West Africa: Digital Press Briefing with Ambassador J. Peter Pham, U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel

U.S. Special Envoy Peter Pham along with U.S. Ambassador Stephanie Sullivan greeting President Nana Akufo-Addo at the Ghana President's second inauguration in Accra.
interview

Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State's Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for participating in this discussion.

Today, we are very pleased to be joined by Ambassador J. Peter Pham, U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel.  We will begin today's call with brief opening remarks from Ambassador Pham about the recent peaceful elections in the Sahel region, then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have.
At any time during the briefing if you would like to ask a question live, please indicate that by clicking on the "raise hand" button and then typing your name, media outlet, and location into the "questions and answers" tab.  Alternatively, you can type your full question directly into the Q&A for me to read to our speaker.  Again, please include your name, media outlet, and location when you do so.

For those participating on our French-speaking line, you may type your question in French in the Q&A box as well.  If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the hashtag #AFHubPress and follow us on twitter @AfricaMediaHub.
As a reminder, today's briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Pham for his opening remarks.

Ambassador Pham:  Thank you very much, Marissa, and thank you to everyone for joining us today, and Happy New Year.
I appreciate the chance to discuss U.S. engagement in the Sahel with you.  As many of you may know, the Secretary of State's creation of my position as Special Envoy for the Sahel Region last year reflects the U.S. Government's commitment to the Sahel region and its neighbors.  I work to advance our goal for the region, which is that West African governments and African institutions address the drivers of insecurity, contain the spread of violence, and stabilize the region with the help of better coordinated international and U.S. interagency support.

While much attention is, rightfully, focused on the security situation in the region, today I want to highlight a few of the democratic bright spots.  I just returned to Washington from a trip to the December 28th inauguration of Burkina Faso's President Kaboré.  I was honored to attend the inauguration ceremony as President Trump's representative, and I congratulated the people of Burkina Faso on the peaceful conduct of their November 22nd presidential and legislative elections, and President Kaboré on his re-election.

The reason I traveled to Ouagadougou to signal the United States' strong partnership with Burkina Faso, especially as the country faces external threats to security and stability, and as we support their efforts to counter the scourge of terrorism – but we do so recognizing that the only sustainable way to combat violent extremism is to address some of the factors which facilitate its spread, notably the lack of development and economic opportunity.  That's why, in addition to everything we do on the security sector, we continue to invest heavily in Burkina Faso's development, as exemplified by the nearly half-billion dollars of the Millennium Challenge Compact signed last year.

In all my meetings in Ouagadougou, I shared our continued support for Burkina Faso's efforts toward enhanced state capacity; good governance – President Kaboré's very public asset disclosure is a very positive development; and free and fair and peaceful elections as well as our humanitarian support and investment in that country's development.  I also noted Burkina Faso's proud tradition of ethnic and religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and I urged those I met with to continue that tradition, especially as military operations and terrorism strain the social fabric.  Ideally, this election strengthens the link between the government and the citizenry, and presages other measures to increase the accountability of government and security services to Burkinabe citizens.

I would like to also say a few words about the recent attacks in Niger.  First, on behalf of the American people, I'd like to share our deepest condolences to the victims and their family members, the victims of the attacks in Tchombangou, Zaroumadareye, and Toumour.  These cowardly attacks must stop.  There is no place in the modern world for violence against innocent people.  The United States condemns these terrorist attacks and all others like them in the strongest way.  We stay committed to Niger's armed forces and our allies in eradicating these violent extremists and their godless ideology.
But more positively, Niger is another example of a country that's just concluded peaceful elections.  We have congratulated the people of Niger who exercised their democratic right to vote in their presidential and legislative elections on December 27th and look forward to observing an equally successful run-off presidential election process on February 21st.  These elections hold the promise of Niger's historic first peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected president to another.
The United States is committed to promoting and strengthening democracy and civil society.  We are working to help Niger continue to strengthen its democratic processes and protection of the fundamental freedoms of expression and association and the right of peaceful assembly.
The United States is also a strong supporter of Africa's leadership in Mali, efforts that have put Mali on the path of an 18-month civilian-led transition that will culminate in elections and a return to constitutional government.

