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Press Call by National Security Council Senior Advisor Grant Harris to Preview Upcoming Visit of President Buhari of Nigeria

July 17, 2015

Via Conference Call

3:03 P.M. EDT

MR. BOOGAARD: Hi, thanks, everybody, for taking the time to hop on today. This call will be on the record with Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Africa for the National Security Council, Grant Harris. The call topic will be on the upcoming visit of Nigerian President Buhari, who will be visiting the White House on July 20th. So Grant is going to make a few brief remarks to start us off here and then we'll open the floor to questions.

Just so that we're all on the same page, we will be doing a separate call on the record with Ambassador Rice next week on the President's upcoming trip to Africa, so if we can try to keep this as much on the visit of the Nigerian President, that would be ideal. And we'll certainly address all of your questions on the upcoming trip early next week.

So, thanks, everyone, and I will turn it over to Grant.

MR. HARRIS: Great. Thank you very much, and thanks, everyone, for joining. First let me set the frame. As many of you all know, we have a longstanding and very important partnership with the government of Nigeria. Nigeria plays a critical role in the region in terms of being an economic power, but also a historical contributor to peacekeeping and playing a very important role globally, as well, in terms of its leadership and it's currently a member of the U.N. Security Council and a partner on a variety of issues, including presidential initiatives, like Power Africa and the Security Governance initiative.

This partnership includes strong people-to-people ties, and we have a strong Nigeria diaspora community in the United States. But particularly in recent years, there have been immense challenges facing the government, and we've seen an increasingly lethal Boko Haram formed in 2009. It gained strength over time and was able to carry out a series of attacks, both within the country but also in neighboring countries as well.

There have been economic challenges, and then recently, in the context of a contentious election, some observers were worried about the resilience and the ability for the country to weather the economic and the security challenges, and the potential for electoral violence at the same time. What we saw, though, was really a historic election and a peaceful transfer of power among political parties, the first time that this has occurred since the end of military rule in 1999.

We, from the United States' perspective, knew early on the importance of this election and did what we could to step up our assistance in that regard. But I don't want to limit it to the election, per se. We threw out and, over these years, have been providing important security assistance to help professionalize the Nigerian military and to help their approach to Boko Haram. And we've been encouraging them throughout to take a comprehensive and holistic approach that leverages development and economic growth alongside security tools, and that is conducted in a manner consistent with international human rights.

In terms of economic work, we've offered assistance in that regard as well, and I'll come back to this in a moment. And we have, of course, made development investments in Nigeria over the years, including important ones in health and in food security and, as I mentioned, being a Power Africa focus country, increased that push to try to increase access to electricity.

We have, though, in this election, a new government that has set out a very important agenda to tackle these challenges. President Buhari has said that his priorities are economic reform, including reforming the energy sector, advancing security goals, and combatting Boko Haram, and tamping down on corruption, which is a problem that needs leadership at this moment in time uniquely given that the plague of corruption has negatively affected governance in a variety of areas.

And we stand ready to help. Over the prior months, we've increased our engagement further still. Secretary Kerry traveled out in January and met both with the sitting President Jonathan and candidate, General Buhari. We made clear at the time that the world was watching the conduct of the political parties and their leaders in the lead-up to the election, and that we wanted to ensure that they were peaceful and that everyone acted in a manner which was responsible and which was discouraging any type of violence by their followers.

That took place, and then we had our Vice President reach out, again, to President Jonathan and candidate Buhari with a similar message. And then after the election results were in, President Obama immediately reached out and congratulated President Jonathan on his statesman-like conduct in the wake of the election results and also congratulated President Buhari and invited him to Washington. And I'll come back to that in a moment in terms of the theme. Our Vice President also reached out and made phone calls, and Secretary Kerry then led a presidential delegation to attend the inauguration of President Buhari.

So where we are at this moment in time, our President having extended an invitation to visit, we've got an excellent chance to underscore the United States longstanding friendship with Nigeria and our commitment to expanding the partnership with the new government and our support for the Nigerian people following these historic elections and this democratic and peaceful transfer of power.

