Joe Biden

Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials Previewing the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa

August 07, 2022

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Good evening for those of you in the region. This is [moderator].

This call will be on background for attribution to "senior administration officials."

For awareness, not for reporting, on the line are [senior administration official], [senior administration official], and [senior administration official].

The contents of the call will be embargoed until 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time, tomorrow, August 8th.

And with that, [senior administration official], I'll hand it over to you to get it started. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thanks so much, and good evening -- or good afternoon, wherever you are.

We're really excited to share the Biden-Harris administration's Africa strategy. I'll give you a little background on how it came together.

This was the product of many months of consultations and interagency deliberations. [Senior administration official] and I believe really strongly this had to be field driven, so we went out to all of our embassies on the continent to provide their input and then to engage with their partners.

We also looked more broadly across the world for countries that have longstanding interests or new interests in Africa to share their perspectives.

And then we did a tremendous amount of conversations with our African Diplomatic Corps, with think tanks, with outside experts -- both African, U.S., and European. So I really do believe this is a unique document because it is highly consulted with a lot of inputs from various perspectives.

I'm going to start with the big picture, which is that the strategy reframes Africa's importance to the U.S. national security interests. It builds on the Secretary's speech from November focusing on why the region is critical to advance our shared global interests. It's simply impossible to meet the era's defining challenges -- from tackling climate change, the pandemic, food insecurities, to promoting a free and open international order -- without African contributions and, this is the important part, African leadership.

But the strategy goes beyond the November speech because it really puts the meat on the bones in terms of how do we engage, with whom, to what ends, and with what tools.

If you're going to make a commitment and say that Africa is important to addressing all of the most challenging problems in the world, that means you have to invest in African agency, welcome it. You have to make sure and work with Africans, give them a seat at the table to help shape the global response, to provide input on some of the challenges and how we get through them, and to highlight the opportunities.

What Africans want to hear is not just what we're going to do in Africa but what we're going to do with Africans. And we accept that we're going to have disagreements. I believe and the Secretary believes that durable solutions come from disagreements.

The other thing with framing it this way is that the longstanding priorities of the U.S. government towards Africa -- democracy and governance, peace and security, trade investment, and development -- are not conceived in this strategy as pillars but as pathways, the (inaudible). And working with our African partners is the best way that they engage more globally.

I mentioned a little bit at the top that this is about engagement, and there's a number of things that we're trying to put into the process that we think will get better outcomes. One is engaging our African partners in ways where we share our priorities, we discuss their agendas, and we identify mutual opportunities to work together.

We know that we're going to have disagreements, as I said earlier, but we will lean in, we will (inaudible), and we'll address these differences head on. These are, I think, the hallmark of some of the President's engagements so far with African leaders.

We know we have to engage more African states. It can't just be with the largest ones, but small and medium ones -- whether it's from climate change to pandemic response -- are going to play a major role.

We have to think about Africa in the world, so not just the continent but how it relates to the Indo-Pacific or the Atlantic Basin.

And this administration is focused on what more we could be doing with the African diaspora. They are the vanguard of investments. They are a source of strength. And the strategy really commits our government to do more collaborating with our incredible diaspora.

The strategy has four main objectives. They are: foster openness and open societies; deliver democratic and security dividends; advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; support conservation, adaptation, and a just energy transition.

I know you have a copy of the document, but I'll just briefly say with the first objective around openness and open societies, we believe when nations make decisions in a free and open manner, it benefits Africans and Americans. So accountability and transparency are really at the hallmark of what we're talking about in this objective.

On democracy and security dividends, we explicitly made the linkage between the two because that is the reality that countries that are struggling with insecurity are probably also struggling with governance and developing services. And I think the idea of delivering this is incredibly important here because we know that there is -- while Africans are strongly supportive of democracy, almost 70 percent, supply is low. And there's a question about does democracy deliver. And this strategy is really focused on making sure it does.

On pandemic recovery and economic opportunity, we linked these as well because if the continent is not able to emerge from the pandemic, then the economic opportunity, the incredible trade investment opportunities on the continent will be difficult to realize. So we focus on how to put those two things together and also recognize that the crisis in Ukraine, Russia's war of aggression has also created additional constraints on African economies, and we have to address that.

And then finally, supporting conservation, adaptation, and a just energy transition -- Africans are the least responsible for global change, and they're disproportionately affected by it. So we need to work with our African partners to conserve their critical resources, including the second-largest rainforest, to help them in terms of adapting and having green energy and clean energy. And this is a line that really means a lot to Africans -- a just energy transition, thinking about how it's inclusive and how development goals remain in place.