In addition to traveling to Bamako at the beginning of October to encourage the implementation of the civilian-led transition agreed to with ECOWAS, I went again to the Malian capital in late November to support the African-led Group to Support Mali's Transition, GST-Mali.  The GST intends to coordinate and provide guidance on five objectives for Mali's transition: security, governance, renewing the social compact, electoral reform and elections, and the implementation of the Algiers Accord.

In my meetings with Malian transitional government officials and other stakeholders, I have emphasized that the transition government must first and foremost focus on preparing for elections and prepare – protecting their citizens from violence and human rights violations and abuses.  At the same time, the United States supports the transitional government's commitment to undertaking priority reforms to address some of the underlying grievances of the Malian people.

If the Malian transitional authorities do not make tangible progress in these areas of reform, political instability may well return.  Thus, we continue to work closely with our international and regional partners to ensure momentum towards a return to constitutional order and the longer-term process of building inclusive and effective governance.

Later today, I'll be traveling to Ghana for the inauguration of President Nana Akufo-Addo – again, designated by President Trump to represent the United States.  My trip will once again highlight a successful election as well as the U.S. prioritization of African institutions, especially with Ghana's leadership as the current chair of ECOWAS.  I intend to underscore U.S. support for West African efforts to prevent the spillover of instability from the Sahel in general and for African efforts to accompany the transition in Mali in particular, noting that Ghana, in its ECOWAS capacity, is the co-chair of the GST-Mali.

The United States Government continues security assistance and governance efforts to prevent and mitigate conflict and the spread of violent extremism in the West African coastal states as well as Nigeria.  Democratic and inclusive governance contributes to regional security and can be a bulwark against the spread of violence.

In conclusion, the elections underpinning democratic governance in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Ghana serve as a foundation for building increased state legitimacy and stability in the Sahel and in West Africa.

The heart of the crisis in the Sahel, as I've repeatedly emphasized, is one of state legitimacy – whether or not citizens perceive that their government is legitimate, equitable, able, and willing to meet their needs.  This includes ensuring justice and accountability for human rights violations and abuses committed by security forces.  Absent Sahelian government actions that demonstrate this commitment, no degree of international engagement is likely to succeed.

In our statements and in messages, the United States has continually called upon governments to do more to prevent human rights abuses and other violations.  We have reminded these governments that U.S. security assistance could be at risk if they do not take action on investigations and hold those found responsible to account.

There is significant U.S. investment and collaboration with key African partners and others in the region across security, diplomatic, economic, and development dimensions in the Sahel.  The region faces a growing set of political, economic, and security-related challenges, which makes this investment and the successful coordination amongst our numerous partners in the region so vital.
So thank you very much for your attention and I look forward to your questions.

