West Africa: Briefing By Special Envoy for the Sahel J. Peter Pham

U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel meeting Mali's interim president, Bah N'Daw.
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SPECIAL BRIEFING VIA TELEPHONE with Ambassador J. Peter Pham, United States Special Envoy for the Sahel Region of Africa

Moderator:  Good morning, everyone.  Thank you for joining today’s telephonic roundtable with United States Special Envoy for the Sahel Region of Africa, Ambassador J. Peter Pham.  As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  We will begin with a few brief remarks from Special Envoy Pham.  After these remarks, Special Envoy Pham looks forward to your questions.  Please limit yourself to one question at a time so that we have time to get to everyone’s question.  You will have an opportunity to ask at least one question in the short amount of time that we have.  Ambassador Pham, the floor is yours for your opening remarks.

Ambassador Pham:  Thank you very much, Marissa.  And thank you to all the journalists present for this chance to discuss U.S. engagement in the Sahel.  As you all know, I just returned from a trip to Bamako, Mali, as the August overthrow of the elected government in Mali underscores that country remains the epicenter of political instability in the Sahel.  Political protests before the events that followed are all a clear indication of the need to address Mali’s longstanding governance shortcomings.

While we in the United States condemn the August 18th actions to overthrow Mali’s elected president and immediately halted our security assistance to Mali, we also continue to call for former government officials and their families being unlawfully detained to be released.  On October 5th, the transitional president of Mali, Bah Ndaw, announced the full cabinet of the transitional government, and ECOWAS has announced the lifting of sanctions that they’ve had on Mali since August.  As detailed in the Department of State’s public statement a few days ago, the United States views the establishment of this transitional government as an initial step towards a return to constitutional order.

Last week I traveled to Bamako to support ECOWAS’s efforts, as well as to advance the U.S. interests and objectives, including for a civilian-led transition that culminates in elections within 18 months and return to constitutional order.  In my meetings with transition government officials, I emphasized that the transition government must first and foremost focus on preparing for those elections.

But at the same time they also have to protect the population as well as undertake some priority reforms to address the underlying grievances of the Malian people, including the areas of electoral process, anti-corruption, protection of human rights, and implementation of the Algiers Accord, the agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali. If they don’t address these concerns, political instability may well return.

My interlocutors in Mali, which included not just government officials, diplomatic partners, but also a wide range of religious and civil society representatives as well as journalists.  All of them repeatedly stressed the importance of good governance to addressing the many challenges and grievances of the Malian people.  The transitional government has to be committed to making the hard choices necessary on corruption and good governance reforms that would serve all Malians equally with transparency in a rules-based system. The United States continues to support the principles of the Algiers Accord as the best available way to resolve conflict in the north of Mali, giving marginalized populations a greater sense of inclusion in the Malian state.  If implemented, these provisions would promote stability in Mali and the region.

We encourage the transitional government to carry out credible and transparent investigations into the allegations of extra-judicial killings by Mali’s defense and security forces.  Those found responsible must be held accountable.

Earlier in September, as you know, I also traveled to two other countries in the region, Mauritania and Niger.  In addition to our bilateral priorities, I sought to underscore U.S. support for regional institutions, including meeting with Nigerian President Issoufou, who had just completed 15 months in the ECOWAS presidency, as well as Mauritanian President Ghazouani, the current chair of the G5 Sahel, as well as meeting with Maman Sidikou, the Executive Secretary of the G5 Sahel based on Nouakchott.  ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel have acted together to keep the region and the international community working in concert for restoration of constitutional government by a timely civilian-led transition in Mali.  And as the situation in Mali evolves, the United States continues to work closely with our international and regional partners to ensure momentum toward a return to constitutional order, and the longer-term process of building inclusive and effective governance.

And I’ll stop there and I’m ready for your questions.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you, Special Envoy Pham.  We will now open the floor to questions.  The first question goes to Katarina Hoije of Bloomberg, based in Cote d’Ivoire.  Katarina, please go ahead.  Following Katarina will be Laurent Lozano out of Dakar from AFP.  Katarina?

Question:  Okay.  Good morning, everyone.  I’m wondering what the U.S. exit strategy is when it comes to Sahel, and how it will be developed with stakeholders.

Ambassador Pham:  Excuse me.  Did you say U.S. or UN?