I'm going to turn it over to [senior administration official] for a second, but I think it's just always important to remember that this is a continent that is young, increasingly connected, and increasingly urban. And so, many of the tools that we need to think about has to go towards that future.

Over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Hi, everybody. I won't speak too long so we can open up for questions. I just thought it might be useful to make three points.

One, I just want to emphasize: I think you heard Secretary Blinken say before that President Biden gave him the goal, the mission of reviving and strengthening our partnerships and alliances across the globe. And this strategy is a piece of that mission. And as [senior administration official] said, to do it in a different way that reflects the dynamism of Africa today.

Two, we're really delighted to be doing the announcement of the strategy here in South Africa. The United States and South Africa are two of the world's greatest constitutional democracies. We have a rich and varied partnership, and I think it's a good exemplar of what we're trying to achieve in the strategy.

Three, I wanted to share a story -- and it's going to sound like I made this up -- but some of you who are with us today saw that the Secretary got to meet a few Mandela Fellows. That's our great scholarship program where we bring these outstanding Africans to the States. And I got to talk to them, and I explained who I was and what my job was.

And so, I said to them, "So, if you have my job, what would you do? How would you change U.S. policy toward Africa?" And, and literally, they said, "You need to make sure that you have a collaborative partnership with us. It shouldn't just be the U.S. telling us what to do." And of course, that's exactly what this strategy is about.

They also said, because they're bursting with talent and full of pride and ambition, that, "We want to be leading our communities and our countries when it's time for our generation to take over." And that's part of, again, what we're trying to do is recognize the reality of the (inaudible) continent and help make African leaders make sure that their societies and especially the youth have opportunities to contribute in the way that they can.

So I'll cut myself off there so that we can have conversations. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We want to just -- [senior administration official] is on the line as well. [Senior administration official], there's a through line between the strategy and the summit if you want to just make a couple points.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Thanks, [senior administration official], and good afternoon, good evening to everyone. Thanks for joining.

So, as you all probably know by now, Vice President Harris announced in her statement to the U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Marrakech last month the dates for the African Leaders Summit, and President Biden and Vice President Harris are really looking forward to hosting the summit from December 13th through 15th, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

This announcement and, indeed, the summit further underscores the importance of U.S.-Africa relations and the Biden administration's commitment to revitalizing global partnerships and alliances, as [senior administration official] just mentioned.

We expect to engage a wide range of African and U.S. stakeholders to illustrate the breadth and depth of American partnerships with African governments, institutions, and citizens.

President Biden believes that U.S. collaboration with African leaders, as well as civil society, the private sector, and members of the diaspora, and certainly youth and women leaders, is essential to tackling shared challenges while seizing opportunities.

We expect to have sessions to directly engage civil society, host a forum on advancing two-way trade and investment efforts with African leaders in the private sector, as well as a forum focused primarily on elevating the role of the African diaspora and strengthening our cultural ties.

We also plan to engage on the key areas of interests, such as food security, climate and energy, health, multilateralism, peace and security, and openness and open societies, which is really the through line flowing from the strategy, as [senior administration official] mentioned.

We believe that Africa will shape the future -- and not just the future of African people, but of the world -- and Africa will make a difference in tackling the most urgent challenges and making the most of the opportunities we all face.

So, with that, we'll turn it over for questions. Thank you.

Q: Hi, thanks very much for doing this. I just wanted to ask if you could articulate a little bit more about how the strategy talks about Russia and China's influence in the region and America's place given their increased influence in the military and the economic sphere, and how it will message that. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, Missy. The strategy is focused on what the U.S. relationship is with African countries. It certainly recognizes that many countries are interested in Africa, see their national security interests in increasing their engagement with the continent. But what we're focused on is the fundamentals, what we're hearing from Africans. And transparency, accountability, openness -- these are the things that Africans care about. And it's a place particularly where we're best suited to succeed on.

Africans have different views on China. They vary from interest in their economic programs to concerns about their labor practices. And so, the best way for us to engage with Africans on China or on Russia is to make sure it's a free conversation. And I really think it's impressive to see the way that African journalists and legislatures and environmentalists are talking about what China is doing good but also some of the negative things. And creating that space is the best way that we advance our interests and our African interests.

Q: Hi, thanks very much. Can you spell out how this strategy will have -- what kind of practical or actual impact the strategy will have on policymaking? You mentioned the summit coming up, but can you give us a sense of what's the meat behind the broader goals?

