching very closely, and any help they can give us in that bid we would appreciate.” This is unlikely to go down with Fifa, which has is seeking to root out political influence from the selection process.
The US president had another surprise. Focusing on human traffickers, he remarked: “In this world there’s more human trafficking and slavery than at any time in the history of the world. It’s hard to believe.” So hard to believe that fact-checkers have previously taken him to task for it.
Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, made a few trips to Africa as president but never Nigeria. A Nigerian reporter asked if his successor might consider it. “I would like to visit Nigeria. I’d like very much to visit Nigeria. It’s an amazing country and in certain ways I heard from the standpoint of a beauty of a country, there’s no country more beautiful, so I would like to.”
It was an improbable gift to Nigeria’s modest tourism industry, not known for its Trump-friendly golf courses, and which typically struggles to complete with the likes of South Africa with its attractions such as wildlife and wine country. It was also infinitely more diplomatic than what Trump allegedly said about Africa countries in January.
But former White House aide and reality TV star Omarosa had the last word on Twitter: “President @MBuhari FYI he said it.”