Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken Roundtable Interview With Kenyan And Nigerian Journalists

April 27, 2021
Live Via Zoom

Harry S Truman Building
Washington, D.C.

MR PRICE:  Good afternoon and good evening, everyone.  My name is Ned Price.  I’m the spokesperson here at the Department of State.  Thank you very much for joining us for this virtual roundtable discussion with Secretary Blinken.  As you know, this is an on-the-record engagement with the Secretary, and he’s here today to talk about his virtual trip, the virtual trip he took to Nigeria and Kenya, and to answer your questions about that engagement and about our engagement with the African continent.

So without further ado, I will turn it over to Secretary Blinken for some opening remarks and then he looks forward to taking your questions.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Ned, thanks very much.  Hey.  Greetings, everyone.  So good to be with you.  I’m really pleased to have just wrapped up my first virtual trip to Africa as Secretary of State.  The benefits of virtual are no jetlag, but of course being person-to-person is even better.  I look forward to the opportunity to do that hopefully in the near future.  But meanwhile, this was an early opportunity to have important engagement with two countries, and beyond that with the continent, where we have deep, diverse, and longstanding partnerships rooted in shared values, shared interests, and shared challenges.  I especially want to thank President Buhari of Nigeria and President Kenyatta in Kenya for very productive meetings and for their warm virtual hospitality.

So this virtual visit to Kenya and Nigeria offered us a chance to engage with leaders from government but also the private sector and civil society.  And we had a chance to talk about the many ways our countries are already working together, but also how that cooperation can be deepened.  And it was a pretty broad and interesting cross-section of people that I had an opportunity to engage with – people like Dr. Shuaib, who is the Nigerian Government official leading the COVID-19 vaccine rollout across Nigeria; people like Dr. Namunje, who leads the Craftskills Wind Energy International.  That’s a company that’s helping develop Kipeto, a wind farm that, when completed, will provide clean energy to 250,000 households in Kenya.  It included 10 alumni from the Young African Leaders Initiative, YALI, something that I was very familiar with from my last time in government with President Obama and Vice President Biden.  But remarkable individuals who are leading innovative efforts across the region’s public, private, and nonprofit sectors.  We’ve had 24,000 rising leaders take part in the program to date.  It’s remarkable and I think we’re going to feel the benefits of that for many, many years to come.

A common thread that ran through all of these exchanges was that the efforts of all of these leaders, like those of so many people across Kenya, Nigeria, and the United States, are enriched by cooperation between us.  Again, consider Dr. Shuaib.  Many of the vaccines that he’s helping distribute are coming to Nigeria from COVAX, to which the United States is the largest financial contributor.  And our own health experts have been working with Dr. Shuaib and other Nigerian partners since the outset of the pandemic.  Or Kipeto, which I mentioned a few minutes ago – that’s the wind farm that Dr. Namunje is helping to develop.  That was made possible in large part thanks to a $230 million grant and loans from the U.S. Development Finance Corporation, and it’s getting technical support from Power Africa, from USAID, from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

So one of my key takeaways from these discussions is that we can do so much more of this work together to the benefit of people in all of our countries, and I think you’re seeing the Biden-Harris administration already working to do just that.  We’re restoring and reinvigorating our partnerships not only in Kenya and Nigeria, but across the continent.  We’re deepening substantive reciprocal relationships with governments, with businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and people, and grounding them in shared interests and respect.  We’re working to increase trade and investment in the region, particularly in cooperation with U.S. businesses.  And to do that, we’re using all of the tools that we have at our disposal, including the Development Finance Corporation, including USAID, Millennium Challenge, while also pressing international financial institutions to do more.  And we remain engaged with our partners on addressing shared security challenges while putting respect for human rights at the core of our security assistance.

We’ll continue to underscore the importance of thorough and impartial investigations into abuses and accountability for perpetrators.  We know that this is not easy.  Right now in the United States we’re also reckoning with our own challenges, including systemic injustices and inequities.  But we’ve also found strength in grappling with these challenges out in the open, painful as it may be, and we’re encouraging our partners to do the same thing.

We’ll also continue to invest in rising leaders through programs like YALI, knowing that for a continent of 1.3 billion people with a median age of 19, the best way to expand opportunity, to grow economies, and promote human rights is to invest in youth.

And we’ll continue to be a partner to African countries in strengthening public health.  U.S.-Nigeria cooperation has reached more than 60 million Nigerians through programs that train public health workers, invest in medical facilities, improve access to medicines, vaccines, and reproductive health care.  And that’s just one country, as significant as it is.