And as a follow-up to Missy's question, as well, I understand your answer that the strategy doesn't specifically discuss China, but can you address how the impact of China and Russia's own actions in Africa are influencing U.S. interests and the U.S. desire to have more of a role there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi. This is [senior administration official]. Really, genuinely, this strategy is about how we see Africa, what Africa wants, our analysis of Africa as a global player and no longer the isolated or neglected continent, and how to define how we engage with them.

So the China-Russia thing is very subsidiary from our perspective. This was really about how we can do better to work more effectively with Africans to achieve results in areas that challenge us all.

So, as you guys heard the Secretary say last November -- and I'm sure he'll say it again tomorrow -- we're not about limiting choices and nobody, no country should be limiting African choices. That's not what a respectful partnership would do. So we genuinely are focused on how we can improve our engagement and achieve shared outcomes.

Q: Hi, everybody. I wondered if you could talk a little more what concrete actions the administration would be taking to fulfill this strategy. Are we talking about new spending, new deployments? We've already talked about the summit that's going to be in December, but what else -- concrete things -- that the administration is going to be doing?

And also, I just want to touch on the fact that there's this talk about this being an important part of administration's goals, but we're more than a year and a half after the administration took office. Why is it coming out now and not earlier on?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, again, this is not a dramatically different set of policies. You've seen us do this strategy this past year. We have been pushing out really hard in the COVID space to work with our partners to get vaccines out. We've been working to help Africa develop its own manufacturing capabilities. So building on the great PEPFAR experience, we've really engaged significantly; we really pushed out hard on COVID.

We've been leading the world and mobilizing the response to the economic shock caused by the Russian war in Ukraine. You've seen the congressional support for additional assistance to help in the short term. And we're also trying to help countries achieve self-sufficiency and resiliency going forward so that it's not just a short-term shock, but that they have their own production capabilities that can withstand exogenous shocks like this war as well as climate change.

Third, we continue to be the largest humanitarian donor in the world. You saw Samantha Power was out in the Horn a few weeks ago announcing $1 billion in assistance to help countries in the Horn deal with a really historically dreadful drought. We're engaged in a lot of diplomacies to help restore democratic transitions, help reduce tensions and conflicts.

So, our engagement and partnership is across the waterfront. And so, what we've been doing since the administration has been in office is of this theme of how we want to approach working with Africans.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just add one more thing, and [senior administration official] may want to jump in as well, but the strategy does point to a number of new initiatives and policies.

We just completed a trade deal with Kenya, and we're very proud of that in terms of new chapters for trade, and we think it could potentially be a model. The strategy focuses on rebalancing towards urban areas. The continent is going to be 50 percent urban by the end of this decade. And so, we're preparing to announce an MCC threshold program that is going to look at urban issues in the major African city, and again, we're hoping that, in partnership with Congress, that we can see where that can go.

And then maybe, [senior administration official], you want to talk a little bit about digital.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thanks, [senior administration official].

Yes, so I was going to say that we have a number of deliverables and initiatives that we're -- in the works that we're working on to announce at the summit and, again, that we've been working on throughout the administration for the past 18 months and will continue to work on.

So, we see the summit as not only a culmination of those but also the beginning of a very new frontier in terms of the future of our relations and our relationship with the continent.

So, we're probably -- and you've heard me mention this as well in the past about a new initiative on digital Africa, providing new opportunities to work together to shape new technologies and innovations, to support open societies and democracies, as well as to help foster and boost economic growth and two-way trade investment, in addition to a just energy transition and governance.

So, stay tuned. We will have more concrete delivery deliverables to read out to you as we are get closer to the summit.

Thank you.

Q: Hi, thank you so much for doing this. Following up with what my colleagues have already asked, is the administration concerned about Russia's attempt to grow its influence in the continent? Specifically, how does the administration view private militia groups, such as the Wagner Group, known to have close ties with the Kremlin?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for the question. Obviously, we're incredibly concerned about the role of Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic, in Mali. They're committing human rights abuses. They're not making the security better. They are focused mainly on extractive industries, whether it's diamond or gold.

So African governments have turned to Wagner, and the outcomes are clear. They're impoverishing these countries further. Mali is isolated now from the rest of the region. They've now turned against the U.N.

So, we are deeply concerned about the role of Wagner. But isolating those two countries, I think, narrows the conversation because most of our partners in Africa agree -- countries in the region are also concerned about the role of Wagner.

So we're not alone here. It's a disturbing trendline for most countries in the region.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was just going to say the same thing. I mean, I think the real story about the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group is that Africans are not interested in the kind of services they offer, broadly speaking, because they've seen the exploitation of resources, taking them out of Africa abroad and not benefiting the community here. And they've seen the reckless disregard for civilian life.

