Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
HOST: Hello, and welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive online press briefing platform. I’m delighted to welcome participants joining us today from across Africa and around the globe. I would like to send a special shout-out to the watch parties joining us from our embassies in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Liberia, South Sudan, and Zambia.Today we’ll be speaking with Ambassador Tibor Nagy, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Ambassador Nagy is a career Foreign Service Officer and spent 32 years in government service, with over 20 years in assignments across Africa. In that time he’s served as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, U.S. Ambassador to Guinea, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Togo. Ambassador Nagy is happy to take your questions today on U.S. Africa policy, including the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy.
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With that, let’s get started. Assistant Secretary Nagy, thank you for joining us today, and I’ll turn it over to you for some opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Thank you very much, Matthew, and good afternoon, Africa. Bonjour tout le monde. It’s a delight to be here. I will make my remarks very brief so that we can engage in a dialogue.
I’ve just returned from my second extended trip to Africa, and what I saw there, the discussions I’ve had, just reinforced for me that this administration’s Africa policy is exactly the right one for the right time. It’s actually what I’ve been waiting for, for a number of decades. I like it very much because it’s focused, it’s a laser, it’s not a shotgun. It concentrates on certain priorities. I think it’s the priorities that Africa and the African relationship with the United States very much needs right now. As I have said in so many speeches, one of the reasons I came back to this position was to try to help African youth, especially African youth find jobs, and I think that this policy will go a long way towards doing that. And like I said, I have greatly enjoyed visiting the continent again, engaging the leadership, engaging civil society, engaging especially the youth. And I am very eager to help implement this Africa policy and do everything we can to see the continent succeed.
So thank you very much, and I’m delighted to respond to any questions.
HOST: Fantastic. Well, let’s get started. Our first question comes from journalist Juanita Williams, who asks: Brookings Institute analyst Landry Signe said that the Africa strategy reflects a better understanding of dynamics in Africa. How did these African developments – whether governmental, economic, or scientific – motivate the development of this new strategy?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Well, I think that a lot of thought went into this strategy. It is the second regional strategy that the administration has formally announced, so I think in a way that that shows the importance that the administration gives to Africa. And again, a lot of the factors that went into this, it’s a coincidental of African needs, perceived United States strengths, exactly where we want to see the world evolving to, what we want to see happening in Africa. Again, I think the youth dimension is a considerable part of this because as everybody knows, Africa’s population will double between now and 2050 and that means there’ll be millions and millions and millions of young Africans looking for jobs. And either such a youth tsunami, as I call it, will be a tremendous force for dynamism and stability and prosperity, or if there are no opportunities then it could be a tremendous force for instability and highly negative factors.
So all of these went into the development of the strategy. There was – obviously, it’s a whole-of-government approach. Everybody had a part in it and, as I said, it’s a phenomenal coincidence of diplomacy, defense, development, priorities of Administrator Mark Green at USAID, and the administration writ large.
HOST: Our next question comes to us from Cameroon, Agence Cameroun Presse. They ask: The President of Cameroon has just ordered the release of 289 people detained in the context of the anglophone crisis. What does the United States think of this effort to resolve the conflict in the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: The release of those folks I think was a positive step. I think that there needs to be much, much more done. The crisis did not erupt overnight. It has been a long time in making. It’s a long-term historical crisis that goes back decades. It goes back to the union of the two parts of Cameroon. It goes back to the fact that the anglophone population of Cameroon have felt like second-class citizens for a long time. The immediate crisis goes back to 2016 where a lot of the anglophone teachers and lawyers were protesting because they felt like that they were being francophiled. What Cameroon needs more than anything is a genuine dialogue between all concerned so that the space which unfortunately has been filled by some of the radical elements can be given back to more of the moderate voices. Cameroon has a 1996 constitution in place, which has some very positive elements for decentralization. It would be wonderful if that – parts of that constitution could be implemented. And again, I believe that what’s needed is genuine dialogue. But the release of these people who had been charged with misdemeanors was a positive step.
HOST: Another question on Cameroon and the anglophone crisis, again, from Agence Cameroun Presse. They ask: What does the U.S. think of the General Conference of the Anglophones that has been called by the – by Cardinal Christian Tumi in Cameroon?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Again, that would be one mechanism to promote dialogue. We would encourage the Government of Cameroon to actually promote dialogue instead of standing in the way of it. Who knows which dialogue or what format would succeed in taking the nation forward? But this is an extremely serious problem for Cameroon. I believe in November the number of fatalities were the highest so far in the crisis. October was the second highest, September was the third highest. So the trends are extremely negative, and dialogue, urgent dialogue, is desperately needed, whatever form it takes.