Question:  I said U.S.

Ambassador Pham:  I’m – okay.  Thank you very much, Katarina.  I’m a little – I’m a little confused because I don’t know what exit strategy you’re referring to.  If anything, we’re more engaged now than we have – we have been for – we have been in the past.  Since the Secretary of State signed off at the end of last year on a diplomatic engagement framework, we’ve actually created my position as special envoy for the Sahel and increased our engagement in the region.
So I’m not sure if – what you’re referring to in terms of an exit strategy.

If you’re referring to the blank state review, which the Department of Defense is undertaking, that’s a question better addressed to the Department of Defense.  But I can – I can say that no definitive conclusions have been done to that particular review, and even if that were to result in any sort of a draw-down, and we don’t know that – we don’t know that, the majority of U.S.’s security assistance for the region comes from the Department of State, not from the Department of Defense.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Laurent Lozano from AFP.  You’re up next.

Question:  Okay.  Can you hear me?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes.

Question:  Thank you for making this coms call.  You mentioned that the U.S. had suspended the military aid to Mali after the 18th – August the 18th coup.  Has the time now come for the U.S. to reinstate the military aid, how long will it take, and what is weighing in on the decision?

Ambassador Pham:  Well, several things.  First, when there is an extra constitutional overthrow of an elected government – takeover by the military, we’re obliged under U.S. law to restrict assistance that benefits that government until such time as constitutional order is restored.  Those restrictions remain in place.  However, those restrictions are very specific, that security assistance to the – to the regime that takes over from an elected government, it doesn’t involve humanitarian assistance or development assistance which is channeled through our numerous development partners, non-governmental and international partners.  So that assistance, which constitutes the bulk of our assistance to Mali, that continues.

We view the establishment of the transitional government, which I met with, certainly as an initial step in that process toward a restitution of constitutional order through free and fair elections.  But until such time as those are held in and a constitutional government is restored, we are obliged under U.S. law to restrict our assistance – our military assistance, that is – to the regime.  Over.

Moderator:  The next question goes to Reuters, Bate Felix of – the West African bureau chief.  And following will be Voice of America, Anita Powell.  Mr. Bate, you’re up.

Question:  Hi.  Thanks very much.  Can you hear me?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes.

Question:  Hi.  Thanks for organizing this.  I will just quickly follow up on the issue of the restriction of assistance.  So if I get you correctly, for now until we have an elected government after the transition, the – all what concerns security assistance will remain suspended.  That is correct?

Ambassador Pham:  What is currently – security assistance is directed at – to the authorities in Mali is suspended.

Question:  Yes.

Ambassador Pham:  Our other assistance to our international partners, whether that be the G5 Sahel, whether that be our French allies in Operation Barkhane, or the European partners in Takuba, or our cooperation with the UN Mission MINUSMA, all that remains in place.

Moderator:  Anita Powell, Voice of America.

Question:  Hello.  Can you hear me, sir?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes.  Now I can.

Question:  Okay.  Cool.  I’ve got two questions, a broad one and a weird one.  It’s your lucky day.  Which one do you want first?

Ambassador Pham:  Well, I think in fairness to everyone you’ve got one.

Question:  I get one at a time.  I’m going to go again.  So I’m going to ask you the broad one, which is just the effect of the instability in Mali on the region.  Can you talk about that?  Any observable effect in other countries, for example, increases in violence or any other concerns you might have?
Ambassador Pham:  Well, as I said during my remarks and I’ve said in the past, we view Mali as the epicenter – there cannot be a stable and secure Sahel without a stable and secure Mali.  Certainly, Mali has been the epicenter of violence and extremist activity in the region for some time now.  Now fortunately – now, this is a very limited data set – we haven’t yet – and I think part of that is owing to ongoing activities by the United Nations, peace keeping mission, Operation Barkhane, and the joint – the G5 Joint Force that we have not seen an uptick in violence across the region, but we certainly are keeping a very close eye on the situation, and certainly that danger persists.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Next is Robbie Gramer of Foreign Policy, who will be followed by Agostinho Leite of LUSA.

Question:  Hi, can you hear me?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes.

Question:  Hi, thanks.  Thanks for doing this.  There have been reports of friction between the United States and France over their policies and goals in the Sahel.  Can you say whether our interests still align with French interests in the Sahel?  Thanks.