So, I think the important story is that Africans don't want Wagner here and (inaudible) and the steps they're taking to keep them out.

Q: Hi, everyone. Thanks for doing this briefing. I was just wondering if you could explain how this new strategy might apply to hard problems in places where the U.S. has already been engaged in the last year in Africa, places like Ethiopia or Sudan or, more broadly, in the push against Islamist militancy in the Sahel. It's unclear to me whether what you're explaining is a strategy for a broad diplomatic engagement with all governments or whether it's a tool that could be used specifically in some of those problem areas.

And secondly, if you could just, on the same topic, explain: Is this new strategy going to change the balance in the U.S. relationship broadly with African countries with regards to military cooperation? For instance, are you talking about, in dealing with African countries, more on diplomatic fronts than the prior stress on military cooperation? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for the question. I'll answer a little bit and then share it with [senior administration official]. But I think the crises in Ethiopia and Sudan, and our approach towards it, are good examples of the strategy's new vision.

So we've been involved in really intensive negotia- -- sorry, we've been engaged in intensive support for the Ethiopian -- around the Ethiopian crisis by appointing special envoys; having very high-level engagement, including President Biden.

And on that call, to the point about having a conversation that encapsulates the challenges and the opportunities, the President was clear about his concerns, but also talked about some of the nascent progress in terms of the ending of state of emergency and the release of detainees.

And I would actually point to all the President's engagements of having that balance: talking about the things that we disagree with, trying to push towards outcomes, having real consequential calls.

I know [senior administration official] would want to say more on Sudan, but I think both in Sudan and Ethiopia are examples of us engaging not just with Africans but with a broader set of international partners, whether they're in the Gulf or historically in Europe or making sure that Africans are in the lead in these in these efforts.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, well, I think Sudan is a terrific example of the power of youth. What the young people of Sudan have done is nothing short of extraordinary in stopping a complete military takeover. And they're working intensively now to finalize a new roadmap to elections that would have the civilians in control during the transition.

And none of that would have been possible without the leadership and sacrifice of the youth in Sudan. And that's what we've been trying to do is support them, help them, lean in where we can to help them achieve that goal, which we share: a democratic Sudan. So I think it's a really good example of the strategy.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And then just on your question on military, we've recognized for a long time that we have to be focused on political inclusion and economic opportunity as the lines of effort to address violent extremism -- that we still will use military force in a calibrated and discreet way in certain crises and challenges that affect and threaten U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland. But we're implementing the bipartisan Global Fragility Act now in coastal countries -- a series of coastal countries: Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Guinea, and then in Mozambique.

In the first case, these are countries that are increasingly concerned about the threat of terrorism and are working with us to design a program together on how to address some of these root causes. And then in the case of Mozambique, which already has an ISIS affiliate, we're working with them there as well.

But I think there's a cornerstone here of retaining military and counterterrorism when necessary, when urgent what threatens our interests, but really broadening our effort so that we are working with our partners to address the underlying grievances.

Q: Thank you so much for this. As you mentioned, this is pretty consistent U.S. policy. I feel like I've heard a version of this speech every year since about 2007. So I wanted to ask you where you stand on specific requests that African leadership have made of the U.S., you know, does this policy change. For example, does this new strategy look at increasing or expanding AGOA commitments or any trade commitments on the continent? Does it (inaudible)?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry, you're breaking up.

Q: Let me just ask you where do you stand on AGOA and trade agreements, direct military assistance to African countries, the AU's demand for more African representation at the U.N. Security Council?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, thank you. So, again, I think this strategy focuses on how do we get to certain outcomes. It still retains focus on key areas like (inaudible) governance, peace and security, but it thinks of them as not only ends but as means to reach an outcome that Africans and the U.S. are striving for.

But in a number of the examples that you raised, we are having those conversations. I mentioned earlier a new trade agreement that we made with Kenya. In the strategy, we talked about working with Congress on what a post-AGOA future looks like.

The strategy is very serious about how do we integrate Africa into other global forums because of the importance of their voice. And it's about thinking more holistically about our military engagement, how it's paired with economic inclusion, with political development and democracy and open societies, as well as trade and investment.

And then, again, I think one of the things this strategy realizes is the continent is increasingly urban, increasingly young and increasingly connected. And so, a number of the policies that we've already started to implement or intend to implement really do reflect that changing landscape.

MODERATOR: Thanks a lot. And to others, as a reminder, this call is on background attributable to "senior administration officials." The embargo will be lifted at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time tomorrow.

Thanks, everyone.

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials Previewing the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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