President Trump came into office as perhaps the least experienced president in American history. Though he had some history in international affairs through his business dealings, he was new to the finer points of international politics and diplomacy. Few are surprised that there are things he didn't know beforehand. But it's nevertheless still surprising when meeting with African leaders at the U.N., Trump made up an African country.
"In Guinea and Nigeria you fought a horrifying Ebola outbreak; Nambia’s health system is increasingly self-sufficient," he said.
Nambia does not exist. (He may have been referring to either Namibia or Zambia.)
In the uncomfortably large category of false statements by the U.S. president, mangling a made-up name for a country that Trump would probably never visit even if it did exist can seem small, compared to, say, Trump claiming that the election that made him president was illegitimate. But it really can't have been welcome to the African leaders who Trump was meeting with at the U.N. — imagine how Americans might feel if an African leader talked about the great U.S. state of Tansas.
Trump's gaffe comes the day after his big speech in front of the U.N. General Assembly wasn't exactly met with rapturous applause. And considering that Trump has been articulating an "America First" doctrine at an organization that is literally based around the idea of countries cooperating to pursue shared interests rather than focusing only on selfish desires, Trump's reception at the meeting of world leaders was already somewhat awkward, especially when he threatened to "destroy" another country the day before.
But beyond expressing what seems like a notable lack of understanding about the world from someone whose literal job description is often listed as "leader of the free world," perhaps the most notable part of Trump's speech to African leaders came not in the form of him displaying ignorance of Africa, but of an uncomfortable acquaintance with the continent.
"Africa has tremendous business potential," the former businessman said to the collected African leaders. "I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich."
It's an odd thing to say to African leaders. There is indeed a long history of rich non-Africans coming to the continent in order to get rich, with often disastrous results for the native residents of the continent. King Leopold II of Belgium amassed a huge amount of land in the Congo that he exploited for profit, leading to brutality and death for millions. From the 15th to 18th centuries, European slavers kidnapped an estimated 11 million Africans and sold them abroad as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The diamond trade, monopolized for centuries by the De Beers corporation included a long history of brutal treatment of Africans in the process of extraction.
Many African countries only threw off colonial rule by foreign powers a few decades ago, and the lasting damage of financial exploitation of African countries remain. For a president to talk of the Africa as a place where foreigners rich come to make money, without acknowledging the awful history of people doing just that, must have been at the very least uncomfortable for African leaders who know the history.
Many of these countries do want foreign investments, in the hopes that they can use it to boost their domestic economies and make money for their citizens as well. But coming from a president who had advocated "America First" the day before, and who expressed ignorance of the African countries he was touting the success of by referring to "Nambia," it's a little tone-deaf for Trump to treat Africa as just a place where his friends can make money.