Niger: Digital Press Briefing with U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Children walk through a sandstorm in Tillaberi region, Niger (file photo).
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Digital press briefing with U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield discussed her trip to Mali, Niger, and Gabon.

Listen to or download the audio file here .

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 taking part in this discussion.  Today, we are very pleased to be joined by the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.  Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will discuss her trip to Mali, Niger, and Gabon.  She joins us now from Libreville, Gabon.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield; then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can in the time allotted.

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 Linda Thomas-Greenfield for her opening remarks.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Thank you, Marissa, and thank all of you for being here.

I just concluded an excellent trip to Mali and Niger as part of a Security Council delegation, and today I am in Gabon, which will be joining the Security Council starting in January of 2022.

At every stop, I met with our strategic partners to discuss our shared goals at this important moment for our relationships in the Sahel and Central Africa.

In Mali, as part of the Security Council delegation and in separate meetings, I met with the transition government, including the president and prime minister, to discuss the importance of Mali’s return to constitutional rule through democratic elections and the critical role MINUSMA plays in promoting peace and security.

In those meetings, as well as discussions with Malian civil society, representatives to the Algiers Accord Monitoring Committee, and the international mediation team, we reiterated that the United States continues to stand firmly with the people of Mali in their aspirations for democracy, peace, development, and respect for human rights.

We moved on to Niger, also with the Security Council, and we continued discussions with members of the government, including the president and the G5 Sahel Joint Force representatives, on the importance of democratic institutions in the region and the rapid spread of instability and violent extremism throughout the Sahel.

In my bilateral discussions we looked for ways to collaborate on our shared goals, especially during Niger’s remaining time on the Security Council.

I personally congratulated President Bazoum on Niger’s first-ever transfer of power from one democratically elected president to the next.

We are working closely with African institutions and partners, including the G5 Sahel and ECOWAS, as well as international partners to build civilian institutional capacity to confront the persistent challenges that are occurring here in the region.

And finally, here in Gabon, I have had productive meetings with the government.  I congratulated them on Gabon’s recent election to the United Nations Security Council, which is a recognition of Gabon’s role as a global climate leader and as a regional leader promoting peace.

That leadership is so important, because the window for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is narrowing.  And right now, world leaders – including President Bongo – are gathering in Glasgow to attend COP26.

As the African Union Champion for Climate Change, President Bongo has been leading the way by protecting the Congo Basin Forest, a net carbon dioxide absorber that the whole world benefits from.

Protecting the security of Gabon’s precious forests is paramount to our success in the fight against climate change, and I’m glad to see these efforts first-hand at the Raponda Walker Arboretum this morning.

Throughout the visit, I have emphasized that the United States is engaging African countries regularly as partners in pursuing our shared goals and our global and regional priorities – including ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

And as part of that commitment, I was proud to arrive in Mali and Gabon to receive new shipments of COVID-19 vaccines provided by the American people.  In Niger, I saw U.S.-donated vaccines being put in arms.  These vaccines were provided with one goal in mind: to meet and defeat this pandemic together.

As we seek to advance our shared global and regional priorities with our African partners, we are committed to working with and through African institutions.

We have a longstanding partnership with the African Union, as exemplified by our collaboration to combat COVID-19.

And we are working with African governments and businesses, entrepreneurs, civil society, the American private sector, and international financial institutions to accelerate equitable and sustainable economic growth across the continent.

In particular, we hope to magnify the entrepreneurial spirit and dynamism of women and youth across Africa, and encourage African governments to do the same.

This has been a very productive trip, one of a series of recent senior-level engagements in Africa, and I was proud to reaffirm our commitments with our partners in Mali, Niger, and Gabon.

With that overview, I am happy to take your questions.  So I’ll turn it back over to you, Marissa.

Moderator:  Thank you, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s current trip to Mali, Niger, and Gabon.