So as President Buhari arrives in Washington over the weekend and will be hosted in the Oval Office on Monday, we've got the opportunity on all of these issues -- from energy sector reform to security cooperation to strengthening the economy -- to discuss more concrete matters in which we can advance this shared agenda.

The theme, overall, I think as you're hearing, is that this visit is an opportunity to talk about how best to execute a comprehensive approach to the fight against Boko Haram; how to act quickly to stabilize the economy, including by tackling corruption and reforming the energy sector; and then finally to help this new government in rapidly improving the services that the government of Nigeria is providing to its citizens, from its cities to towns to villages. And that encompasses both a broad but also longstanding relationship in which we think there's an opportunity to do more. And we're looking forward to not just the Oval Office meeting but several days of programs that will consist of engagement across our many different Cabinet agencies and allow for broad interaction with President Buhari and his advisors.

And with that, I'd be happy to take questions.

Q: Two questions really fast. One, what are you expecting the President to talk with the Nigerian President about when it comes to this most recent attack in Nigeria of Boko Haram? And also when it comes to Boko Haram, there's still a call for the girls, to bring back our girls. Will the President be discussing that, particularly as there is a thought by some on Capitol Hill, in particular, Congresswoman Wilson, Frederica Wilson, who believes that the girls are still alive and that they're being used as leverage to barter with the Nigerian government. Could you talk about both of those issues please?

MR. HARRIS: Sure, I'd be happy to. On the first -- I think the themes as we've laid them out will really also be the context for the conversation in the Oval Office. And I think that the Presidents will have an opportunity to discuss how the U.S. government can support this bold agenda that President Buhari has staked out, and in tamping down corruption and in advancing comprehensive approach to combat Boko Haram, and in acting quickly to undertake economic reforms, including of the energy sector. There are opportunities for us to engage further. There is assistance that we can provide; there are ideas to be exchanged in that regard.

I think those are the overall themes. There are also issues, though, that we want to raise in which we cooperate with the government of Nigera on a set of global issues. And that includes climate change, and that includes other issues in terms of the Security Council and elsewhere, which will also I think be discussed over the course of the visit.

Now, you raised, though, an important point about the missing girls -- the Chibok girls who were abducted. Since that -- since originally learning news of those abductions, we've increased our support in a few different ways, which I wanted to highlight before coming back to the specific question.

We were directed by President Obama to bring resources to bear to try to support Nigera's efforts. And the goal was to -- and is to safely return these girls to their families. We dispatched a multidisciplinary team to our embassy in Abuja to advise the Nigerians on how to secure the safe recovery of these kidnapped young women. And that provided expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations, strategic communications, intelligence, victim assistance, and the like. This team is still active as a part of our embassy personnel in Abuja.

We also then began flying intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance flights over Nigeria to try to help locate the girls. The search, as you know, has been covering a very vast area which complicates the efforts to locate them. But there have been some actions as of late and some successes by the Nigerian military which have resulted in the release or the freedom of some young women. Now, some of these potentially were of the group kidnapped from Chibok, but there were other girls kidnapped from elsewhere.

A piece of that, though, in addition, we have in New York and once these girls were -- excuse me, in New York, I mean by encouraging multilateral action and Security Council sanctions on Boko Haram, which were adopted in May. And then for those girls that were released, we've been providing psychosocial services and trying to facilitate their reintegration into their communities.

Within this, we've launched a broader and global initiative and that's Let Girls Learn. And that's a campaign that was launched in July. It included 30 prominent celebrities when originally launched. And it's about raising awareness and an effort to connect people around the world with simple and specific opportunities to contribute and to volunteer and to raise their voices in support of girls' education.

Because the claim that was made by Boko Haram as they were clearly targeting young women who were taking and on the cusp of taking school exams, this sparked international outrage, and rightly so, about a push to deny girls an education. And so we wanted to respond beyond just a bilateral assistance.

