Background Briefing on African Issues

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
New York City
September 25, 2014


MODERATOR: Good evening, everyone. Could we close those doors?

Thank you for coming. We have a background briefing on Africa-related issues, and we have about 20 minutes, so we’ll get right into it. Again, background briefing, so no names or titles. We have a senior State Department official. Of course, for your – for clarity, this is [Senior State Department Official]. And I will turn it over to [Senior State Department Official] for some remarks, and then we’ll get to questions, so please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good, thank you very much. I see one or two faces I recognize in the room. It’s really great to be here with you. As you know, we’ve been here in New York – it’ll be close to a week when I leave on Saturday, and we’ve had the opportunity, as UNGA normally gives us the opportunity, to engage across the board with our African partners. It was particularly interesting for us this year because it comes on the heels of the Africa Leaders Summit that took place in Washington in August, so we had the opportunity to follow up with our partners on the leaders summit, to get further impressions from them on this extraordinary event, and to talk to them about some of the initiatives and follow up on initiatives that were announced during the summit.

As you know, one of the most pressing issues that we are dealing with across the board globally is Ebola. It is in West Africa, but the response is global, requiring the attention of all of the countries in the Security Council. President Obama last Tuesday announced a major increase in our assistance to the effort, and we are also using our voice and pressure to encourage other countries to bring more to the table to address what is a very, very serious epidemic that is having a devastating impact on the countries in West Africa. But if it’s not contained, it could spread more widely.

One of the components of our assistance is a new joint force command that will coordinate the regional response on the ground. We will have an estimated 4,000 U.S. forces who will be involved in staging and transporting supplies, building additional treatment units, and they will be setting up a site to train approximately 500 health care providers per week. They will also be providing a health facility to provide treatment to the medical workers and other responders who are assisting in the Ebola outbreak.

A second large issue that we are all involved in is the issue of terrorism. Of course, all of you have been focused on ISIL. I have been focused on Boko Haram and al-Shabaab as the countries in Africa have experienced their own brand of terrorism. The impact of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria has been tremendous, and it is an impact that is having an impact on Nigeria’s neighbors in Cameroon and Chad and Niger as well. As Boko Haram continues to make its name known in Nigeria, it’s having a devastating humanitarian impact on northern Nigeria, and we’re also concerned that it could have an impact on the upcoming election if the more than one million people who have been displaced because of Boko Haram’s terror are not able to participate in the electoral process. So we are encouraging Nigeria and Nigeria’s neighbors to work together along with us, the P3, to address this issue.

We also have met with the governments that are impacted by al-Shabaab – with Kenya, with Uganda, with Somalia – to talk about how we work with them to address al-Shabaab. There’ve been a number of meetings on the side that have attracted our attention. There was a meeting yesterday on Somalia, where Somalia’s partners expressed their commitment to continuing to work with the Somali Government. We see for the first time in 20 years that Somalia has an opportunity to actually move forward, and we want to continue to work with the government to build the institutions that they require to become a country that is back into the community of nations.

Today I attended a meeting on South Sudan that looked at the devastating impact of that war, the internal war in South Sudan – the humanitarian impact, but also the lack of progress on the political front in finding a solution to the political situation there. There was a lot of disappointment expressed in the meeting that Salva Kiir, who is here in New York, did not attend the meeting. He sent his minister of foreign affairs and some of his ministers, and several of the attendees at the meeting made a point of noting that Salva Kiir was not at the meeting.

We will be hosting a meeting tomorrow – or attending a meeting tomorrow that the UN is hosting on CAR and the way forward in that country that is also devastated by war. The hope is that with the interim President Samba-Panza, we will be able to work with her to start to build a process for reconciliation, for the establishment of security in and around Bangui so that they too can start the process of planning for the country to have an election next year, and also start to provide goods and services to their citizens.

I think I will end there. There are a lot more topics related to the African continent, and I’d be pleased to accept your questions.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much. Who would like to lead off? Lesley Wroughton, Reuters.