HOST: Staying on Cameroon, since that’s the theme that we’re on – (laughter) – a lot of questions coming in from Cameroon, which is great. Again, Agence Presse Cameroun asks: The Senate recently took a resolution against the Government of Cameroon, asking for the liberation of Sisiku Ayuk Tabe. Why are we seeing interest in this crisis from U.S. senators?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Well, because there’s tremendous interest within all branches of the U.S. Government towards this crisis. The United States is greatly concerned with what’s going on in Cameroon. I mean, we consider Cameroon a long-term friend, we consider it essential for the stability in that region of Africa. As we all know, Cameroon has tremendous potential. It has phenomenal natural resources, it has a highly educated, industrious, entrepreneurial population. It could easily rocket forward in progress and prosperity and stability. So because of that, the United States is greatly concerned with events there. And the frustrating thing is a lot of this was needless. As I said, we all know the history, we all know where this is coming from, and the anglophone population of Cameroon would very much like to be considered as first-class citizens. And there is a sense that they feel like – and they have felt a long time – like they’re second-class citizens. It is up to dialogue and true dialogue to move this process forward.
HOST: Question coming in from our watch party in Ethiopia. This question is: Is the new strategy focusing on real partnership and mutual benefit with Africa, or is it a – more a response to increased activities by the Chinese and Russian governments on the continent?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: It is part of both, because it is indeed focusing on partnership, on opportunities, on the realization that Africa represents tremendous opportunities for direct investment. It – as I mentioned, it also represents the youth wave, because I think the world has to take cognizance of the tremendous youth population increase that’s going on. And as the strategy lays clear, there is global competition. Now there’s great power competition in the world, and the United States is very interested in forming partnerships with Africa because we consider our African relationships to be extremely valuable and important to the United States, and we believe it’s to the benefit of both sides, very much so.
HOST: Another question on Chinese activities specifically in Africa, this one again from journalist Juanita Williams, who asks: In September Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion U.S. dollars in aid and loans to Africa with, quote, “no political conditions attached.” Is the U.S. prepared to meet or exceed this level of financial commitment via the Africa strategy?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Right. Well, it’s not a tit for tat like in a poker game where put chips on the table. Number one, I would argue with the Chinese contention that there are no political conditions attached, because just the fact that you run up a country’s debt into the billions and billions of dollars in itself creates certain political conditions on how that debt can be repaid, or do the Chinese come in and seize the electric power company when the debt cannot be repaid. So that’s one factor.
On the other factor, I am so delighted with the passage of the new BUILD Act because that now gives the Overseas Private Investment Corporation $60 billion to be used towards leveraging African investments starting next year with the creation of the Foreign Development Investment Corporation.
So as I have said in many of my remarks in Africa, for years, of course, when there was a knock on the door for outside investment and the African countries opened the door and only China was standing there, of course I can’t blame the African countries for doing business with China. My job is to make sure that next time there’s a knock on the door there’s also U.S. investors standing there. I will do my best to push U.S. investors to Africa, but at the same time, when I go on the continent, engage with African leaders, I ask them to do their part in doing the pull for U.S. investors by implementing a environment which is fair to all investors so that U.S. investors feel like they have an equal shot at the many wonderful opportunities which exist on the continent.
HOST: Another question on the theme of aid to the continent. This one from journalist Saeed Ibrahim. He says: The U.S. has announced almost a billion dollars in aid to Somalia despite rampant corruption and deteriorating security. In contrast, Somaliland has been peaceful and democratic for 27 years. Why hasn’t the U.S. engaged Somaliland in a more meaningful way?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Yeah, the Somaliland question comes up constantly when I speak or when I do these programs. Here’s the thing: Somaliland does have a legal argument it makes. Of course, that has to be treated in the appropriate fora. And, the United States normally when it comes to recognizing states in Africa will consult with the African Union, and the integrity of the state of Somalia is an important precept for the African Union. So the United States of America is dealing with the government in Mogadishu. We are doing our best to strengthen that government, both in its economic development, but also in the security environment.
So for the time being U.S. policy is to deal with Mogadishu, to work with the government in Mogadishu to strengthen that part of the Horn of Africa.
HOST: Question now on the topic of counterterrorism, applicable I think to many places on the continent. Question comes from – again, from Agence Cameroun Presse, and they ask: Which topics can, according to you, can be put on the table to convince terrorists to give up their weapons and return to their better selves?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Well, that is a phenomenal question. It’s an extremely complex question, and we can talk about that for days, but I’ll give it my best shot to do it as quickly as possible.
