Africa: Online Press Briefing with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Molly Phee

Washington, DC — MODERATOR:  Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub.  I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing.  We are very honored to be joined by the Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs, Molly Phee.

A quick reminder that today’s briefing is on the record.  And with that, why don’t we go ahead and get started.  Assistant Secretary Phee, thank you so much for joining us today.  I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.

LISTEN HERE

 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Thank you, John, for helping organize this opportunity to speak with friends and colleagues across the continent.  Thank you all for taking the time to speak with me today.  I’m looking forward to updating you on U.S. policy with Africa, and I’d like to start by talking about Secretary Blinken’s recent trip to the continent. You saw that we traveled to four countries: Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Angola. It was a great opportunity to see the impact of U.S. programs and activities, and to listen to our partners about their ambitions and concerns and how we can partner together to meet the challenges on the continent and globally.

We – the Secretary, when he was in Lagos, he said something that I think is important that I want to highlight. He said how in the past the United States was working to deliver for Africans, and now we are looking at how we can partner to do activities with Africans. So it’s a shift from assisting, although we still continue to provide assistance, but to genuinely partnering on how we can work together to address challenges, again, on the continent and globally.

So a lot of the conversation he had was to talk about the commitment of President Biden and Secretary Blinken to elevating African voices in the international architecture. I think you know that President Biden is a strong advocate for a permanent African seat on the Security Council.  The United States was a big advocate for the African Union joining the G20, and our Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is working hard to ensure that the international financial institutions better reflect the voices of the 21st century and include Africans in leadership roles.

We also took the opportunity to check in on our – if you will, our report card following the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022. We had a big year last year, as you saw, with many visits to the continent. And indeed, while we were traveling, we had followed Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, who had traveled to Liberia for the inauguration there; Scott Nathan, the chairman of the Development Finance Corporation, had led the U.S. delegation to the inauguration in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and I expect to see more leaders traveling to the continent soon, including members of Congress.

So it was a great opportunity to check in with good partners and to talk about how we can continue to address, again, the shared challenges, whether they be food security, health security, physical security, and how Africans can join other leaders in the world in these global conversations.

So let me stop there and turn it over to you, John, for questions.

MODERATOR:  Thanks so much, Assistant Secretary. We do have a couple of hands raised, so why don’t we go ahead and start with Pearl Matibe from Premium Times. Pearl, please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Good morning, Madam Secretary. I really appreciate the time that you have taken today and the comments that you prefaced. I’d like to hop on one thing that you did mention, that you’re looking forward to members of Congress also going onto the continent. Could you comment, please?  Just a few days ago, Ranking Member Senator Risch made some direct comments about Secretary Blinken’s visit to Africa. You may have seen these comments.  What he was critiquing, if you will, is he was calling that fun diplomacy, that there hasn’t been, in his view, a missed – that it was more a missed opportunity, and that maybe there should have been a deeper, different take in the approach with this particular trip. Now, because he’s also on this oversight committee for Senate Foreign Relations, I wonder if you might comment on that.  I know regularly you guys do go in front of the committee.  How would you comment?  And do – would – do you anticipate he will be making a trip, for example, to the continent?  But thank you so much.  I really appreciate what you shared already at the top.  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Sure.  Well, I’d like to talk about what Secretary Blinken discussed with partners in Africa.  We discussed African priorities, for example, in infrastructure.  In Cabo Verde, we had the opportunity to look at the positive impact the Millenium Challenge Corporation had reached in terms of, for example, the development of the Port of Praia, which is literally the gateway to Africa from the United States for trade.  In Angola, we had the opportunity to discuss the significant infrastructure the United States is undertaking linking Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola through the Lobito Port, helping open up an export market and also branch activities – so, for example, bringing to life green energy through solar energy and also helping with agricultural development along that line.

So we were able to highlight the economic instrument – instruments the United States has to support African ambitions to develop their economies: the Development Finance Corporation, the Millenium Challenge Corporations, and, for example, the U.S. Export-Import Bank.  So those are critical activities for the people of Africa, and it’s very serious in terms of consequences for jobs and, again, economic development.