QUESTION: I just want to come back to the South Sudan. And I interviewed Ambassador Booth earlier this morning and he was talking about expanding sanctions unless the process moved along quickly. Do you agree with that? And given that the President wasn’t even there, is that some kind of indication of the ways he’s generally feeling? I mean, what --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as you know, we have already sanctioned several individuals both from the government side as well as the rebel side. We announced two new names just last week. And as efforts are being made to push for a political solution, efforts that are – have not yet succeeded, all of the parties who are involved in the negotiations have come to the conclusion that if the warring parties do not take this more seriously, then we have to levy more serious sanctions on them. And this is a view that has been expressed not just by the U.S. – and I do agree with Ambassador Booth – but it’s a view that’s been expressed by the negotiators under IGAD.

QUESTION: And you talk about moving – because right now they’ve got – mainly sanctions have been focused on the military side.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On individuals.

QUESTION: Right. How do you see them – I mean, you’re talking about political figures being targeted?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we’re still – we’re still in the process of discussing how these sanctions will be carried out and who they will be against. The important point here is that the neighbors and the IGAD negotiators also have to be an active participant in the sanctions regime, and they have indicated that they actually are at a place where if these negotiations do not move forward that they’re willing also to impose sanctions on both sides.

MODERATOR: Okay.

QUESTION: Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press. I wanted to ask you about the U.S. Ebola response, what its relation is to these UN Mission UNMEER that they’ve announced that’s going to have, they said, 400 vehicles. They said a lot of things. Is the U.S. going to work directly with that mission?

And on South Sudan, one of the sanctioned – sanctionees, Peter Gadet, is accused of having shot down a UN helicopter. And I wanted to know, is that – the UN hasn’t really sort of confirmed that. Is the U.S. concerned about getting to the bottom of that? And who do you think did it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We know – let me start with that first. We know that the UN is investigating and we’re waiting for the results of that investigation. But Gadet has been put on our sanctions list even before that happened. But the shooting down of the UN helicopter is evidence of how difficult it is to work in Sudan, but how committed the UN and others are to provide humanitarian assistance.

One of the commitments that came out of the meeting today with South Sudan announced by the foreign minister was that they would not stand in the way of NGOs and the UN delivering humanitarian assistance. And we have to hold them to that commitment because people are suffering.

On the Ebola response for the UN, we are working very, very closely with the UN. We all have to coordinate to ensure that, one, we’re complementing each other’s efforts, so the UN will be putting its headquarters for UNMEER in Accra and USAID will have some people who will be working very, very closely with them, embedded with them in Accra to ensure, again, that we are coordinating closely. This is a huge, huge crisis and it requires 10 times the people we have currently working on it. So there is so much more need than there is response now, so we are very pleased that the UN has taken this initiative and we have used the opportunities that we’ve had to engage with governments here in New York to encourage more governments to participate. As you know, there was a meeting today in which the governments of the G-7 expressed their support for these efforts, and President Obama participated in that and very, very strongly pressed for additional efforts on the part of every country. There’s not a country that should not be involved in this, and no amount of assistance is too small.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MODERATOR: Yeah. Elliot Waldman.

QUESTION: Yeah, with TBS News. A lot of the countries that are getting involved are countries that may not have good working relationships with the U.S. on other issues and that the U.S. doesn’t cooperate with normally otherwise. China, for instance, has been sending a lot of assistance to the region. And sort of a lot of people talk about the need for coordination in a general way, but what kinds of sort of concrete proposals have been put forth to address this? Is there some kind of a, I don’t know, a proposal to establish, like, an overarching authority or a clearinghouse of some sort to get past the issue of coordinating all these countries, all these organizations, all these different sectors?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think the UN will play a key role in coordinating all of the countries’ involvements. We’ve had a broad agreement that the U.S. will focus its attention in Liberia, although we do have a regional response; that the UK would focus on Sierra Leone; and that France would focus on Guinea. That being said, the needs are bigger than any one country can support, and we have encouraged the Chinese, for example, to be actively involved, and they have responded. We have communicated with them on what the needs are and we do think that they have a role to play. This is not a place for politics. It’s a place for ensuring that countries who have resources to contribute, that those countries contribute those resources.