This will be a topic, but I think it's within that broader context as well of Nigeria needs to confront Boko Haram in a comprehensive way. And to successfully do that, it must consider obviously the security tools, but also how you protect communities, how you support economic growth and development particularly in the north of the country, and then how you also support reintegration of those young girls and others who are affected by the fighting.

Q: Yes, thanks. Thanks for doing the call. First, just a sort of a logistical question. Can you tell us all the different members of the government that Mr. Buhari will be meeting with? He put out a long list of people that he says he will be meeting with including John Kerry; the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew; and Martin Dempsey. Are those meetings confirmed? Will he be meeting with that many people? And is there anyone else that he will be meeting with?

And then, secondly, on security deliverables, I'm wondering if we will hear any announcements about what the U.S. will do to help in the fight against Boko Haram, sort of specifically. Because the Nigerians have said that the U.S has not done enough in terms of providing military assistance and specifically equipment. Is there any potential from movement on that issue?

MR. HARRIS: Thank you for the question. President Buhari and his team are going to be in Washington over the course of multiple days and they do have a very broad program. And that includes a wide range of members of the Cabinet. Certainly the Oval Office with President Obama will be the pinnacle of the program. The Vice President will also be engaged with President Buhari. Secretary Kerry will, and then we've got a range of members of Cabinet from Secretary Pritzker and our Ambassador Mike Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative, to officials from a variety of other agencies.

And we are nailing down the specific times and confirming the different elements of the program, but we've got a strong interest in the desire to meet, as you mentioned, with Secretary Lew and from others. Secretary Carter had been planning to be on travel but there will be a meeting with the Deputy Secretary of Defense. We're also hoping for a meeting with Attorney General, Lynch and with others. And so it really will be expansive.

This, in our mind, was an enormous advantage to inviting President Buhari to Washington, because he's able to meet and his team will be able to meet and establish relationships with a wide range of Cabinet members who would not necessarily otherwise travel with the President, or the President to travel -- and that we've got then these connections across the board with this team and this new government.

So there will be a lot of follow-on work, we imagine. In terms of announcements and deliverables and the like, we see this visit as the continuation of a dialogue. And this President, President Buhari, has staked out an agenda, and we think he's identified the right issues, the right topics, and he's expressed an intent to make real reforms. And we've offered our help to do that.

In terms of security assistance in particular, you've seen us increase our assistance over time, including not just Nigeria but also to neighbors and regional states that are in the fight. Most recently, we had announced an additional $34 million to the Lake Chad Basin member states. We also -- and that's for training and equipping and for their work to fight against Boko Haram. It's multi-faceted -- advice, information, logistic support, training, equipping, et cetera.

We've also provided support and most recently announced $5 million to support the multi-national joint task force, which is the regional task force that is being developed in order to best coordinate the regional states in this fight.

But this trip and this visit will not be about broad announcements of new initiative; it will be about rolling up our sleeves and talking about how we support an agenda that we think hits the right issues and that we think is directionally spot on. But it's a question of how do we help, more specifically, drawing on the lessons we've learned and the capacities that we have.

There have been moments in the past where publicly, the prior government has said that certain equipment requests or others weren't handled to their liking. We think that this is a new page in terms of the opportunities, and we think that, as before, that we'll continue to address all of these requests for assistance on a case-by-case basis. We have an inclination to do more, and we have a desire to support. We will do it throughout, consistent with our laws and our policies, and ensure that this support is done consistently with a holistic approach that will support human rights. But what we're talking about during this visit is the details and how we get it done, and how we deepen the relationship.

Q: My question is twofold. One is, they tell me of the visit, especially the President will be meeting African head of state and he will be meeting President Buhari. I don't know which one comes first, but he has made some major moves by getting rid of all his military chiefs. Is that some incentive the President will be talking about when they meet?

And my second question seems to focus on -- Nigeria is an economic power in Africa, but when it comes to corruption and distribution of wealth among its citizens, will the President touch on that with Buhari?