We also had the opportunity to focus on a significant American investment in health. So, for example, in Lagos, we were able to visit an important science and research medical center which has benefited from PEPFAR for many years and also was now in a position because of the PEPFAR investment to help Nigeria deal with a pandemic such as COVID.  So that was, I think, a serious and important effort.  We also had the opportunity to talk in Lagos with folks who are focused on developing Africa’s digital participation in the digital economy.  And we’re looking to see if we can partner on infrastructure, on human capital development – making sure women and youth, for example, have access to the digital economy – as well as talking about how we can work together in setting global norms for the responsible use of such things as AI.

We had fun.  We went to the World – the Cup of Nations, as you know, was being held the week we were there.  The Secretary was able to attend a match in Abidjan, and he was able to talk to African partners about the matches, because everyone was focused on it.  And if you think about it, football is a little bit like life: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  So in partnering with people, you want to work together to handle difficult times, but you also want to celebrate positive times.

Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We actually have one call-in coming from a number ending in 586 – or 5687.  Caller, please go ahead and identify yourself and your outlet.  Let’s try that again.  They seem to be – caller, can you hear us?  Doesn’t seem to be working.  So why don’t we go ahead and go to a submitted question.  The first one from Pablo Moraga from the Spanish news agency EFE based in Kenya.  Pablo asks: “Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso – three military-led West African nations – have announced their immediate withdrawal from the regional bloc ECOWAS, accusing the body of becoming a threat to its members.  What does the U.S. make of this move?”

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Well, thank you for that question.  We are closely monitoring developments in the Sahel and in Coastal West Africa.  And we believe it’s important for everyone to focus on dialogue and cooperation.  We know that all of the peoples of the ECOWAS region are concerned about security, they’re concerned about governance, they’re concerned about economic development, and we would hope that they could work together to find common ground and to look for shared ways to support each other in managing these challenges.

I think you know that we have long supported African-led solutions to problems.  We believe that given the fact that some of the Sahel states are landlocked, it’s important for them to have good links with their partners in Coastal West Africa. So we are encouraging dialogue and cooperation.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, ma’am.  We’ll go to another caller – Nick Turse.  Nick, please, your microphone is on if you have a question.

QUESTION:  Yes.  Thanks for taking the time to talk today, Secretary Phee.  When we spoke before the trip, you expressed certainty that Secretary Blinken would discuss the subject of civilian harm with Nigeria’s president and foreign minister.  Can you talk about the nature of their discussion, and what repercussions for Nigeria will be – that is, what action State will take if Nigeria’s military continues to harm civilians?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Of course, as we always do when we meet with our Nigerian partners, we talk about how to minimize harm to civilians when undertaking complicated operations against the terrorist threat that Nigeria experiences – also the threat from Boko Haram and from bandits.  The Secretary also had the opportunity to meet with civilian leaders to talk about their engagement to promote the rights and opportunities for different civilian groups. So this is a topic that remains an ongoing component of our conversation with Nigeria, and we look for ways in our – both our policies and our programs to support Nigeria’s wish to make sure that the country is safe and secure for all of its citizens.

QUESTION:  And repercussions?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, Nick.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We’ll go to the next question, from Halima.  Halima G., please, go ahead, and could you identify your outlet as well please?  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Hello.  Yes.  Halima Gikandi from The World radio program.  Thank you, Secretary Phee.  I want to ask a question on Sudan.  The U.S. is being criticized for not putting enough diplomatic resources and weight into ending the war in Sudan.  Can you please summarize what the U.S. is doing right now and answer whether a U.S. special envoy to Sudan will be appointed, as has been requested by members of Congress?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Well, I certainly understand that everyone is frustrated by the terrible situation in Sudan, the suffering of the people of Sudan, the irresponsible conduct of security leaders and their reckless disregard for civilian life and infrastructure.  So the United States, like African partners, Arab partners, and other international partners, remains intensely concerned and engaged in multiple ways to try and promote a ceasefire and a transfer to civilian rule.  We have several senior diplomats that are focused on the different aspects of the problem, and as I’ve mentioned before when I’ve testified before Congress, the administration believes that adding an envoy to the constellation of efforts already underway would be helpful, but I don’t have any announcements for you on that at this time.