I particularly want to note that in Africa, where you have countries that normally would not be expected, we’re seeing a tremendous response. The AU has created a task force that will be providing up to 200 medical workers to go out. African countries have contributed to that. The Government of Nigeria contributed $3.5 million to the ECOWAS effort and 500,000 to the countries that are affected. Nigeria itself was affected, and I have to say they did an extraordinary job of controlling the situation in Nigeria, and we think that it’s under control now. One index case that led to 19 infections, but almost all of the people were traced, they have been monitored, and so far another case has not been identified.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? You’re a former ambassador to Liberia. What went wrong here? I mean, one is analyzing and looking at – people say that the international community has been too disease-specific focused and hasn’t really paid that much attention, specifically in these areas, for building the wider health systems.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think what went wrong with Liberia, and I would say even in the other countries, is a very, very weak health infrastructure. And knowing Liberia as well as I do, the health infrastructure there is barely existent, and once this disease took hold the health infrastructure collapsed. And I think what we all – the conclusion we’ve all drawn is that we have to focus more attention on building a health infrastructure that can withstand these kinds of stresses and respond very quickly. We thought the situation was under control for a period, and then it started getting worse again, and now we’re in the situation we’re in now. But I think the international community is galvanized to support these countries. This is not something that Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea should face alone. It is a disease that we all should be involved in, and I think every single country that we’ve engaged – and there are a lot of them – have responded positively to helping out to address this situation.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on another issue, separate? The – as you know, there’s been a focus on the – on fighting ISIL, the coalition building and so on. Would that in any way impact Africa? I know this is far away, but how do you see that impacting (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, I – as I’ve always said, terrorism anywhere affects all of us everywhere. And as we look at the situation related to al-Shabaab and Boko Haram and AQIM and al-Qaida broadly, there is an extremist ideology there that feeds on each other, and there are foreign fighters that are already in Somalia who have been involved with al-Shabaab. There are foreign fighters involved with AQIM. We’ve not seen it yet with Boko Haram, but they could. And as these groups continue to have success or to terrorize communities, I think they feed on each other. So I do not think Africa is immune from the situation related to ISIL. I think Africa – countries in Africa have to be prepared to deal with issues of terrorism, and they have. The bombings at Westgate in Kenya, the Chinese workers who were taken hostage in Cameroon, the Nigerian girls who were taken hostage in Nigeria – these things impact all of us, so we have to continue to work together because this is not just a single event that impacts one country. It’s a global problem that we all have to address.

MODERATOR: I think we have time for one or two more, so yeah, Nicolas.

QUESTION: Yeah. On Boko Haram, are you aware of the claim by the Nigerian military that the leader of Boko Haram might be dead? And if you could give us an update on the operation supported by the U.S. to find the 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Nigerians have announced several times that the head of Boko Haram was dead, and every single time we’ve found out that it’s not true. What I’ve read recently is that the Shekau lookalike, or his – some Shekau impostor was killed, and then I read something later that maybe Shekau himself was killed. I don’t put a lot of weight on those stories until we see more evidence of that. I think we’re still seeing Boko Haram terrorize people in the north, and both in Cameroon and in Nigeria, and there was an attack even in Chad last week.

We’re continuing to work with the Nigerians to try to bring the Chibok girls home. This is a huge challenge. As we know, many of them – it’s been now months and we know that many of them were taken into the forest, and given the time that has passed, it’s possible that many of them have been taken to other locations. It is still our commitment to bring those girls home, as well as all the others that Boko Haram took as hostages. This didn’t just start with the Chibok girls. They were raiding villages and taking girls long before that. They were raiding villages and killing young boys before that, or taking boys and forcing them – young boys, and forcing them to fight. So this is much, much – a much, much bigger operation that we’re dealing with, and the ultimate goal is to stop Boko Haram. It’s to bring the girls home, it’s to stop the fighting, but it’s to actually stop Boko Haram’s terror in northern Nigeria.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks, everyone, for coming and thanks for your questions. Again, this is on background to Senior State Department Official. And we look forward to the next briefing, which we will have here at about 7 o’clock, which will be on the UNAIDS event and PEPFAR issues, so please stick around if you’re interested.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you.