MR. HARRIS: Thank you very much for the question. You're right that there's some key engagements coming up. And as my colleague mentioned, we'll be doing a separate call discussing more specifically some of the themes and the goals for the President's travel.

But I want to highlight the fact that -- and one of the reasons that this will be historic, but also, I think, so important in deepening the relationship is that President Buhari's visit is the fulfillment of an invitation extended immediately upon his election. And the fact that he is visiting less than eight weeks after taking office is historic in and of itself.

This is the signal of the importance that the United States places on the relationship. And no other African head of state, to my knowledge, has -- or certainly in the Obama administration, has been invited to the Oval Office so soon after taking office. And so it's an unprecedented action on our part in response to an unprecedented moment in time, in our opinion. You mentioned distribution of wealth and economic challenges, and that's certainly on the agenda to discuss. There have been, as I mentioned, real economic challenges facing the government of Nigeria, and this new President will need to be taking the right steps to undertake the reforms to improve the situation.

There are a few things that we hope will happen, and we hope that the ministers whom he selects will have strong experience and technocratic background that will really send a strong signal of seriousness and intent. We think that will be very well received. And we think that -- he's identified energy reform and reforming also the power sector, and tamping down on corruption -- that these areas have vast potential for improving the economy.

There is obviously a massive influx of foreign direct investment in Nigeria, but that influx in no way matches the potential. So when we're talking about economic issues with the government of Nigeria, it's broad-ranging. It's about trade issues, how to maximize the use of the African Growth And Opportunity Act, how do we maximize the opportunity for U.S. companies to invest, how do we ensure that Power Africa is making gains, including through major projects, but also through offline and micro-grid solutions so that we can expand energy and electricity to the millions of Nigerians who need it.

And so as part of it, I think the dialogue on energy and on the economy generally will be really important. And we've got a lot of members of Cabinet as well who will be carrying on that dialogue in addition to the discussion in the Oval Office.

Q: Thank you very much for having this call, Grant. I wanted to follow up on that. In particular when you mentioned reforming the energy sector in Nigeria and addressing corruption, I wanted to know how will the President urge Buhari to do those things, and also how will the administration try to maximize the passage of AGOA -- the renewal of AGOA.

MR. HARRIS: Thank you. Excellent questions, again. In terms of energy sector reform, the obvious starting point is critical to Nigeria's economic strength, but we also need to ensure that all Nigerians benefit from the country's natural wealth. And in the last question, I was getting at the same issue. This is going to require a couple of things that are part of the dialogue. It's going to require widespread regulatory reforms, and it's also going to require consistent application of laws.

We have technical assistance and some policy advice that we're happy to provide the Nigerian government, but it's going to require, in addition to the reforms, President Buhari ensureing that he takes steps to tamp down corruption and to stop the theft that has diverted revenues from funding infrastructure and health and education. So I think as he's formulating his specific policy prescriptions on how to do this, we're ready to do more to help.

And then in terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, this is a broader challenge that is continent-wide in terms of participants -- or beneficiaries, I should say, of AGOA. And this unilateral preference program is the backbone of our trade relationship, but it's not used to the extent that we would want. And there are certain barriers as countries are looking to maximize their use. Some of them are sanitary -- (inaudible) -- sanitary standards. Others are lack of information and the like.

We've been focused very much on capacity-building and trying to increase what we're doing in this regard, including some announcements that were made at last year's very successful U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to increase investments that we're making in trade and investments in capacity-building through regional hubs and through technical assistance from our various departments and agencies.

And so this is ongoing work with the government of Nigeria and I think there's more that we can do.

Q: Hi, there. Grant, you talk about the honor that you're bestowing on the President by inviting him so soon after his election. I know very many people have raised the question of why the President chose to invite him here rather than visit Nigeria during his upcoming Africa trip, and instead add Ethiopia to the itinerary. Can you talk a little about that, of how you balanced the decision between going in person to Nigeria by the President, as opposed to hosting President Buhari here? Thank you.