Both President Buhari and President Kenyatta participated, as you know, in the Leaders Summit that President Biden convened last week on the climate crisis.  In that summit, and again today, we underscored our commitment to working with leaders to reduce emissions, adapt to the inevitable changes to come from global warming, and turn our necessary actions into opportunities to actually create good-paying green jobs for people in our countries.

I was able to touch on many of these issues in the meetings that we had with President Kenyatta and President Buhari earlier today, and I’m very much looking forward to continuing to deepen these strategic partnerships for both countries.

One final observation at the outset.  One of the key pillars of democracies like the United States, Kenya, and Nigeria is a free and vibrant press.  So I want to close by recognizing the crucial role that journalists like you, the ones participating in this roundtable, play in informing the public, holding governments accountable, and asking tough questions, which I fully expect you will do.  So thank you very much.  Thanks for joining today, and let’s open it up to questions.

Ned?

MR PRICE:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  We will now, in fact, turn it over to questions.  We’ll begin with Yvonne Okwara.  Yvonne is from Citizen TV.  She is currently in our embassy in Nairobi.  Yvonne, over to you.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Ned, and thank you, Secretary Blinken, for taking my question.  Now, you just had talks with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.  My question is with regards to regional security, the war on terror, and the situation in Somalia.  Now, Kenya and the U.S. have had a longstanding strategic partnership when it comes to the war on terror, but there’s been some recent growing concern over the situation in Somalia following the fallout after the contested elections.  Did this come up in your conversation with President Uhuru Kenyatta?  What new, different approaches, or indeed any added support are you considering to Kenya?  Because we know that the security and political situation in Somalia directly affects the war on terror, directly affects regional security, as well as Kenya, which is a key ally of the United States.  And also we understand that there’s been a fresh review that’s been – began on the attack in Lamu.  Could you tell us if this came up in your conversation with President Uhuru Kenyatta?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks very much.  I appreciate the question.  And the short answer is that al-Shabaab in particular, Somalia more generally, yes, were very much part of our conversation just a short while ago.  And a couple of things on that.  First, we stand together with Kenya in absolute solidarity when it comes to the threat posed by al-Shabaab, which both of us see as one of the most significant threats that we face.  And to that point, we have a longstanding partnership with Kenya, particularly to include enhancing security capacity in a way that fully respects human rights, but with information sharing, with training, with equipment.  And we reaffirmed that partnership today.

More broadly with regard to Somalia, I think we certainly have a strong concern about the direction that the country has taken.  Politically, it’s imperative that negotiations resume toward very prompt elections in Somalia to move things back on track politically, and I think there too we are very much in agreement with Kenya.  So it’s – there’s a real shared concern when it comes to al-Shabaab, a partnership, and our own concern about the political direction of Somalia and the need to get to elections quickly.

MR PRICE:  We’ll next go to Yunia Amunga from Capital FM.  Yunia is also in our embassy in Nairobi.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Ned.  Thank you, Secretary Blinken.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Nice to see you.

QUESTION:  The U.S. Government has been pivotal in funding health projects in Africa.  And among areas that have benefitted immensely is HIV/AIDS, malaria prevention, and COVID-19.  Now in recent past, Kenya, a great beneficiary of U.S. funding, has suffered a slow supply in distribution of ARVs in the country, which threatens the very gains made over decades.  Now, how is the U.S. collaborating with the Kenyan Government to ensure that this issue is addressed amicably?

And on COVID, sir, African countries are struggling immensely to access the vaccines, leading to accusation of hoarding.  But we are happy to note that the U.S. is ready to donate AstraZeneca vaccines to countries needing it.  Now, is Kenya among the countries that will be prioritized, and approximately what are the quantities?  Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  Thanks very much.  A couple things in response.  First, one of the things that I am proudest of as an American is the long partnership that we’ve had with Kenya and with other countries to deal together with HIV/AIDS as well as with other potentially debilitating diseases or deadly diseases, whether it’s malaria or tuberculosis.  I’m extremely proud of the PEPFAR program, something that President Bush initiated many years ago.  I think it’s hard to think of any initiatives that is – that have done more to save lives, but not just save lives, make sure that people could then carry on productive lives that contributed significantly to their families, their communities, their countries.  And this – so this has been a longstanding partnership, and it’s one that I reaffirmed our commitment to today in my conversation.

