Africa: Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Molly Phee Previewing the Secretary’s Trip to Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Angola

Office of the Spokesperson — MR TEK:  Thank you and good morning, everyone.  Welcome to today’s background call on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s travel to Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Angola.  This call will be on the record and is embargoed until its conclusion.

Joining on this – joining us this morning is Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee.  She’ll provide some brief opening remarks, and then we’ll turn it over to your questions.  And so, with that, let’s turn it over to Assistant Secretary Phee to start us off.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Thanks, Nathan.  And good morning, everybody.  Thanks for spending some time with us today.  So, we’re really excited about this trip.  It’s in part a follow-up to the very successful U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that we held in December 2022.  The Secretary wants to go to the continent and demonstrate and assess the follow-up that the United States has undertaken to implement the commitments and topics we discussed during the summit.

So, we’ll be looking at issues like our economic partnership, how are we promoting the development of commercial ties.  We’ll be looking at our longstanding health partnership.  We’re looking at areas that really excite the Secretary particularly in food security.  We’ll be, of course, sort of furbishing our diplomatic constant engagement on so many issues, not only on the continent but in the global conversation.  So, there’s a lot to do to show where we are, what we’ve done, and where we’re going.

We think this trip will hopefully be very positive.  A lot of times the news out of Africa is negative.  I think it can highlight the great capacity of the African people, particularly the youth.  It can show really forward-looking types of engagements – for example, our partnership with Angola in outer space.  And I think it will demonstrate the advances that Africans have made that will contribute to the continued progress on the continent.

We can never get away, though, from peace and security issues.  So, when we’re in Cote d’Ivoire, we’ll talk about the situation in the Sahel and coastal West Africa.  As many of you know, Nigeria is dealing with a lot of internal security challenges.  And Angola has played a really important role in trying to address and reduce the tensions in the eastern Congo.  So those will also be topics I expect we’ll discuss.

So, he’s really excited; we’re really excited; it should be really fun.  In Cote d’Ivoire, they’re hosting now the Africa Cup of Nations.  So, the whole continent is focused on that.  There are about 24 nations playing soccer – or football, as they call it – in Cote d’Ivoire, so there’s a lot of energy, so I think it will be a really fun stop.

So over to you, to Nathan, for questions.

MR TEK:  Great.  Thank you so much.  AT&T moderator, would you just mind please repeating the instructions for joining the question queue?

OPERATOR:  Sure.  To place yourself in the queue, please press 1 then 0, at this time.

MR TEK:  Great.  And can we please go to the line of Will Mauldin from The Wall Street Journal?

OPERATOR:  Mr. Mauldin, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for doing this.  I wanted to follow up on the security situation, if I may.  I remember when the Secretary was last in this part of Africa, I believe visiting Niger and President Bazoum.  It was not far before the coup when he was ousted.  So, I’m wondering if preventing coups or strengthening any of the leaders in this region is going to be a part of the agenda.  And also, wanted to get a general security situation check-up on is the U.S. – given all the challenges in the Sahel region overall, is the U.S. focusing a bit more on the west coast and those countries as kind of a bulwark at a time when Wagner and militants and other security forces are active in the region?  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Sure.  Well, we have long been concerned about coastal West Africa as well as Nigeria, because if the terrorist threat in the Sahel were to disrupt life in those countries, it would be really problematic for a huge portion of Africa.  So we – you may be familiar with the Global Fragility Act, which was adopted a few years ago and is designed to draw on the lessons we’ve learned since 9/11, which are, in short, that we’re really good at security assistance and we’re really good at going after terrorists, but if you neglect governance, economic development, factors like climate change, you can’t really get at a durable solution.

So, we’re already invested in a joint project in five coastal states in West Africa, coastal West Africa – those include Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Benin, and Togo.  So that, I imagine, will certainly be a topic of discussion when we see the Ivorians.  And of course, we’ve had a longstanding security partnership with Nigeria, which has been battered, as you know, by ISIS-WA, by Boko Haram, and by internal, what they call bandits.

So, definitely helping make sure that these countries are sort of moving out on all fronts to strengthen their societies, to prevent sort of the expansion of the terrorist threat we see in the Sahel.  That will be a part of the discussion.  And that includes doing things the way that we’ve learned to do them, right – to emphasize the security of civilians when you’re undertaking military operations and to promote human rights and community development, particularly in marginalized populations.

MR TEK:  Thanks so much.  Can we please go the line of Shaun Tandon from the AFP?