Ambassador Pham:  Okay, thank you very much.  I would say a couple of things.  One is, all of our partners, international partners, European or African, I think share a common interest with us in increasing stability in the region, enhancing that.  We also agree basically on some of the root causes of that instability that is going on there, which is a lack of governance, a lack of development.  And we share an interest in fighting extremist organizations and degrading their capabilities.  And I would say – I would also add that I have excellent relations with my European and African counterparts.  We meet regularly.  We speak regularly.  During my penultimate trip, in September, I stopped off in Paris and met with not just my French direct counterparts but also – at the foreign ministry, but also of the presidency in France as well as the ministry of the armed forces.

That being said, and also noting that we certainly support better coordination for international support to the region, I’d make two points.  One is – one is, better coordination, better information sharing is not only necessary and vital, but the multiplication of meetings and structures does not equate to progress on the ground.  And with all due respect to some of our colleagues who seem to think that more meetings and more structures and more constantly shifting groups and subgroups – that’s not progress on the ground.

Secondly, I think we have to be frank and acknowledge that we have a different history in this region than our French friends, in particular, since you asked about France.  We don’t have the pre-colonial and colonial legacy.  There was never an American version of the Chanoine–Voulet column, which cut a swath of 2,000 miles of devastation through the Sahel and committed untold atrocities little more than a century ago.  So we don’t have that baggage, nor do we have the tensions that have built up in recent years both over economic issues and over security priorities.

So in a sense, our relationship with our Sahelian partners is a little different.  And as a result, our optics and our perspectives are a little different, and that naturally does lead occasionally to a different outlook on things.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Agostinho Leite of LUSA.

Question:  Hello, do you hear me?  Sorry.  I was on mute.  Can I – yeah?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes.

Question:  So I was listening --

Moderator:  Yes, we can hear you.  Go ahead.

Question:  I was listening to your answers.  I would like you – I don’t know if you can elaborate a little more on this fear of spreading that you were talking about, answering a previous question to countries like Guinea-Bissau or Guinea-Conakry or Senegal as well.

My question would be in the continuation of this last answer.  We have 4,500 dead by violence in the first six months.  You don’t have government structures.  The feeling of borders is completely [inaudible] from the modern race.  So --

Ambassador Pham:  Excuse me, I’m having a very difficult time hearing you.

Question:  Okay.  Can I – is it okay now?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes, if you would speak clearly.  Thank you.

Question:  Okay.  So we have a rising violence in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger.  There’s been a 50 percent spike in the last year.  We have 4,500 dead in the first six months.  There is the notion of states, and there are no stakeholders to talk with.  I’m speaking to the last answer that you made.  If you were to establish that priority to alleviate direct or redirect international policy in Sahel, what would you suggest?

Ambassador Pham:  Well, if you’re asking what I would suggest for international – I think we need better coordination, but that doesn’t mean multiplication of meetings.  Better coordination, a more effective information-sharing, and I would say thirdly – also I think you mentioned the coastal states.  Certainly, with violence escalating in the Sahel, the coastal states of West Africa, in particular Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, all face increasing threats of attacks.  And we’re monitoring very closely potential extremist infiltration there.

Now, I would add also I mentioned at the beginning of this that governance is the key and one has to acknowledge that democratic backsliding, political fragility in some parts of the region, certainly exacerbate the situation and leave countries more vulnerable to the impact or the overflow of insecurity from the Sahel.  Thank you.

Moderator:  The next question goes to Nigeria; Punch, Tunji Abioye.  And he will be followed by Reed Kramer from AllAfrica.com.

Question:  All right.  Thank you very much.  Can I go ahead?

Ambassador Pham:  Please.

Moderator:  Please.

Question:  All right.  On September 24, the U.S. announced a total of $152 million in humanitarian assistance to countries in the Sahel region.  Nigeria was conspicuously missing.  I would like to know why Nigeria was not included.  Regrettably, the Nigerian Government accused the Western powers of delaying the arrival of --

Ambassador Pham:  Excuse me, to be fair to everyone, the rules are we limit everyone to one question, and if we have time, we’ll do a second go-around.

The – you asked about the 152 million that I announced.

Question:  Yeah.