We have had an issue with KEMSA, the institution responsible for the distribution, and as you know very well, concerns in particular about corruption that I know the government is working to reform.  We have an obligation to our own taxpayers when we’re spending their money to do it in a way that is accountable and fully transparent.  And so I think what we’re – what we talked about today was making sure that as KEMSA was being reformed nothing fell through the cracks, that we had the ability together to make sure that our assistance continued uninterrupted, so that people in need of what we’re providing didn’t go without it.  And I think that we’re going to work very closely together to make sure that happens.

With regard to COVID, a couple things.  First, we very much share the conviction that none of us will be fully safe until in effect everyone is safe, and the vast majority of the world is vaccinated.  We know that if the virus continues to replicate anywhere, it was likely to then be mutating into new variants, and those variants could come back and bite countries and people who have already been vaccinated potentially.  So beyond being the right thing to do, it’s actually from a national security and national health perspective the necessary thing to do to make sure that everyone everywhere is getting access to the vaccine, and that this be done on an equitable basis, responsive as well to where the need is most urgent.

So as you know, when President Biden took office, one of the first things he did was to rejoin the World Health Organization.  And then similarly, and very quickly, we engaged with COVAX and are now the largest contributor to COVAX of any country in the world.  We put – we invested $2 billion upfront in COVAX, and there’s another 2 billion to come between now and 2022 as other countries step up.  And this facility, COVAX, is an important means of making sure that particularly for low and middle-income countries there is equitable access to the vaccines.

Now, there’s obviously been a challenge because the primary contributor to COVAX in terms of the vaccines themselves has been India, and India is now encountering an incredibly challenging situation.  But as we’re moving forward, what you heard I think announced yesterday is, having gotten to the point where we are comfortable that our population can be effectively vaccinated, we have supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which we have contracted for, as well down the road as other vaccines that may be becoming available to us, which we are now in turn shortly going to be in a position of making available to other countries – either through COVAX, or directly, bilaterally.

And I think what you heard the White House announce yesterday is with regard to the AstraZeneca vaccines, there are about 10 million that we already have in hand, but that are going through a review by our Food and Drug Administration to make sure that they were produced in a safe and secure manner, and then another 40 to 50 million which will come into our possession in the coming weeks or month or so, and that’s the total of about 60 million.  And what we’ve committed to doing is making those vaccines available to countries around the world.  What we’re doing right now is putting in place a process by which to do that.  And again, some of that is likely to be through COVAX, some of it may be bilaterally, but we are now putting in place the plan for how we will do that.  That’s going to take us some weeks to do, but I think very soon and very shortly we’ll be in a position to contribute vaccines from those that we acquired either through COVAX or directly to people.

MR PRICE:  Our final question from Nairobi will go to Pamela Makotsi Sittoni from The Daily Nation.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Secretary Blinken, my question is on the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Kenya.  We think the whole of Africa is watching these negotiations with interest, because it will define how the U.S. intends to deal with Africa going forward.  And I’m keen to know what does this trade agreement mean for AGOA, which comes to an expiry in 2025?  And how does the U.S. intend to use this trade agreement to help strengthen African economies, which have suffered immensely on account of COVID-19?  And I’d also like to know whether this free trade agreement is going to be used to address the U.S. concerns about China’s growing influence in Africa.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  We want to see increased trade; we want to see increased investment.  And with regard to the free trade agreement, that’s something that’s under very, very active review.  We only recently had the U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai confirmed to her position, so she’s had to hit the ground running, and she is running very fast.  She had a very good initial conversation with her counterpart I think just a couple of weeks ago in which they discussed the free trade agreement.  And what we’re doing right now is just reviewing the negotiations, making sure we understand the full track record, and we’re going to be in close touch with our partners in Kenya on that moving forward.

With regard to the broader question, look, we think that one of the benefits that we bring when we’re engaged with partners in Africa is that we’re really investing in countries in question and in the people.  And we want to make sure that as investment goes forward, wherever it’s coming from, it’s done to the highest standards – a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.  What does that mean?

Well, a few things.  In some instances, other countries that make investments in fact load a lot of debt on the countries getting the so-called investment, and that debt becomes a trap and a huge burden, and the country either has to pay it back by taking resources away from other parts of its budget that benefit people or it can’t pay it back and then the country that’s made the debt, issued the debt, suddenly owns whatever it was investing in.  That turns out not to be a good thing.

Second, we’ve seen other countries come in with big projects but they bring in their own workers instead of relying on local workers who should get the benefits of working on these projects.  Sometimes the standards when it comes to protecting the rights of workers working on these projects are insufficient or the environmental standards are not respected.