QUESTION:  Hey there.  Thanks, Molly.  Can I follow up a little bit on Will’s question?  When you ask – when you talk about Niger, is there any hope for it?  I mean, do you think that’s going to brought up in the discussions, particularly in Cote d’Ivoire?  The coup-imposed – the junta-imposed government, they had a delegation in Moscow this week – how concerned are you about that?

And then if I could also ask specifically about DRC.  The meeting is in Angola, and of the course the Secretary just met Kagame in Davos.  How optimistic are you now in DRC and the east?  Do you think that there could be some lasting – more stability there?  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Sure.  Well, my job title calls for me to be optimistic.  So, we’re always trying to drive towards better outcomes.  In Niger, I think there’s a clear choice for the junta.  And I made that case when I was there in early December, following what I think was a very successful ECOWAS summit meeting on how to reset relations between ECOWAS and Niger.  We have a proven track record of helping them and their partners in the region get after the terrorist threat.  And we also have – happen to have a very strong economic record with important Millennium Challenge Corporation accounts that have been contributing meaningfully to the development of Niger.

And there was a lot of discussion about achieving a timeline, a credible, swift timeline for elections.  The Nigeriens have their own history of rather swiftly handing power back to civilians.  And of course, the release of President Bazoum – and you saw earlier this month, the junta released his son, who had been unjustly detained.

So we don’t have any objection with countries diversifying partnerships.  You heard the Secretary talk about that.  Obviously, if they chose to have a partnership with countries like Russia, that would be very complicated.  I think if they just look west to Mali and see the increase in civilian casualties and the increase in security attacks since the junta government in Mali invited in the Wagner Group, and kicked out the French – that isn’t a model that I would want to follow or I think most people would want to follow, if you were governing a country.

So, I had good discussions in December.  Let’s see where things end up.  I think, again, we have a demonstrated track record there that they’re well aware of.  And we hope they make the right decision.

And then you asked me about Angola and Angola’s role in the eastern DRC.  So, I think you all will recall that in November, shortly before Thanksgiving, I and Judd Devermont traveled with Avril Haines and her top-notch advisor Chris Ringenbach to both Kinshasa and Kigali because we were concerned about the spike in tensions between the Rwandans and the Congolese, as well as the role of neighboring countries.  We were able to institute a process of weekly check-ins that we undertook through the end of calendar year 2023.

One of our goals was to make sure that the withdrawal of the East African Community Regional troop presence was not overly disruptive, and to ensure that the DRC was able to hold its elections at the end of December with minimal disruption.  Those elections were big and messy as you saw, but there was no major violence, which we had been concerned about.  So, we would like to see and support the regional processes that have been underway for about two years now, a little bit over two years.  One is called the Luanda Process, which is led by the Angolans, and that’s something the Secretary will want to talk to the president and the foreign minister about.  And the separate track is the Nairobi Process.

So, this is a three-year war.  It’s very difficult, but the parties have been very responsive to our engagement.  They’re very engaged with their neighbors in Southern Africa and the South African development cooperation region as well as, as I mentioned, in the EAC.  So we’re going to hopefully help consolidate some of the intense discussions we’ve had over the past six weeks or so, and see if we can help the Africans set things on the right track.

MR TEK:  Thank you.  Can we please go the line of Daphne Psaledakis from Reuters?

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you so much for doing this.  I just wanted to follow up a little bit on Shaun’s question on Niger.  Could you give a sense of how much this will be a focus of Secretary Blinken’s conversations on the trip?  And – or sorry – on the trip and what his message will be when he’s speaking to these countries?  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Sure.  So, Daphne, you guys are bumming me out because you’re not talking about any of the really fun and positive, forward-looking things we’ll be doing.  So, there’s a lot of that in Cote d’Ivoire, but – yeah, so of course the Ivorians are quite nervous given their border with Burkina Faso, and there’s a lot of terrorist activity in the tri-border area between Burkina, Niger, and Mali, which we have been very helpful in addressing.  So, I’m certain it will be a topic of conversation, but we also want to encourage the positive steps the president has taken to expand and deepen democratization in Cote d’Ivoire and how they’re using their resources we’ve provided them under the GFA.

And just to note, you guys, we’ve named it this horrible, clunky name of strategy to promote stability and prevent conflict – no, I said it backwards – to – Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, because no one likes to be described as a fragile state.  So, I do anticipate that will be a topic of discussion – but one of many.  I want to also mention that the African Development Bank is in Cote d’Ivoire, so we’re excited to go talk to them where we have major investments, and I think we’ll focus on food security.