Terrorism, as we know, has many causes. Full stop. And I’m not going to go into all of those. But in combatting terrorism there’s several different elements, as, say, we’re seeing in the Sahel right now. Of course there are the radicalized terrorists who are committing all types of mayhem, and the immediate goal is to return peace and stability and get rid of the terrorists. That’s the immediate goal. And we do that with our engagement with partner governments, international cooperation, the United Nations peacekeeping missions, then joint task forces – for example, the G5 Sahel. That’s to confront the terrorist threat directly. But then equally important, when the terrorists are gone that space has to be filled up by government services, because if the government does not come back in with schools, with security, with police, with infrastructure, with economic opportunities, what will happen is sooner or later another group of terrorists will show up to fill up the vacuum, and in some respects they will end up being worse than the group that was there before. Unfortunately we have seen this in Somalia over the last several decades.
When I left Ethiopia in 2002 there was a nasty terrorist group in Somalia called al-Ittihad. Then they were replaced by the Islamic Courts and now by al-Shabaab. So that’s a prime example of how not to do it.
Now I think all concerned – the international community and especially the host governments, because at the end of the day the critical role is played by the host government – understands what needs to be done, and we are doing our best to make this happen.
HOST: Next question from Nick Turse of The Intercept, combining this counterterrorism with the theme of China again. He says: National Security Advisor Bolton seemed to suggest that near-peer competitors like China were an equal threat to U.S. interests in Africa, the same as violent extremist organizations. Is this an accurate interpretation? Does China pose the same level of threat to U.S. interests in Africa as ISIS or al-Qaida?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: It’s two totally different types of threats. I mean, al-Qaida, the groups in the Sahel, they kill, they kidnap, they blow people up. The Chinese threat is much more strategic, it’s longer term, it involves global systems, global political systems, global economic systems, the rules of global transactions, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, what is the true motivation behind that. So they’re two totally different types of threats, but I would posit equally serious, especially going into the long term.
HOST: Another question on similar themes from a journalist at our watch party in Ethiopia. It says: President Trump’s National Security Advisor recently said, quote, “It is either Russia and China or the United States, but not both.” Is that not violating the autonomy of African countries to pursue their own style of relationships with the rest of the world?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Well, here’s the truth: All states have sovereignty, and sovereign states can decide in their sovereignty who they want to be friends with, who they want to have relations with. This is true for the states in Africa. It’s true of course for China and Russia, and it’s equally true for the United States of America. So we can decide, given our own interests, where we want to prioritize our development assistance, where we want to prioritize our relationships. That is how the global system has worked basically since the nation-states have emerged after the Renaissance, and I think for the foreseeable future that’s how the global system will work.
HOST: Another question along the same themes of sovereignty, I guess. This one from journalist Solomon Habtom who says: There is a concern that the new Trump administration Africa initiative will compromise American values to defend its interests in Africa by supporting dictatorships and totalitarian governments. How do you plan to ensure issues of human rights, liberty, and democracy will not be ignored?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: I truly appreciate that question, because in my remarks since the rollout of the strategy, there is a point that I have stressed to various audiences, that just because the words “human rights,” “good governance,” others that go along with that, “women’s rights” and others are not contained in the strategy does not mean at all that those are not high priorities for the United States of America. Promoting human rights, promoting good governance, promoting opening political space, promoting supporting civil society, religious organizations – that is so fundamental to America’s foreign policy that I compare that to breathing. It does not say in the policy that will continue to breathe oxygen, but we are doing that.
So I just – I really want to highlight that, that promoting those values go with being the United States of America. They are part of our diplomacy, they are part of our development, and they’re also part of just our cultural and social engagement with the world at large. So please be assured that that is an integral part of our policy, no matter what administration and no matter where in the world.
HOST: A more specific question on the theme of human rights, coming from freelance journalist David Chewe, who says: There has been a steady decline of media freedom in many African countries of late.
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Yes.
HOST: Yeah. So he says: Sadly, many Western governments, including the U.S., don’t appear to be bothered by this development. What role, if any, are you playing to help reverse this trend?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: We are extremely bothered, and, as the questioner said, we do note with alarm that in a number of African countries, as the political space is being squeezed closed, one of the first victims of that are media freedoms. I would like to make a distinction. Just because we don’t issue a statement every single day based on some negative effect having to do with, say, media freedoms or other freedoms, does not mean that we are not constantly engaged on that issue in our discussions with host governments, with civil society, with the way we look at our development assistance, and when we discuss with governments what we are going to do and not do with our development assistance.
So please believe me, the governments are getting the message that we care greatly about media freedom. We care greatly when journalists are arrested, imprisoned, and harassed.
HOST: A question from one of our watch parties, this one in the Central African Republic, curious about the new strategy. And the journalist says: The Trump administration in other respects seems to advocate for America to focus more inward. How can you explain that in the context – how can you explain the new Africa policy in respect to that context?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Well, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that we’re focused more inward because we’re a – number one, we’re a global power. We are globally engaged. We’re one of the few countries in the world that has to be everywhere, every when. And this Africa policy goes absolutely along with that because, number one, America’s economy very much depends on global engagement. Our companies are global companies. And now, given the strong economic growth in the United States over the last several years, one thing that I have heard from America’s businesses – and I meet with them on a regular basis – is that we have literally billions and billions and billions of dollars that we are looking to use for foreign direct investments. They are looking for good places to put the money, and I would venture that American investments tend to bring many jobs, they bring technology, they bring clean environmental behavior.