MODERATOR:  Thank you for that.  We have actually one more caller raising their hand – Nafisa Eltahir.  Nafisa, please go ahead and identify your outlet.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Hi.  I’m with Reuters.  I also actually have a question on Sudan, just asking kind of at this point what – what does the U.S. think the prospects are for a ceasefire, for a possible agreement between the two sides?  We’ve had official talks at least paused for more than a month, so can you give us any sense of where you think things are headed?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Well, I can tell you that we will not give up our effort to promote a ceasefire, and I believe that there, again, are many Sudanese – Africans, Arabs – and other partners in the international community who share that conviction.  There are multiple tracks and multiple efforts to try and persuade the leaders, chiefly of SAF and RSF, to give up their destructive and reckless path.  And we will continue to work on that as we go forward.

John, I would really like it if you could reach out to African journalists.  It’s good to talk to international outlets, but my goal for this session was to talk to African journalists on the continent who might otherwise not have access to the State Department. So can we do – can we shift our focus?

MODERATOR:  Sure.  I’m – so they don’t identify their outlets when they dial in, so I’m not sure who they are, but I can certainly try.  I will go to a submitted question, though, from a journalist on the continent.  Hamid Mecheri from Algeria talks about the visit of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to the Republic of Sudan, and he asks: “Is there a way that Algeria can participate in the resolution of the conflict in Sudan?”

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Well, as I’ve said before, I think most countries on the continent, in the region, and internationally are devastated by what is underway in Sudan and want to see an end as quickly as possible.  So we welcome all contributions to that pressure campaign.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And the next one was from Tinashe Mpasari – Mpasiri from Ini Africa Media in South Africa.  They ask: “To confront the frontiers of triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality on the African continent, it is not an easy task given the absence of shared understanding of what wealth is and what it is not.  That said, do you agree that the opposite of poverty is not wealth but the rule of law?  If so, how do you think the rule of law can be asserted across the continent and accelerate restoration of constitutionalism to secure an Africa that is diverse, inclusive, progressive, and prosperous?”  A big question there.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Well, thanks for that question.  It is my view that one of the greatest strengths of the United States of America has been our dedication to rule of law, and fundamentally rule of law means that every single individual should be treated equally before the law and therefore have equal opportunity.  Rule of law allows everyone, regardless of their background, to move forward.  And it also means that corruption is not acceptable.  So I definitely agree that rule of law is a cornerstone for economic development, for human prosperity, and for opportunity.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you.  We’ll go back to a call again.  I can’t be sure that these are not international outlets, but we do have a number of hands raised.  Mouctar Balde, could you – you have the mike.  Could you please identify your outlet?

QUESTION:  Yes, good morning.  Yeah, my name is Mouctar Balde from Guinéenews.  And my question is: What is the Biden administration is doing to hold the regime of General Mamady Doumbouya in the Republic of Guinea accountable for the lack of respect of freedom of speech?  And I don’t know – in Guinea actually it’s been almost two to three months there is no access to internet and their radio stations have been jammed, and the regime in place is arresting and exiling politicians in the opposition.

And also, as you know, out of the migrants coming to the United States, there is a lot of young Guinean who are desperate to leave the country because of the military regime in Guinea.  And it seems that the American Government, and in addition to the French and European Union countries, it’s like they’re turning – they’re having a blank eye on – and giving – it’s like they’re giving him a green light just to go over.  Meanwhile, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali have been criticized for it.  And I – I’m looking for what the Biden administration is doing just to hold him accountable.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Well, thank you for raising the concerns about governance in ECOWAS member states.  Actually, Mouctar, please check the news.  This very week, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Africa Michael Heath is actually in Conakry, meeting not only with government leaders but with civil society leaders, opposition leaders, and others to actually promote Guinea’s transition towards democracy.  So we do believe that it’s important to engage, to talk about – as we have just been previewing here in this conversation – how the rule of law, equality, opportunity, stability, and whatnot can contribute to the development of African states.  So it is something – an issue we remain concerned about.  That is why Michael Heath there this very week to have those conversations and to press forward.