Those of you who have heard the Secretary talk about it, you know that’s a real passion project of his, drawing on the expertise of the agronomist Dr. Cary Fowler who works here at the department.  I hope we might be able to get him to a football pitch – the soccer stadium.  And I think Cote d’Ivoire has also been a really good partner to us in international fora, so he’s looking forward to discussing all those types of things.

Nathan, is there a delay or did I lose you?

OPERATOR:  Hi, I’m getting – this is AT&T.  I am getting notices that people are losing connection.  We have had reports of network issues today, so that may be an issue.  I can try going to the next person in the queue if you like.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  That’s fine with me.

OPERATOR:  All right.  We’ll go to the line of Nick Turse with The Intercept.

QUESTION:  Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Secretary Phee.  Last month, the Nigerian military bombed a religious celebration that killed 85 civilians, and it’s the latest in a series of Nigerian airstrikes that have killed civilians, including a 2017 attack on a displaced persons camp that killed 160 people.  Is Secretary Blinken going to raise the issue of these attacks with the Nigerian authorities?  Will he demand accountability and transparency?  And will the U.S. take any other measures to halt these repeated attacks?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  So, if you’re referring to the attack in – I wouldn’t call it an attack.  The Nigerians have admitted it was an operational error that tragically killed people in Kaduna State.  I think the Secretary will definitely talk about that with the president.  The president and the leadership of Nigeria went to Kaduna State.  They acted with transparency, immediately acknowledged the horrific accident.  They set up a reparation process and a transparent investigation.  So, they have, I think, responded to that tragedy in a constructive way that will contribute to rebuilding confidence of the Nigerian people and the security services.

And these issues of how to protect civilians when doing complex operations in a fraught security environment, which Nigeria is dealing with, the importance of promoting and protecting human rights, including religious freedom, and, again, sort of the best practices of accountability and transparency, are part of our ongoing dialogue with the government and with the security services.  We host – we are hosting this week a Nigerian delegation led by the national security adviser, and we hosted about four hours of discussions here at the State Department yesterday and that was a running theme throughout the day.  So, I’m certain the Secretary will talk about it when he sees the president and the foreign minister.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

STAFF:  AT&T, can we go to – Mr. Tek is coming back onto the line, but I believe we have a – one of our African outlets online.  I just got kicked out of conference monitor.  Can you call on them, please?

OPERATOR:  I’m sorry.  Which individual in particular, or I can go to the next in queue?  I’m not understanding the person you’re wanting me to go to.

STAFF:  Sorry, let’s go to the Washington Post, I believe, is in the queue.

OPERATOR:  I do not show them in queue on my end.

STAFF:  All right.  Let’s go to the next person then.

OPERATOR:  Okay.  We’ll go to Keni Osukoya from Africa Bazaar Magazine.

QUESTION:  Hello.  Can you hear me?  Hello.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Hello.  Hi.

QUESTION:  Hi, hi, yeah, thank you.  Thank you for taking my questions.  So, I wanted to – I know this trip seemed sudden, and I’m wondering why is the Secretary traveling to these countries or East Africa (inaudible) given that President Biden was – said he will travel to Africa last year.  That was the promise he made during the U.S.-African Leaders Summit.  And now we didn’t hear anything as to the reason why he didn’t travel last year.  So, if you can talk about that aspect of it.

And I also wanted to – I know you mentioned South Africa briefly – an issue that is ongoing right now with the South Africa and the Israel-Gaza deal.  And I’m wondering if Secretary Blinken, during his meeting with the – with Nigeria and other African leader, whether that’s something that he will also discuss with them on that issue.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  So, thanks for your questions.  The line is pretty bad, but I think I heard you characterize this trip as sudden, and I would not characterize it that way at all.  If you look at the Secretary’s track record, he’s been deeply engaged in Africa, very interested in working with our African partners.  And this will be his fourth trip to the continent.  This follows last year, where we had 17 Cabinet-level officials visit the continent as a follow-up to the Africa Leaders Summit.  So, there’s nothing new here in American interest in Africa or Secretary Blinken’s interest in Africa.

And with regard to the President, I don’t, of course, speak for the White House, but I know he remains serious about his desire to travel to Africa.  And again, while I don’t have anything to announce on that at this time, I think if you look across his administration and the different types of efforts, activities, exchanges that have been undertaken over the past year or so, you’ll see demonstrable commitment by the United States to Africa.