MR. HARRIS: Absolutely. And as you mentioned, I think I've laid out a lot of our thinking so far, and to recap it, in early April -- I think it was April 2nd -- when President Obama called President-elect Buhari, part of what they talked about was how we could be doing more together as he's forming his team and he was thinking about his priorities in assuming office. And President Obama issued the invitation, and President Buhari accepted.

And our view was that we needed to have this occur as soon as possible, and that we would also want to maximize this opportunity to have him in Washington with his advisors. And there are a few different things that we think are really notable about that.

I mentioned that it's unprecedented in terms of how soon after assuming office he is visiting. I also mentioned, though, that there are strong people-to-people ties, and that's another aspect which I think is not part of our official program that we're crafting for the Nigerians, but part of their program and their intent in meeting with diaspora and others.

There's been I think great interest, though, on the Nigerian side and on ours in ensuring broad participation. I spoke already about some of the members of the Cabinet that are looking to be a part of this program, and that includes really drawing on the insight -- whether it's of our Attorney General or our Treasury Secretary, or others who will be able to directly engage, whereas they might not otherwise or would not be traveling on this trip that the President has coming up.

It's the opportunity for President Buhari and his team also to meet with members of Congress, and to meet with civil society and non-governmental organizations here and speak to a domestic audience.

And so in any engagement, we're looking first and foremost at how we advance U.S. national interests and ensure that we're advancing the policies and the initiatives that we think are important. And this seemed to be a particular moment in time where hosting President Buhari and having a robust program like this would get it done.

Taking one step back, though, as I mentioned, I think it really is important to view this as a continuation of what we've been doing. The President reached out -- I mentioned the Vice President had reached out not just after the election but before the election, and the fact that Secretary Kerry has traveled to Nigeria twice since January, including both in January and then for the inauguration, and then following on top of that, Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken traveled out with an interagency team also to discuss some of these same issues and discuss how to maximize the visit to Washington.

And so in our mind, whether it's on the continent or whether it's here, the key aspect is the engagement with who needs to be meeting with whom and how we can advance the ball on these priorities.

Q: Thanks for doing the call. I think there's a perception that the former President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, had somehow fallen out of favor with the administration in his final years in office. And I'm wondering if you could speak to that a little bit -- whether receiving President Buhari so soon after he took office, as you've mentioned a couple times during this call, is somehow a symbol of wanting to quickly turn the page away from Jonathan and work with the new President.

MR. HARRIS: The purpose of the visit is a symbol of what we think is a moment in time and the potential (inaudible) could be doing more. It's not a reflection on President Jonathan. President Jonathan and his administration were an important partner on these same issues. But, as I was trying to describe at the beginning of the call, given the mix of security and economic challenges, and given also the strong statements by the Nigerian people in providing -- in having a historic and peaceful election, this feels to us like Nigeria is at an important moment in which there can be real reforms across the board -- economic reforms, and on corruption and the like, and a more comprehensive approach and holistic approach to Boko Haram.

We've also seen, I think, a need to do more and a need to have a deeper relationship, as we've seen Boko Haram attack neighboring states and as we've seen the economic challenges and the challenges to the stock market and the currency and others that the government has been weathering. And so I think that what I'm trying to convey is we're looking forward to what we can do with a President who's staked out an agenda that we think is the right agenda at the right time.

Now, looking backward, in terms of your question, President Obama met multiple times with President Jonathan, and we worked closely with him. We think now, with this moment in time and a new administration and these priorities, there's a lot to get done.

MR. BOOGAARD: I think that's it for everyone. We really appreciate everybody hopping on to the call. If you have any additional questions, feel free to follow up with me, Peter Boogaard, in the NSC press office.

Thank you, Grant, for taking the time.

END 3:33 P.M. EDT

Barack Obama, Press Call by National Security Council Senior Advisor Grant Harris to Preview Upcoming Visit of President Buhari of Nigeria Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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