Moderator:  Thank you, Ambassador Pham.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today's call.  For those asking questions, please indicate if you would like to ask a question and then type in your name, location and affiliation.  We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to today's briefing: the recent peaceful elections in the Sahel region.
Our first question will go live to Mr. Nick Turse of the New York Times.  Mr. Turse, you may ask your question.  Mr. Turse, are you on the line?
Question:  I'm here.
Moderator:  Okay.  You may ask your question.
Question:  Thanks for taking the time to talk today, Ambassador Pham.  Last year, Simon Compaore, the president of the ruling political party in Burkina Faso, acknowledged to me that the security forces there were carrying out extrajudicial killings, and according to ACLED statistics, Burkinabe security forces kill marginally more civilians than they do militants.  I'm interested in your take on all this given longstanding U.S. Government support of those very same security forces, and hope you can explain why the United States continues to support a government and security forces implicated in widespread atrocities.
Ambassador Pham:  Well, thank you very much, Nick, for your question.  We need to, perhaps, disentangle a few different things.  One is, although the United States provides support for the Burkinabe security services, I would emphasize we've looked carefully at this and, to the best of our knowledge and what we've been able to ascertain, none of the forces that received U.S. training or support have been implicated in the human rights abuses that have occurred.  Other units undeniably have committed abuses.  We are very concerned about those.  I've brought that up repeatedly in engagements with Burkinabe authorities, all the way up to the president, including my recent meeting with the president.  But the – although we provide support for U.S. – the U.S. provides support for Burkinabe forces, we hold very – our – we take very seriously our obligations under the Leahy law and other legislation, and we've not yet found evidence that the forces we directly trained and assisted.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a problem that we have raised repeatedly.  And ultimately, my answer to that is, as I've said to Burkinabe authorities and other partners across the Sahel: human rights abuses are not only intolerable because they're wrong morally and ethically, but they're a strategic blunder of the first order.  It's the very thing that alienates citizens from their government.  It facilitates violent extremism.  So it's utterly counterproductive.  It's in their own interest to work against this, and where it occurs, to properly investigate and hold those to account.  And as the Secretary of State and others have pointed out, U.S. security assistance to these countries will be conditioned on credible investigations and follow-up.

Question:  Can you say what the president responded to you?

Moderator:  Wait, just one question, please.  All right.  We'll go to our – we'll go to our next question, from Mr. Issa Moussa of Niger Times out of Niger.  Mr. Moussa, you may ask your question.

Question:  Hello, everybody.

Moderator:  Yes, we can hear you.

Question:  I'm – yes, I'm Issa Moussa from Niger Times.  It's not easy that my English will be sharp as you wish it to be, but I will try to express myself.  All this support you are taking to African countries, mainly in Burkina Faso and Mali and Niger, there – some people don't have the insight of the communication, because they want to really know that your forces are helping our African countries.  We know that the way we just communicate with them is not enough.  So you, what do you think of all this support you are taking to African countries and how people are supposed to welcome it?

Ambassador Pham:  Okay.  Thank you very much for your question.  If I understand your question correctly, the United States has been and continues to be the largest single bilateral contributor to the Sahel and the largest partner across the board, in all areas, not just security – I know we've been talking about security, but in health and development assistance, for example.  Between 2017 and 2019, the State Department and USAID allocated almost a billion dollars in health and development assistance to the five countries of the G5: Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger.  During that same period, we provided about $467 million in security assistance, so almost twice as much in development and health as security assistance.
In the same period, we also provided about $519 million in humanitarian assistance.  And last year, because of the pandemic with COVID, the State Department and USAID provided over $53 million in additional funding for emergency health and humanitarian development assistance because of COVID-19.

So we've made a considerable investment in this area, a portion of which is security-related, but the overwhelming amount of which is actually in health, development, and humanitarian assistance.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to Mr. Dieni Albert Kalambry of Radio Foko in Mali, and his question is: "After your visit to the region, what has the U.S. done in concrete terms in the fight against terrorism in Mali and in the Sahel in general?  And if there are no concrete terms, what are the projects that you're – that the U.S. is doing to move in this direction?"

Ambassador Pham:  Well, our – fighting terrorism in the region is a key priority, obviously, and to spread – to prevent the spread of terrorism from the Sahel into the neighboring coastal areas.  We work against terrorism on a number of levels.  We're the largest single bilateral security partner for the countries of the G5 Sahel on a bilateral basis and their militaries.  We work very closely with them in providing training, equipment, and other support.  We provide intelligence support as well as logistical support for our European allies, especially France and Operation Barkhane.  We're proud of that partnership and the French themselves have acknowledged our contribution to that fight.
But I emphasize again that the fight against terrorism is not solely a security issue; it has to include good governance and development, which is why our development assistance, our humanitarian assistance, our health assistance and aid far dwarfs our security sector assistance, even if that is the largest single bilateral contributor in the region.  Thank you.
Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question goes to Mr. Frank Andrews of the Mail & Guardian.  Mr. Andrews, you may ask your question.  Mr. Andrews, you may ask your question.  Okay.
Question:  Hi.  Thanks very much.
Moderator:  Yes, we can hear you.

