SPECIAL BRIEFING AMBASSADOR ROBERT F. GODEC, ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY BUREAU OF AFRICAN AFFAIRS
MR ICE: Great, thank you. Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you for joining us. I’d like to welcome you now to this call previewing Secretary Blinken’s virtual trip to Africa, which will take place tomorrow.
Just a quick reminder here at the top: This call is on the record, but it will be embargoed until the call is completed. I would also ask everyone, if they would please, to keep their questions to the trip as much as possible. And also, there will be a transcript of this call posted on the state.gov website this afternoon.
At this point, I’ll go ahead and let you know that we’re going to have Acting Assistant Secretary Bob Godec of the Bureau of African Affairs who will be briefing you today. Assistant Secretary Godec will give an overview of the trip to start, and then he’ll take a few of your questions.
Okay. And with that, I will now hand it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Godec. Sir.
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Thanks very much, J.T., and good afternoon, everybody. As J.T. said, I’m Bob Godec. I’m the Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the Department of State, and I am very pleased to announce that tomorrow, Secretary Blinken will travel virtually to Kenya and Nigeria on his first trip to Africa as Secretary of State.
Secretary Blinken’s trip is another important step in the Biden-Harris administration’s re-engagement with African partners. This virtual trip will allow Secretary Blinken to see important initiatives in both countries and to sit down with partners from across the region, including senior officials, entrepreneurs, health care workers, and young people – all in one day.
During this visit, Secretary Blinken will meet with President Kenyatta and Cabinet Secretary Omamo in Kenya, as well as with President Buhari and Foreign Minister Onyeama in Nigeria. In addition, the Secretary will engage with renewable energy companies, tour a U.S.-donated Mobile Field Hospital, visit clean energy companies, and commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Young African Leaders Initiative – also known as YALI – during an alumni roundtable discussion.
The trip opens a new and important chapter in relations between the United States and the countries of Africa. We are very much committed to working together with Africans to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, to promote trade and investment, to strengthen security, to tackle the climate crisis, to advance democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and to work again together on a whole range of issues that matter to both Africans and Americans.
We’re looking forward to the visit, and with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MR ICE: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Godec. Just as a reminder to everyone, dial 1 and then 0 to get into our question queue. We’ll be happy to take your question. I think right now, if we would, let’s go ahead to the line of Shaun Tandon. Shaun.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing this call, J.T. and Bob. Can I ask you a bit of a broad question? Obviously, there are many countries in Africa. Why did you choose these two to begin with? Is it by virtue of the size, by virtue of what you perceive as the strategic importance? And specifically about the two countries related to that, in the case of Nigeria in particular, President Biden before the election and before he was president voiced concern about crackdowns on protestors. President Kenyatta, of course, had the issues earlier with the ICC. Is this necessarily to say that these particular leaders are premier partners for the Biden administration, or is it more about the countries more broadly? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Thanks very much for the question, Shaun. First, I want to just emphasize that the United States is committed to working with the full range of countries across Africa that we’re engaged with, speaking with by telephone call, video meeting, other things – many, many partners across the continent.
These two countries obviously are important and they’re significant partners. We work together with them on security, on economic development, on trade and investment, on a range of regional issues, and so we’re looking really just to deepen the relationships, obviously, with Kenya and Nigeria.
But there are going to be more engagements. There are certainly going to be ultimately actual trips to the continent, so many other countries are going to get engagement from the United States. And of course, while this trip is by the Secretary, it’ll be other officials as well. So I think you can look in the coming months, coming months and even years of the Biden administration, really a broad, a broad engagement from the United States with Africa.
We really started that engagement just a couple of weeks after President Biden and Vice President Harris were sworn in. President Biden’s message to the African leaders and people just before the African Union Summit in early February was really a very important step. It signaled very clearly that the United States wants to engage with countries and people across the continent and that we’re committed to working very closely with, again, African governments and African people to advance our shared interests in a wide range of areas.
So yes, these two countries are important. So are the other countries of Africa. We had to start somewhere, and this is where we – this is where we began.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line of Nike Ching of VOA. Nike.
MR ICE: Go ahead, Nike.
QUESTION: Yes. Can you hear me?
MR ICE: Yes, we can hear you. Go ahead, Nike.
QUESTION: Thank you, J.T. and Bob. On Tigray and Eritrea, what additional steps are the United States considering to pressure the Ethiopian Government to end the hostilities in Tigray? Also, as we are seeing reports that Eritrean troops are responsible for attacks and human rights abuses, what – in Tigray – what steps are the U.S. considering against Eritrea to put an end to that? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Thanks for the question. So the United States is gravely concerned about the conflict in Tigray. And the administration, under President Biden, has been engaged on this since it came into office in January, and frankly the United States was engaged even before that.