We recognize the challenges that the states in the Sahel and in coastal West Africa are facing from terrorists.  We understand the economic challenges that have resulted, for example, from climate change, from the impact of the COVID pandemic, from the impact of the war that Russia is waging against Ukraine, because it’s resulting in an increase in prices in fuel, in fertilizer, and also commodities.  And all these stressors make it difficult for peoples and governments to progress.  We believe that a democratic system is the best way forward, offering most opportunity and unlocking peace and prosperity for all.  And that will continue to be the policy that we advocate.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  Going to another raised hand – Rageh Omaar.  Rageh, could you please identify your outlet?

QUESTION:  Hello, can you hear me?  Yes, my name is Rageh Omaar.  I’m from ITV News here in the United Kingdom.  Thank you very much indeed for the opportunity to ask the Assistant Secretary of State a question.  I came to this a little late, so apologies if someone’s asked it already.  But I’d like to ask your reaction to the announcements between Ethiopia and the self-declared government of Somaliland to sign a memorandum of understanding whereby if Ethiopia would lease a naval base on the Red Sea close to the port of Berbera for 50 years in return for the formal recognition of Somaliland as an independent state.  I know the State Department has said that you recognize and reaffirm the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Somalia, but that could be a legalistic point, because Somalia and Somaliland received full recognition and independence, separately, for six days.

But my key question, Assistant Secretary of State, is:  What’s your reaction to the statement by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and the prime minister of Somalia and other members of the government, in the federal Government of Somalia, that say that the threat of the recognition of Somaliland, that they see as a part of Somalia, is more of a danger to Somalia and the people of Somalia than al-Shabaab?  Do you agree with that statement?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  The United States shares the view of the African Union, IGAD, and other international organizations, as well as the majority of African partners on the continent, that Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity need to be respected.  We share a concern that this proposed memorandum of understanding could be very disruptive to our shared struggle, which includes Ethiopian investment over years against al-Shabaab and its negative impact on the people of Somalia.  And we support conversations between the peoples of Somalia and Somaliland about their shared future.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, ma’am.  One – another submitted question from Victoria John-Mekwa from Channels TV in Nigeria.  She asks: “Mr. Blinken had indicated during his visit to Nigeria that the U.S. is interested in working with the tech players there.  What form would this take and what would the plan be?”

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Well, I think you saw that we had an opportunity to visit the headquarters of 21st Century Technologies in Lagos while we were there.  And what we are doing is sharing our expertise and our resources and promoting links between the dynamic tech sector in Lagos with the dynamic tech sector in the United States.  And what we see is that, when we combine our respective strengths, that we’re having a really powerful impact on that industry.  And we are really excited about those exchanges, and we will continue to promote engagement in that sector.

A lot of venture capitalists in the United States are making their way to Lagos and Nigeria because of the talent and opportunity there, and we think that’s an important frontier for our deepening partnership.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We have one last journalist with their hand raised, and we’re almost out of time, so we’ll that that question as the last one.  Giulia Pompili – Giulia, please go ahead and identify your outlet, please.

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you.  I’m Giulia Pompili from Il Foglio newspaper, Italy.  Very quickly, yesterday our Prime Minister Meloni welcomed several African leaders for this – for showing up this Mattei plan that is the new frontier of our cooperation with Africa.  What do you think about that in looking also to the presidency – Italian presidency of the G7?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Sure.  Well, we respect and admire Italy’s engagement with Africa, and we welcome the opportunity for African states to develop partnerships with likeminded friends and countries around the world.  And certainly we look forward to Italy’s leadership of the G7, where we can continue to tackle common challenges.  I think you know that we are working in the G7 to improve investment in African infrastructure, and we look forward to accelerating activity along those lines, under the leadership of Italy.

MODERATOR:  Thanks very much, Assistant Secretary. Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for you today for this session.  Thanks to everyone for your questions.  And Assistant Secretary Phee, thank you so much for joining us.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE:  Thank you all for listening and for engaging. It was good to talk to you.

MODERATOR:  Shortly we will send the audio recordings of the briefing to all participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available.  We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can always contact us at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks ag

ain for your participation and we hope you can join us in the future for another briefing.  This ends today’s session.

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