Question:  Thank you.  So several concerns have been raised regarding U.S. counterterror strategy in the Sahel in recent years, about, for example, the over-militarization of U.S. engagement, the prevalence of coups led by U.S.-trained local soldiers, trainers not having adequate cultural and local awareness.  I'd be interested to know, Ambassador Pham, in which areas do you think the U.S. counterterror strategy in the Sahel needs to most improve?  And given the rising threat from violent extremist organizations, how should we judge the strategy's effectiveness?  Thank you.

Ambassador Pham:  Thank you for your question.  The creation of my position is part of a larger shift and dedication of resources on the part of the U.S. Government.  The creation of the role of Special Envoy was part of a larger framework that was approved at the very end of 2019 by Secretary of State Pompeo.  And that framework is a comprehensive framework to guide our approach that the security component is certainly one key component – there's no denying that – but it has to be embedded within a larger process, which is why I would push back a little bit on the emphasis on the idea, if you will, the trope – and I really would call it a trope – that U.S. policy in the area is overly militarized.  As the – the numbers speak for themselves.  Security assistance for the entire Sahel region, the total dollar value the last couple of years, added up, is less than half of what goes into development and healthcare assistance.  It's even less than the amount that goes into humanitarian assistance.

So our strategy already, if dollars speak, is much more weighted in the area of development and governance and healthcare and all those other things which are critical to winning the fight against extremism in the area.  So that's our emphasis.

Now, what could use improvement?  I think better coordination is always helpful, but more importantly, building up African capabilities, which is why one of the things in the nine months that I've been on this job – slightly more than nine months – the one thing I've emphasized repeatedly is the need to take the long view.  It's better to take a longer time and build up African military and civilian/diplomatic capabilities than to expeditiously go and get something done.  Because, ultimately, that's the only thing that's sustainable over the long run, which is why we're very supportive of the G5 Sahel, not just the Joint Force, but more importantly, the Executive Secretariat and the building up of that civilian infrastructure across the region and encourage that.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We're going to go to a question sent in to us from Voice of America in South Africa, from Ms. Anita Powell.  "What in your view is driving recent outbreaks of violence in Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic?  How do you think those governments responded, and what has or will the U.S. do to assist?"

Ambassador Pham:  Well, I think the – I've – the – it's the same answer I've been giving, which is that what's driving – what drives violent extremists, or what it feeds off of, is a sense of state illegitimacy, of lack of connection between citizens and their governments, of exclusion.  And so the cure to that is greater inclusion, greater connectivity between citizens and their governments, which is why we're saluting the democratic advances in places like Burkina Faso and Niger with the recent elections, and certainly Ghana, which is now a wonderful example for the region – more than two decades of democratic governance and alternance between political parties, all happening very peacefully.

So, ultimately, that is the only way forward, is social inclusion, state legitimacy, good governance, the hard grunt work of these basic reforms and development, which is why our strategy is heavily predicated on these aspects as opposed to – there is no quick military solution.  Violence is a symptom, it's not the malady itself underlying things.  And so, ultimately, the only solution is dealing with those underlying root causes and modalities.
Moderator:  Okay.  We're running low on time.  We just have time for one or two more questions.  The next question will come from Mr. Bate Felix of Reuters, based in Senegal.  Mr. Felix, you may ask your question.

Question:  Hi, can you hear me?

Moderator:  Yes, we can.