The situation is extremely grave. And urgent steps are needed to address what is really a deteriorating humanitarian situation and a human rights crisis. There is a growing risk of famine, there is continued violence, and the United States strongly believes that the conflict needs to end immediately, that the hostilities need to end immediately. There needs to be a ceasefire.
We have been pressing for some time for the Eritrean troops to be withdrawn immediately, that they be withdrawn in full and in a verifiable manner. And also there are some Amhara regional forces in Tigray that need to be withdrawn.
We need to see the investigation which has been announced, the joint investigation between the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, carried out. We need documentation of these human rights abuses. And then there are really atrocities – and there really are atrocities, unfortunately. There needs to ultimately be justice and accountability. Those who are responsible for these need to be held to account.
The United States across time has taken quite a number of steps to press the Ethiopians to address this situation, the Government of Prime Minister Abiy. We’ve also urged, in the case of the Eritreans, that they withdraw their forces immediately. We’ve made that very clear. And again, that they need to be held to account for atrocities which have been committed.
The steps we’ve taken include, obviously, Senator Coons’ visit, many telephone calls, many engagements, work at the UN Security Council, work with the African Union, the appointment of the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Feltman, who is going to be traveling to Ethiopia in the coming days. We are coordinating very closely with international partners, coordinating very closely with the likeminded countries – the EU, the United Kingdom, others. Also speaking to the African Union, which has a very important role, in our view, in this. Speaking with President Tshisekedi and many others about this situation.
So we are taking – we have been taking, we are taking, we will continue to take – steps to address this true crisis. The fighting must come to an end. There must be humanitarian access, which has been a problem. We’ve seen some progress, but there needs to be more. We need the human rights abuses and atrocities to stop. We need the Eritreans and the Amharans to leave. And we need, really, an end to this conflict.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg. Nick.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, everybody. Ambassador Godec, I was wondering, does the U.S. have a current position on the Kenyan Government’s desire to close the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps? Will that come up in the talks? I understand that that has been put on hold for the time being, but will you discuss the possibility that those refugee camps may close? And are you going to try to convince the Kenyan Government to turn away from that initiative? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Thanks for the question. Obviously, we’re very concerned about the – when the Kenyans made the announcement that they were going to close Dadaab and Kakuma. And we have had quite a number of engagements with the Kenyan Government. I’ve spoken with the Kenyan leaders myself about this issue. And the Kenyans have committed to live up to their international commitments with respect to the refugees, and we welcome that commitment. We expect them to do it. It is a subject of ongoing discussion. UNHCR has provided some – well, a proposal, really, on a way forward. And we understand the Kenyans accepted it. We hope, again, that the Kenyans will – hope and expect that the Kenyans will live up to their international commitment and that this matter can be resolved.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Michele Kelemen of NPR. Michele.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I was wondering if we should expect any specific announcements on COVID aid, on vaccines. I know there was some announcements on India today, but should the Kenyans and Nigerians expect any of that?
AMBASSADOR GODEC: What I would say on this is obviously, COVID-19 is a global challenge – a challenge for every country, certainly the United States, all the countries in Africa, and all of the countries around the world. And the United States is committed to working to play a leading role to address this situation. The United States has, of course, done a number of things: $2 billion already given to COVAX, another $2 billion pledged. And I would – and in addition, we provided quite a bit of assistance already to – specifically to Kenya and Nigeria by way of ventilators, personal protective equipment, other things.
I think that we will continue, as we become increasingly able, to look at other options and opportunities to provide assistance and support. We want to be helpful because this is a global crisis that really threatens all of us.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line of Lara Jakes, New York Times. Lara.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon, everyone. I wanted to press you a little bit more on Tigray, if I could. As you noted a few minutes ago, the United States has already taken steps, has issued demands for Eritrean troops to leave the region and for the atrocities to end. So I’m wondering: What deliverables are you looking for from tomorrow’s meeting, or may be even possible at this point as a result of tomorrow’s meeting? And is Secretary Blinken’s statement today a signal of any kind of announcement that may be made tomorrow or – about new actions or penalties?
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Thanks for the question. Well, I’m not going to get into the details of what might be discussed very specifically by way of announcements that might or might not come. What I would say is this, is Tigray is, as I said, a grave concern. It’s a – it is a crisis. And the instability and the fighting in Tigray is not just an Ethiopian issue. It’s a regional issue, and so it does pose risks to the entire region. We have spoken with President Kenyatta about this this issue previously, and I’m sure – and we’ve spoken with other regional leaders and we will continue to do so. And we continue to look for ways to – what – bring the conflict to an end. And the regional leaders play a very important role in making that happen, and so we are in close communication with them.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line of Daphne Psaledakis of Reuters.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Yes, we got you.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Chad’s new military rulers on Monday named the prime minister of a transitional government, a move dismissed by opposition leaders. Does the U.S. support the appointment and does the army have a right to pick a premier?