Our first question is regarding your time in Gabon.  “Gabon is one of the five African countries that attended President Biden’s Climate Change Summit in April.  Why is climate change an issue that African governments and their citizens must care about?  And what is the U.S.’s role in helping small African states combat climate change?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Let me start by saying, first of all, we commend Gabon for its role in COP26 and its leadership in combating climate change in the Congo Basin Forest.  As an AU Champion of Climate Change, President Bongo has shown impressive African leadership responding to climate change.  But I think the answer to that question, again, is a very simple one: African citizens must care about the climate, about climate change, because it impacts them every single day, and we are seeing that as we travel across the continent.  This issue came up while I was in Niger, as climate is impacting livelihoods in that country.  Climate is contributing to insecurity.

So we have to partner with African nations to tackle this crisis, and I think without strong efforts by all countries to move to net zero by mid-century, we simply won’t be able to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.  And that is why the 26th annual UN Climate Conference that is taking place next week is so pivotal.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we’ll go live to Julian Pecquet of Jeune Afrique and of The Africa Report.  Mr. Pecquet, you may ask your question.

Question:  I’d like to ask you about reports that Russia is holding up appointments of a panel of experts to monitor the violations of UN sanctions in five African countries, and those include Mali, Central African Republic, DRC, where Niger is engaged in peacekeeping operations.  I was wondering how concerned the Biden administration is about this, if it came up during your trip, and if the U.S. is doing anything on the diplomatic front to overcome Russian obstruction when it comes to UN missions in Africa.  Thank you.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Well, look, it did not come up during the trip, fortunately, but it is an issue that we’re working to address in the context of the Security Council.  We know that if the Council is to function, and to function effectively, members of the Council – and particularly P5 – we have to figure out ways to cooperate.  And this is an area where we are having issues, and I can tell you that diplomatically we are working to address those issues and trying to address them very, very quickly.

In terms of what we’re doing, I won’t get into the details of that on this call, but be assured that we are working to address the issues.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question sent in to us, from the United Kingdom, from African Voices Platform.  That question is from Mr. Baillor Jalloh.  His question is:  “As a very experienced diplomat and someone that has served in West Africa, what role are you playing to ensure the will of the people – democracy – is maintained in the subregion and also why Guinea was not included in your visit, as they all have similar situations?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Thank you for that question.  And again, the United States prioritizes direct relationships with the people across the African continent.  We share a priority of strong democratic institutions and good governance with all of our partners.  Protecting human rights is fundamental to who we are.  It’s a core value for the United States.  And our support for democratic, citizen-centered, people-centered governance and respect for human rights also is a part of our strategy on the continent of Africa.

I know that there has been some worrying backsliding in the – in democracy, in the civic space, and respect for human rights in places on the continent, and that is of personal concern to me.  Spending more than 35 years on and off the continent of Africa, I’ve seen many changes take place and I will say to you now that the changes that – some of the changes that I see are very, very worrying, and I think we have to work to address those.

On not making a stop in Guinea, this was a Security Council-focused trip and the trip was focused on the Sahel.  So we went to Mali and Niger for that reason, and I took advantage of the time on the continent to also stop in Gabon as they are joining the Security Council, and I wanted to engage with them on the areas of mutual concern and where we might cooperate on the Council when they join in January.  I will be coming back to the continent.  Ghana is going to be joining the Council as well, and I want to engage with the Ghanaian Government, and certainly Guinea is on our agenda at some point in the future.  But we do have an assistant secretary for African affairs, and I can assure you that the Bureau for African Affairs is directly engaged on the situation in Guinea.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question goes to Pamela Falk of CBS News in the U.S.,  Pamela’s question is:  “Do officials in Mali and Niger in the Sahel see an economic and political crisis in Africa, as the UN Secretary-General said, ‘a proliferation of coups d’etat’?”

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Yes, we just saw the coup.  In fact, we’re watching it develop in Sudan.  So I can say that we’re concerned.  I can only speak for what the U.S. sees in Africa.  We believe that a well governed and secure continent is a prerequisite for economic growth, and we take a holistic approach to the security challenges.  We know that ensuring that security, good governance, and development take place on the continent and that they are mutually reinforcing, I think, and that they are comprehensive, will contribute to economic prosperity on the continent of Africa.  You can’t separate them out.

