JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Africans were shocked on Friday to find President Donald Trump had finally taken an interest in their continent. But it wasn’t what people had hoped for.
Using vulgar language, Trump on Thursday questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway in rejecting a bipartisan immigration deal. On Friday he denied using that language.
The African Union continental body told The Associated Press it was “frankly alarmed” by Trump’s comments.
“Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice,” AU spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo said.
Some African governments found themselves in an awkward position. As top recipients of U.S. aid, some hesitated to jeopardize it by criticizing Trump, especially as his administration has sought to slash foreign assistance.
“Unless it was specifically said about South Sudan, we have nothing to say,” South Sudan government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told the AP.
But Botswana’s government called Trump’s comment “reprehensible and racist,” saying the U.S. ambassador had been summoned to clarify whether the country was regarded so poorly after years of cordial relations. Senegal’s President Macky Sall said he was shocked and that “Africa and the black race merit the respect and consideration of all.”
Both nations have been praised by the U.S. government as stable democracies in the region.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress called Trump’s comments “extremely offensive,” while opposition leader Mmusi Maimane said “the hatred of Obama’s roots now extends to an entire continent.” Uganda’s state minister for international relations, Henry Okello Oryem, called the remarks “unfortunate and regrettable” and hoped that heads of state will reply at an African Union summit later this month.
African media outlets and the continent’s young, increasingly connected population were not shy, with some tweeting sleek photos of African landscapes and urban areas with the hashtag of the word.
“Well, that is the perfect definition of racism. That is all I have to say,” Kenyan entrepreneur Wangui Muraguri told the AP in response to Trump.
“Casual Friday at the White House is soon to include hoods and tiki torches at this rate,” South African media outlet Daily Maverick wrote.
Trump’s comments were “shocking and shameful” and “I’m sorry, but there’s no other word one can use but racist,” said a spokesman for the U.N. human rights office, Rupert Colville.
Many on the world’s second most populous continent reached for their smartphones, long-practiced in defending it from easy stereotypes. While 40 percent of the world’s poor live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund, the region also has billionaires, reality shows and a growing middle class.
The World Bank on Friday tweeted that sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth this year is forecast at 3.2 percent. That was the U.S. economy’s annual rate of growth from July through September, according to Commerce Department data last month.
Some in Africa decided to own Trump’s vulgar language or throw it back in his face.
“Good morning from the greatest most beautiful ‘shithole country’ in the world!!!” South African Broadcasting Corporation anchor Leanne Manas tweeted.
“As someone from South Shithole, Trevor is deeply offended by the president’s remarks,” The Daily Show tweeted of its South African-born host, Trevor Noah.
Others said they thought Trump had a point, in a way.
“Trump is absolutely right,” said Mamady Traore, a 30-year-old sociologist in Guinea. “When you have heads of state who mess with the constitutions to perpetuate their power. When you have rebel factions that kill children, disembowel women as saints, who mutilate innocent civilians.”
In Kenya, East Africa’s economic hub, political activist Boniface Mwangi pleaded: “Please don’t confuse the … leaders we Africans elect with our beautiful continent.” He later told the AP that “Africa gave America the greatest president ever” in Barack Obama. “It is actually a disgrace for one of the best men to occupy that office to be succeeded by an idiot.”
Trump’s comments highlighted months of concerns about his lack of focus on Africa, including empty ambassadorial posts in key countries like South Africa, Egypt, Congo and Somalia. A list maintained by the Washington-based American Foreign Service Association says eight such posts are vacant.
Trump has expressed negative opinions about the continent in the past. “Every penny of the $7 billion going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen – corruption is rampant!” he tweeted in 2013.
The U.S. president is only hurting himself both at home and abroad, some Africans said.
“He has not only insulted Africans, he has also insulted African-Americans,” said Sylvester Odion Akhaine, associate professor of international relations at the Lagos State University in Nigeria. “Internationally, such language will deepen the isolation of the United States, a country that is already losing its global prestige.”
One lawmaker in Ghana called for a boycott by developing countries against the United States until Trump leaves office. “The sooner he is made aware that America needs the world and the world needs America the better it is for all of us,” Ras Mubarak said.
As outrage spread, the U.S. government’s own Africa Media Hub tried to put out the flames.
Without directly referring to Trump’s statement, it tweeted that “US remains committed to working together w/Africans to realize the promise of a more peaceful, more productive, more prosperous 21st century Africa. US deeply respects the people of #Africa & values its partnerships with them.”