So African states and African populations appreciate what American business brings. But they are only going to invest in those places where they feel like they have fairness in contracts; that if there is a dispute, that the dispute resolution will not automatically be favorable to the nephew of the head of state, for example, but that both sides will have a fair shot, and that there’s transparency, there’s minimal corruption.
So that is what we are really, really looking for for our business community. So believe me, the United States of America is very, very globally focused and globally engaged, as is American business.
HOST: We have just a few minutes left, so I would like to take the opportunity to remind those who are watching, if there are any remaining questions that you see that you would really like us to get to in the time we have left, please remember to vote for those that you would like to support.
Meantime, I’m going to throw you another question from one of our watch parties, this from a journalist watching at our embassy in South Sudan, who asks: How optimistic are you about the recent peace deal? And are you concerned about other parties who didn’t sign the peace deal – for example, NAS?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Yes, that’s also a great question. When the peace deal was signed, quite frankly, the international community was somewhat dubious about it going forward. But here’s the truth: It is the only peace deal in effect right now, so everybody is doing their best to try to make it succeed. We are constantly engaged with the internal parties, with all of the outside interested parties, because everybody – everybody – wants to see peace and prosperity come to South Sudan. I remember I was so ecstatically excited when South Sudan became the newest nation on the face of the Earth, and everybody was overjoyed. And then equally the joy turned to tragedy as violence erupted as some of the people who should have been leading the country forward instead turned towards violence, manipulation, kleptocracy.
So the world is really just pulling for this process going forward, and we will all do everything possible that we can to make it succeed both on positive reinforcement but also, quite frankly, applying sanctions to those people who are blocking the agreement as we saw last Friday when we announced a new sanction against a number of individuals.
HOST: Question from Marlène Panara from Le Point Afrique. What can you tell us about American financial support for the African Free Trade Zone?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Yeah, I’m not sure about financial support for the African Free Trade Zone, but I just returned – one of my recent stops was in Ethiopia, where we had the high-level engagement with the African Union to discuss the whole range of issues and topics of interest between us. And the United States is one of a very few countries that actually maintains an accredited ambassador to the African Union.
So the – here’s the bottom line: The United States of America strongly supports the African Union’s planned continent-wide free trade agreement, and we wish it a speedy and prompt adaptation. At the same time, the United States is also very interested in pursuing a free trade agreement bilaterally with an interested African country that we can use as a model going forward. Currently, the United States of America only has one free trade agreement with Africa. That’s with Morocco. It has worked very well, but we are eager to implement one with a Sub-Saharan country as well. There are a number of potential candidates, and we’ll continue those discussions. But at the same time, we strongly support the African Union in their efforts to bring forth the continent-wide free trade agreement, because as we all know, the real units of Africa, the ones that work best, are the regions and the sub-regions, like ECOWAS and IGAD, SADC, and others.
HOST: Finally, I think one more general question, a good one to wrap up on, this from Power FM in Lusaka. They would like to know: Whose interest is America promoting with this new strategy for Africa?
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Everybody’s. Absolutely everybody’s. That – this is the type of strategy – like I said, I have been involved with Africa for over 40 years. This is the type of strategy I wish had come along decades ago, because I think we and Africa both could have prospered much, much more from it. In that period of time, there has been a lot of money spent – maybe not all of it productively. But I think going forward, I am so encouraged. I am the eternal Afro-optimist. I really want to see that Africa of prosperity, stability, with young Africans having the same kind of quality jobs that young Americans, young Europeans, and young Chinese have. I truly pray for that.
HOST: Well, I think we’re nearly out of time. I wanted to give you the chance to wrap up with any closing remarks that you might have.
AMBASSADOR NAGY: Thank you very much for your participation. I look forward to doing more of these. I look forward to getting on the road again soon. My next trip will be to Southern Africa, and then the one after that will be to Central Africa. My goal, God willing, is that I can visit the entire continent, all regions, before my first year is up as assistant secretary. It is wonderful to be back in Africa.
HOST: Well, thank you, Ambassador Nagy, for joining us today. And unfortunately, that is all the time we have. Thanks to our participants for their questions. And for those of you who did join us today online, if you would like to clip audio or video from today’s program, we will send you links to broadcast-quality files shortly. We will also provide an English transcript and translations as soon as they are available. If you would like to receive any of these products, please remember to fill out the survey located on the “Polls” tab of the event page, or send an email to LiveAtState@state.gov.
Thanks once again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another LiveAtState program very soon.