And I do believe that leaders and organizations from around the world, including the Security Council, the African Union, as well as others, have come together to condemn military takeovers.  As I said, we’re watching the one in Sudan right now as the military authorities have taken over.  We’re concerned about the situation in Guinea, where we’ve also seen the military take over.  We’ve seen two coups d’etat in Mali in less than a year.  These are all very, very concerning and we believe that the people must be the centerpiece of any country, and in particular as we watch the situation in Sudan, the Sudanese people must be allowed to protest peacefully and the civilian-led transitional government must be restored.  That is the only way these countries will be able to achieve economic prosperity for their people.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we’ll go live to Simon Ateba of Today News Africa.  Mr. Ateba, please ask your question.

Question:  Thank you.  Thank you, Ambassador.  Thank you for taking my question.  This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C., where it’s 4:40 a.m.

Ambassador, as you just said, the president of Mali has been overthrown.  The president of Guinea has been overthrown.  The prime minister of Sudan has been overthrown.  The president of Chad has been killed.  The president of Tunisia has overthrown the parliament, sacked his prime minister, and consolidated power.  While the prime minister of Ethiopia is bombing Tigray and using nondemocratic means to consolidate power.  And there are talks of possible coups and instability in Nigeria and Cameroon.  It seems Africa is going the way of China.  Is President Biden failing Africa?  Is he failing to uphold his promise to defend democracy against autocracy?  And since social media are playing a big role in the new trends of misinformation and coups in Africa, is the U.S. Government failing to support independent media and activists who can stand for democracy?  Does the U.S. Government have to go beyond condemnation and concern and empower independent media and activists?

Moderator:  Thank you.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  I’ve got the questions, Simon.  [Laughter.]  It was all built in one.  And no, the Biden administration is not failing Africa.  We are committed to this continent, we are engaging with the continent, and despite the coups that you listed, there are bright spots across the continent.  Niger, for example, is an extraordinary country where they have had the first turnover of power to an elected president, President Bazoum, and we see tremendous opportunities in that country.  They are the bright light on the continent of Africa.

There are countries like Ghana where we’re seeing a democratic election that has led to a stable government, and they have had one democratic transition after another.  That does not mean we are not concerned about the situation in Ethiopia, where we know that the solution to that situation is not military.  We are seeing Ethiopians kill Ethiopians, and we have to look for an opportunity to encourage the government and all of the other parties involved in this conflict to come to the negotiating table and find a solution that allows the people of Ethiopia to move forward and return to the prosperity that we saw Ethiopia accomplishing.

We are strong supporters of the free press.  We encourage that wherever we go.  We talk to governments and we talk to them honestly about the importance of allowing for a free press.  And we are relentless in our advocacy for press freedoms and for the rights of civil society.

So again, while we see these worrying trends that you describe, we also see some positive signs on the continent of Africa.  And I would say that African youth are a part of that.  I will be meeting with young African YALI fellows here in Gabon later today, and I can tell you without a doubt that these young people all across the continent are really the future of this continent.  And while you’re sitting in Washington, D.C., I see you as the future as well and being able to provide all of you on this call, being able to provide accurate information that people can use to make decisions about their future.  Disinformation is a huge issue, but you have the power to fix that.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question will go live to Senegal through Carley Petesch from AP.  Carley, you may ask your question.

Question:  Thank you.  This is Carley Petesch from The Associated Press, and thank you, Ambassador.

After your – this is specifically about Mali.   After your talks with the transitional government, they did come out and say quite strongly that they will need to hold meetings – more meetings in December and discussions about meeting the February election date.  Can you talk about the worries that elections will not be held in February, and what is being done to address that, or what will be done?

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Look, we were very clear, as the Security Council, in Mali, that they needed to put in place, immediately, plans to move forward on the election.  And the February 27 date was a date that they set for themselves, and we have joined ECOWAS in calling for them to honor that date.  They are a transitional government and in order for this country to start to move forward on the reforms that it requires and that this government has recognized, they need to have a permanent civilian government to start the process of instituting those reforms.

So we are hopeful that the government will have listened to the Council, all 15 members of us encouraging them to do the right thing by their people and start the process of putting a timeline in place and preparations in place to hold the elections.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we’ll go live to Pearl Matibe from Zimbabwe.  Pearl, you may ask your question.