AMBASSADOR GODEC: So we are gravely concerned by the events in Chad last week: the death of President Deby and the fighting which was taking place. We continue to closely monitor the situation on the ground. We are speaking with a number of people about it, of course. And we have been and continue to advocate for a peaceful and democratic transition to a civilian-led government. We’ve long stood with the people of Chad in advocating for democratic and representative government. The naming of a civilian prime minister is potentially a positive first step in restoring civilian governance.
I think it’s important to sort of stress that the Chadian people deserve an inclusive national dialogue where all the stakeholders can come together to decide the future of their country. The African Union Peace and Security Council had issued a statement recently and called for such a dialogue. We support the African Union initiative. We support the mission that they’re sending to Chad. And again, we would urge that this moment be taken to move the country forward in a democratic direction and that the people have an opportunity to really have a democracy, have a representative government.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to Noah Pitcher of Today News Africa.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. So many African countries, including Nigeria and Kenya, have dealt with the food insecurity and economic instability for some time now, but the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have, in many cases, exacerbated and complicated these pre-existing issues. As he speaks with presidents of Nigeria and Kenya, how does the Secretary plan to address these problems? And what is the administration’s vision for the U.S.’s practical role in helping African nations continue to develop and also economically recover from the pandemic?
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Thanks very much for the question. You’re certainly raising an important issue. I mean, first, we have to get past the pandemic. And we’re committed, as I said, to working with the entire world to do that, including the countries of Africa. But once it’s past, once the pandemic itself is over and, in fact, even before, in many respects, we do need to address the economic consequences of the pandemic. And so this is something that is under discussion. We are looking at ways in which we can assist. There are upcoming conferences and meetings that will be addressing this and which should be providing more detail, making things more concrete, more definite.
We already support some of the stuff that the international financial institutions are doing by way of making assistance available to help address the economic consequences of the crisis. And this, of course, is all in addition to the wide-ranging assistance that we already provide to both Kenya and Nigeria. We’re already providing in Kenya, for example, considerable education assistance, health assistance, assistance to youth, a wide range of things, and, of course, we do a lot of things in Nigeria as well.
So as we move forward, we will be looking at what new things need to be done specifically to address the consequences of the pandemic, but also what we’re doing now and whether there’s additional ways to pivot or change that to make it more responsive to the new reality that COVID-19 unfortunately has brought to African countries and, indeed, to the world.
MR ICE: And I think we’ve got time for one more question. Let’s go to Christopher Woody at Business Insider. Christopher.
QUESTION: Thank you for your time today. During the testimony last week before Congress, the head of U.S. Africa Command expressed concern about Chinese engagement in Africa. I wanted to ask if Secretary Blinken plans to bring up any specific concerns he has about Kenya’s or Nigeria’s engagements with China during his meetings.
AMBASSADOR GODEC: So I think I would start here. The entire administration, President and the Secretary and all of us, really see African countries as partners – pursue our shared interests, things we’re working on, and I mentioned earlier security, global health, climate change, democracy, economic growth, all the rest of it. And that’s – that is the way the United States engages with Africa. We talk with Africans about what they want. We discuss our shared interests. We look for a way forward. That’s the basis.
So with respect to China, we don’t see our relationship with Africa through the frame of China. Obviously, China is a very serious competitor. China’s a central challenge that’s going to define the 21st century. It’s something that we do have to address. In Africa, we’re going to meet the challenge that China presents by working to ensure that, for example, American companies can compete on an even playing field, provide a meaningful alternative to China’s economic approach. We’re going to push back on corrupt or coercive practices. We’re going to encourage Africans to look for a range of deals and offers on things that they need and want and make sure – and work to make sure that the American offer is the best offer and the one that’s most attractive.
I think that what I can say is that the United States offers an alternative vision, or certainly a very different vision from the one that China presents, on economic development, on democratic governance, on human rights, on transparency, and all the rest of it. And I think that that ultimately is a very attractive model, and we’ll continue to emphasize that to the Africans and work with them, again, to achieve our shared objectives.
MR ICE: Very good. Everyone, that’s all we have time for this afternoon. I do want to thank everyone for joining us. I’d especially like to thank Acting Assistant Secretary Bob Godec for joining us today. And with that, the call is ended and the embargo is lifted. Have a nice day.
AMBASSADOR GODEC: Thanks very much, everybody. Bye-bye.