Ambassador Pham:  That was 152 million specifically aimed to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso specifically to help with displaced persons who have been displaced by the open conflict in the area.  So that wasn’t to the exclusion of others, but a very specific package given the situation in those Sahelian countries in particular.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Reed Kramer of AllAfrica.com.

Question:  Yes.  You spoke about the U.S. commitment to a civilian-led transition.  After your trip, how do you assess the viability of the interim government and the newly named cabinet, and how well is the military council working with the M5 coalition that forced President Keita out of office?

Ambassador Pham:  Okay, I think – Reed, a couple of different things there that we need to disaggregate.  One is certainly we note the appointment two days ago of 25 ministers.  We welcome that formation of government as yet another step in the road back to constitutional order.  Some of the people in that cabinet are known to us.  They came from a variety of – we welcome the fact that they come from a variety of different regions, societal interests, and stakeholders.  So it’s I think a very good positive step.

The – as ECOWAS itself stated, the CNSP, the military council that took power after August 18th – the dissolution of that is part and parcel the formation of this new – the new government, so we look forward to that going forward.

The fact is I spoke to a range of interlocuters in Mali; as I said, government officials, but also religious leaders.  I even met with Imam Mahmoud Dicko, also diplomatic partners, NGOs, civil society, traditional leaders, a wide range.  And the thing I came away with is that the – a broad, a wide swathe of Malian society, there is support for reform; there’s support for the transitional authority as perhaps a vehicle for reform.

Now, I do think that they’ve got to now very quickly deliver on the very high expectations placed upon them, and I think there’s a very narrow window for that.  But for the moment, the transitional government does enjoy almost universal support in Mali, and we have to take that into account.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The final question goes to RFI, Francois Mazet.

Question:  Okay.  Hello, can you hear me?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes.

Question:  Okay, thank you.  There will be a lot of elections in neighboring countries of Mali in the following weeks.  Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina, and Niger will go to polls.  Are you concerned that the political situation, especially in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and the tension that we can see, will have a repercussion on the international community efforts to fight extremism in this region?  Thank you.

Ambassador Pham:  Okay.  Well, elections are a critical part, obviously, of securing stability and good governance in the region.  With reference – specific reference to constitutional questions in Guinea and in Cote d’Ivoire, I would point you to statements made by the Department of State, and repeating those, and if you can’t locate them I’m sure my colleagues at the media center can help you.  I have nothing to add to those.

What I would say is that good governance is critical, and good governance is based upon legitimacy of the state and of the governing authorities.  It’s critical in the fight against insecurity and extremism, against violence.  So anything that detracts from that certainly is a cause for concern.

Security around the elections is also another cause of concern, especially in places that are already seeing conflict, like Burkina Faso and Niger.  On the other hand, when I was in Niger just a few weeks ago, I congratulated President Issoufou for both respecting the constitutional limit and stepping down after two terms, and in fact, when he does so at the beginning of next year and hands over power to whoever is elected to succeed him, that’s a real progress.  It’ll be the first time in Niger’s six decades of independence that an elected president finishes his term of office and hands power to an elected successor.  So we should also note the good – the good developments when we see them.  Over.

Moderator:  Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today.  Special Envoy Pham, I offer this time to you if you have any closing remarks.  To you, sir.

Ambassador Pham:  Okay.  Well, thank you.  Thank you very much, everyone, and I’m sorry we didn’t have more time.  The one thing I would want to emphasize again and again is legitimacy based on good governance and based on respect for human rights.  And certainly, in my meetings with the Malian authorities, I hammered that repeatedly.  We want not just words, we want credible investigations and where the evidence justifies judicial processes and accountability for those held – held culpable of serious violations of human rights.  Without that, it’s not only wrong morally, it’s – human rights abuses are wrong strategically and undermine the effectiveness of government and legitimacy.  Along with that, we continue our call for the ¬– in Mali for the release of former officials and others that are detained.  If they are suspected of any crimes, let them be charged in a regular proceeding.  Otherwise they should be let go, and their families most certainly.

With that, I’ll conclude.  Thank you.

Moderator:  I would like to thank Ambassador Pham, Special Envoy for the Sahel, for his time, and to thank all of you for your questions today.  This call has now concluded and the embargo has been lifted.  You may now disconnect.

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