Question:  Early morning here in Washington, D.C.  Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, I just want to say thank you so much for your availability in doing this, and I’m sure you know that the fourth estate and journalists are essential to a healthy democracy.  And so really to do our audiences justice, I’m sure you’re aware that part of our job is to hold you accountable as well.

So my question is this – and I’ve been following very closely your trip and your travel to North Africa.  I hope that you will be traveling further south to Southern Africa where South Africa and other countries in the region are playing a vital role in Africa.  Here is my question:  Just two days ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Senator Risch put out a statement, part of which I’m just going to quote what he’s stating because it’s relevant to my question.  He says, quote, “Today’s United Nations Human Rights Council election is a sham.  Every country including the United States is running unopposed.  The United States should not be lending its legitimacy to a body that includes perpetrators of human rights abuses, like China, Venezuela, and Cuba.  Additionally, the council continues to disproportionately spend the majority of its time and attention persecuting our ally.”  He goes on just briefly here to say, “the Biden administration will pat itself on the back for rejoining the flawed body; however, it will have done so without securing any necessary reforms while failing to support human rights around the world.”

So I wanted to find out from you, Ambassador, to do our audiences justice, how in this trip were you helping to do that with these countries that are, number one, joining you on the Security Council, how do you intend to do that in the Human Rights Council?  And pertinent to today, a United Nations special rapporteur actually put out a statement today in Zimbabwe calling for the United States to remove its targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe, and there’s been a huge outcry and outlash, pushback on this press statement that was done out of the United Nations office in Harare.  I wonder if you could speak to that.  Thank you so much.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Wow, that’s a lot.  And I – let me start by saying that I very much appreciate Senator Risch.  I have engaged a great deal with him since I had my hearing, so I know his views and the views of a number of senators and congressmen on our return to the Human Rights Commission.

We have concerns too that there are members of the Human Rights Commission who are human rights violators.  But we believe strongly that if we are not at the table, we cannot push back against their efforts, and it is only through being at the table with them that we can push back on those efforts.  One congressman said to us, “We don’t always choose who we’re sitting at the dinner table with.  It does not mean you shouldn’t sit there.”  This is a way of ensuring that our priorities are also addressed, including pushing back on the unfair focus on one of our allies, on Israel, as Senator Risch mentioned.  We know that when we were there, there were fewer resolutions opposed – criticizing Israel.  There were more resolutions that criticized some of the other human rights violators who were there at the table.

So this is not a perfect institution.  In fact, it’s an extraordinarily flawed institution, but it is what we have to work with, and we’re going to do our best to work within the Human Rights Council to ensure that the Council does right by all of the people of the world.

And I have not seen the special rapporteur’s report out of Zimbabwe, but let me be clear:  Our sanctions target individuals and institutions that are committing human rights violations, and we make every effort to ensure that those sanctions do not impact the people.  What is happening in Zimbabwe is the result of bad policies in Zimbabwe.  What is happening in Zimbabwe is the consequence of their leadership; it is not a consequence of our sanctions.  And we will always resist any criticism of us that says our sanctions are impacting people unfairly.  And you certainly will see that we will be criticized for this.  We’re criticized for it by the government because they know that they are responsible for these actions, and I regret that the special rapporteur made the decision to put this in his report.

I think I’m told this may be the last question, Marissa.  One more, I’m told.

Moderator:  No, actually, I do believe that that is – that is the last question.  So thank you, everybody.  That’s all the time that we have for today.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, did you have any final words?

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield:  Well, again, I want to thank all of you.  I love the point that – I think it was – that Pearl made, that you are responsible for holding me accountable as well, and I accept that responsibility.  I know that I am here to serve the American people and that my role is one that you can help me to do better by letting me know what kinds of questions you might have.

So I can tell you that you can always depend on me to be available to all of you and to engage with all of you during my tenure in this position.

Moderator:  That concludes today’s briefing.  I would like to thank Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, for speaking to us today and thank all of you journalists for participating.

If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov.  Thank you.

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