When we make – when we work in partnership, when we make these investments, we do it in a way that does not overwhelm countries with debt, does not undermine the environment, does not challenge the rights of workers, et cetera.  So I think countries and partners have to make decisions for the best way to advance their economies, to promote growth, to advance and strengthen infrastructure.  I think that the way the United States does it in full partnership as well with the private sector, which is really the lead in these investments, with government playing a supporting role, I think that ultimately has more to offer partners around the world, but ultimately each country has to make its own decisions.

MR PRICE:  We’ll now to move to U.S. Embassy Abuja.  We’ll go to Hamza Alkali from Radio Nigeria.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Ned.  Secretary Blinken, my question is on the security in the Sahel and the Lake Chad region and within Nigeria.  The United States has been a major partner in assisting Nigeria to combat terrorism.  And in the Sahel recently we lost a sitting president of Chad, Idriss Deby from – he died from the gunshots sustained during a battle with terrorists.  And within Nigeria, the crisis has different dimensions in different regions.  In the northeast, we have the Boko Haram, in the southeast we have IPOB agitators, and in the northwest we now have bandits ransacking villages.  Despite the challenges and the assistance provided by the United States, would the United States be ready to provide machineries to finish this battle so that the people can get back their normal lives?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  And this is a very important question and indeed, one we spent some time discussing in the conversations both with President Buhari and with other colleagues in the government.  And I think it is fair to say that the challenges that Nigeria faces when it comes to security are quite extraordinary – and you referenced them – whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s banditry and criminality, whether it’s piracy.  All of these are real challenges.

The good news is this:  One, we are in absolute solidarity between us in trying to address these challenges together.  And the United States is committed to supporting Nigeria as it meets these challenges.  And what that involves primarily is helping Nigeria continue to build its capacity through training, through resources, through information sharing, through equipment, and all of that done, very importantly, with full respect for human rights.

But it’s also important that we work together, as we are, to address some of the drivers or facilitators of violence and instability that we know those engaged in these activities can sometimes feed on.  And that’s why you have to have a comprehensive approach to these challenges.  It’s not – the security piece is vitally important, but it’s insufficient, and so economic development, progress, opportunity is hugely important.

So, too, are dealing with some of the other drivers that sometimes produce conflict, violence, and extremism.  And one of the things that’s striking, of course, is the Lake Chad basin.  And there we’ve seen over time, as you know, the erosion of the basin, including because of climate change.  And that, in turn, can produce conflict over resources, new migratory patterns that put people in conflict, food insecurity, the more easy spread of disease, all of which can produce an environment in which terrorism, criminality, other forms of violence are more likely.

So I think it’s vital that we address these, as I know President Buhari is very focused on, and it’s also why it was so important to have President Buhari as well as President Kenyatta from Kenya take part in the climate summit that President Biden convened last week, which was a very powerful manifestation of the broad international commitment to address the challenges posed by climate change, which in turn, as we do it, I think will address some of the drivers we’ve seen of conflict which in turn can feed extremism.

So it’s a long way of saying I think we have to see the big picture, the comprehensive picture – obviously focus on the hard security collaboration that we have and strengthen that, but also not lose sight of some of the bigger pieces of this that we have to address together as well.

MR PRICE:  We’ll now move to our consulate in Lagos and go to Mike Okwoche from TVC.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)  Right.  Let me – I want to talk about the youth generally.  Africa has – Africa is the continent with the highest or largest concentration of young people in the world, and Nigeria stands out, obviously, because of its population and the kind of people they are.  Now, when it comes to the – what that potential huge population – it translates to vision, it translates to creativity, it translates to energy, it translates to a lot of things.  Now, can you share with us generally what the Biden administration has as plans to translate this potential huge population of young people on the African continent, especially Nigeria, to the benefit of the United States and even Nigeria and Africa as a whole?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I think you put your finger on maybe the most important point of all, and that is exactly the fact that as we look at Africa generally, as we look at Nigeria in particular, but just starting with the continent – 1.3 billion people, median age 19 – there is, I think, no part of the planet we share where we see such an extraordinary young population that is going to have a profound impact not just on the future of Nigeria, not just on the future of the continent, but actually on the future of the entire world.  Because if that extraordinary human resource can be supported and developed and given the opportunities necessary, it’s hard to think of anything more – that will contribute more to human progress in the years ahead.

I had the opportunity some years ago to spend some time in Nigeria when I was last in government, and part of what made that such a pleasure was actually spending time with a lot of different young people engaged in very different pursuits, but the common element, the common denominator was incredibly innovative, entrepreneurial, engaged people.  When I was there – I think in 2015 – at that point in time, I think I was told that there was something like 70,000 registered nongovernmental organizations in Nigeria.  That’s remarkable, and, of course, they’re driven primarily by young people.