And I certainly expect the Secretary to brief government leaders he needs who might be interested in his intense efforts to resolve the crisis between Israel and Hamas.  Thanks.

QUESTION:  And if I can just —

MR TEK:  Thank you.  We just – I’m sorry, we – hi, this is Nathan.  I’m back on the line again, apologies.  I had technical issues.  We unfortunately don’t have time for follow-up questions.  So Rich, if you don’t mind, if we could please go to Cindy Saine from Voice of America.

QUESTION:  Yes.  Thank you so much for doing this.  I was wondering if you could talk about the visit to Cabo Verde and the main issues there.  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Oh, sure.  So, we’re so excited to go to Cabo Verde.  It’s like a literal metaphor, if that makes sense.  We have had two Millennium Challenge Compacts that have contributed to Cabo Verde’s development, including the port in Praia.  And in fact, they’ve just been deemed eligible for discussions for a third regional compact.

And so we believe our engagement with Cabo Verde demonstrates the positive impact of U.S. investment and infrastructure in Africa, which is so important to Africans.  And it’s literally the port, if you will, on Africa’s doorstep.  Cape Verde is also – Cabo Verde is also a terrific democracy.  It’s a good model for the region, and it’s an important partner in our effort to sort of accelerate engagement with Atlantic coastline partners on all sorts of issues in terms of the environment, maritime security, and whatnot.  So, we’re really looking forward to having the opportunity to stop and have a good discussion there.

MR TEK:  Thanks.  Can we go to Jennifer Hansler from CNN?

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks for doing the call.  I was wondering whether you could discuss how much competing with China will come up on this trip, how much you are looking to counter China’s influence in the continent particularly.  Wang Yi just departed Côte d’Ivoire, I believe.  They obviously have a strong foothold in a lot of these countries.  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  So, Jennifer, I’m sure you’ve heard the Secretary talk about this before.  It’s you guys, frankly, who frame this as a U.S.-China soccer match.  We don’t.  We – if China didn’t exist, we would be fully engaged in Africa.  Africa is important for its own sake and it’s important for American interests.  And so, we pursue a lot of the types of activities I discussed at the top, including these infrastructure projects.  That’s what we’ll highlight in Angola – the Lobito project, which is the first really substantial investment we’ve done.  MCC projects, for example, as I just described in Cabo Verde, but in Angola with the Lobito project that stretches through DRC to Zambia.  You see a regional effort that involves DFC, ExIM and other private sector funding.

So, we want to highlight our response to African concerns.  In Nigeria, we hope to look at a pharmaceutical company where we’ve helped support Africans develop their own manufacturing capabilities.  When we – when I took this job in 2021 in the middle of the pandemic, there wasn’t a single vaccine manufacturing facility on the continent.  Now there are four.  The factory in Nigeria produces medicines such as antimalarials.

So, we want to talk to Nigerians and others about how they’re part of the global conversation on setting norms, for example, for AI, for a new African seat on the Security Council, how we undertake Security Council reform together.  You’ve seen we’ve successfully promoted Africa to be a member of the G20.

So, there’s a lot to discuss, a lot of work we do together on the continent and globally, and that’s going to be the focus of the trip.

MR TEK:  Thanks so much.  Can we please go to Barbara Usher from BBC?

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks.  I was actually going to ask about DRC, which Shaun already did basically, how you would be planning to build on the meetings you’ve already had to get that – those ceasefires for the election and how you might be able to consolidate that.  But it sounds like you’re mostly going to be talking about the Lobito project, correct me if I’m wrong.  And since you mentioned the Africa Cup (inaudible) —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Yes, (inaudible) Barbara.  Barbara, you can do more than one thing on a trip.

QUESTION:  (Laughter.)  Since you mentioned the Africa Cup, could you let us know if there’s already a match that Mr. Blinken is eyeing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Yeah.  I believe the day we’re there it is Côte d’Ivoire against Equatorial Guinea, but they’re still finalizing the trip details.  So, I wouldn’t rush to print or to air with that, because they’re still – they haven’t nailed down all the travel details.  But yeah – but Barbara, just to make clear, seriously, I fully expect we’ll have a very important conversation with the foreign minister and the president about their very effective leadership in managing the tensions in eastern DRC and how – how we can complement what we have invested in and what they’ve invested in so that they can carry it forward.

MR TEK:  Thanks so much.  That does unfortunately conclude our time this morning for this call.  Thank you so much to our speaker, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Molly Phee.  That does conclude the call.  The embargo is now lifted.  Thank you all for joining us.  Have a great day.

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