Question:  Hi.  Thank you, Ambassador.  I just wanted to follow up quickly on the question around abuses and extrajudicial killings in the region.  And I was just wondering from what you said – you've raised the issue with leaders of the region, particularly in Burkina Faso.  And my follow-up question is just to hear what they are giving you as explanation for these extrajudicial killings.  How do they explain it and what are they doing?  Because it's been going on for a while now, and I don't think we've heard of any prosecutions so far.  They've promised investigations and nothing has so far come out of it.  And I was just wondering, how do they explain that?  What do they explain – how do they explain it to you?

Ambassador Pham:  Well, in a way, Mr. Felix, you've answered your own question.  I'm very glad of that.  The – my response – the response has been, of course, that they hear our concerns and they promise investigations.  And my response to that is:  We need to be kept up-to-date.  We need to see progress in these investigations, not just investigations announced.  We need to see investigations brought to a conclusion, and then those deemed accountable, certainly, brought through a judicial process that's independent and credible.  We need to see that happening.

We also are willing to offer technical – specific technical support if they need help with forensic investigations or with legal prosecution, any of those technical capabilities.  We're – we and our other partners are prepared to provide them.  Of course, we require a specific ask and a concrete ask, not a generality, but certainly in concrete, specific – so that's not an excuse.  That can't be an excuse.  There is no excuse for not going forward.
I've repeatedly pointed out that as the Secretary of State himself has pointed out and members of Congress have pointed out, that our assistance across the board and especially in the security sector cannot be taken for granted.  The American people will not and cannot continue to support security forces that engage in abuses of their citizens, not only because it's wrong but, as I've said before, it's counterproductive.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Mr. Ambassador, do you have time for one more question?

Ambassador Pham:  Sure.

Moderator:  Okay.  The last question will go to Mr. Fuaad Dodoo of Norvan Reports, out of Ghana.  Mr. Fuaad, you may ask your question.

Question:  Hello, Mr. Ambassador.  Good afternoon.

Ambassador Pham:  Good afternoon.

Question:  Please, I'd like to know – Ghana just came out – Ghana just came out of a very peaceful and successful election, and the result was announced by the electoral commission, but then the presidential candidate of the main opposition party has rejected the election result, and this has come with some attendant pockets of violence.  I'd like to know what the U.S. makes of what is happening currently in Ghana post the election.

Ambassador Pham:  Well, several things.  One, first of all, we're very gratified that the Ghanaian people largely and peacefully have engaged in a very robust and energetic campaign.  That's a model for the region.  We regret and condemn all acts of violence and intimidation of citizens, and we call upon those who may have disputes in the – of the election results or specific – to settle their disputes following the legal structures that exist under the Ghanaian constitution and the laws of the Republic of Ghana.

Ghana has a very proud tradition, one which we salute, of razor-thin elections, of closely fought contests, but also of peaceful transitions.  I remember, thinking back more than a decade, the elections at the end of 2008, where it came down to one constituency voting that would determine the nation, and that happening just a few days before the transition, and yet it all happened very peacefully, the transition between President Kufuor and the late President John Atta Mills.  That – again, very peacefully done and I think it was something really a model for the region.  And so that's why I'm going to Ghana later today; it's to herald the success and to reinforce our strong relationship with Ghana both as a bilateral basis and as a regional leader.

Moderator:  That is all the time that we have today.  Ambassador Pham, do you have any final words?

Ambassador Pham:  Yes, just to emphasize once more: Our approach to the Sahel and to the region, if it has any objective, it's to ensure that in the long run the basic issues, the basic challenges of security and governance, are addressed by Africans themselves, African-led solutions, with our support and that of our other international partners.  This is going to – this is hard work.  It's going to take time.  But it's, ultimately, the only thing that's sustainable, and it has to be comprehensive.  That's why our approach to the region embraces not just security aspects, but development and humanitarian and other – and other assistance.  We have to deal with this holistically, and hopefully the successes that we've seen in Burkina Faso, in Niger, and certainly, the longstanding, commendable record in Ghana – this is the way forward, and we hope to see more of it in the coming months and years.  Thank you very much.

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