On this virtual visit, as I think I mentioned, I had the opportunity to talk to about a dozen alumni from the YALI program, something that President Obama and then-Vice President Biden started, which we are committed to carrying forward and to strengthening.  There are already 24,000 alumni of that program in one way or another, and as you know, the connections that they build with the United States, but as important or maybe more important, the connections they build with one another are going to be a foundation for the future going forward.

But I think what it really says to me is that our government, the Nigerian Government, other governments, as well, of course, as other sectors of our society, including the business community, including our educational facilities – across the board, the single best investment we can make now is in our young people, and especially in Africa’s young people.

Let me put it to you this way:  If we were having this conversation 50 or 60 years ago and the question we were trying to answer is how do you define the wealth of a nation – so 50 or 60 years or 70 years ago, we probably said, well, it’s probably dependent on the size of the country, its abundance of natural resources, maybe the strength of its military, its population.  And those are important factors.

But I think what we recognize now, especially in this young century that we’re in, is that the true wealth of a nation can be found in its human resources.  And countries that have the ability to allow those human resources to reach their full potential are going to do very well in the future, almost irrespective of whether they have an abundance of those other measures of wealth.  And so I think that just underscores the importance of finding ways together to allow our human resources and especially our young people to really meet their potential, because if that energy is unleashed in a positive way, there is no challenge we’re not going to be able to overcome.

On the other hand, if we don’t find ways to do that, we’re all going to have a bigger challenge and a bigger problem.  So we’re very focused on this.  We’re very focused on some of the programs that have been put in place, including YALI, and strengthening them and growing them.  We’re looking at other ways to build connectivity with support for young people, and to work with our partners to do that.  So stay tuned.  I think that there’s going to be more to come, but it’s something that I’m very focused on and also excited about.

MR PRICE:  For a final question, we’ll return to Abuja and go to Lizzy Okoji from the News Agency of Nigeria.

QUESTION:  Right, so good afternoon, Secretary Blinken.  My question will be on economic recovery post COVID-19.  It’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected economies across the globe.  Nigeria has not been spared also.  So how much support should we be expecting from the U.S. Government considering that Nigeria is already in a dire humanitarian crisis?

Then, Nigerians are also eager to know what to expect from the Biden-Harris administration considering the fact that the previous administration placed some restrictions on a travel ban, which has actually been lifted.  But there is – there’s also these growing concerns of not really getting visas when applying, high cases of denial, and all that.  So Nigerians are just eager to know what to expect from this administration, which has actually put African diaspora as a priority.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  First, you’re exactly right to put the focus as well on the economic effects and impacts of COVID.  And we’ve had this this dual crisis, a health crisis and an economic crisis, and there too, unless and until we find ways to support efforts of countries around the world and economies around the world to bounce back economically from COVID, we won’t have fully addressed the problem either.  And by the way, that’s also in our interest, because we want strong trading partners, we want strong investment partners, and it makes sense to make sure that we’re doing what we can to be helpful.

And as we’re looking at this, I think there are a number of things that are important.  We’ve supported, for example, facilities to restructure debt, because as countries emerge from the economic crisis with debt obligations, that can be challenging in normal times.  It’s incredibly more challenging if you’re in the midst of or emerging from the economic downturn that was the result of COVID.  So we’re very strongly supportive of flexibility there, restructuring there.  We’re looking at a variety of other support programs.  And as well, I think being able to move forward with trade, with investment, with partnerships, that too is going to make difference.

I also think we have to, as we’re doing this, try to take advantage of the moment as well.  There is a necessity, but there is also some real opportunity.  President Biden talks about this in terms of building back better.  How do we make – as we’re making new investments in our economies, as we’re working together, how do we do it in a way that promotes greater equity?  How do we do it in a way that actually advances the effort to combat climate change?  And there, there may be real opportunities in terms of, for example, green technology that can actually create and sustain good, strong jobs.  All of these things are on the agenda and we’re looking at them, I think, together very creatively both in our bilateral relationships but also multilaterally, including through the international financial institutions.

And then with regard to visas, et cetera, we’re also doing two things.  We removed from the books some of the restrictions put in place by the previous administration, so the appropriate legal foundation is there.  But we also now, in moving forward, have to be very mindful of the challenges we all face, including the fact that COVID-19 is still with us.  And so we all want to get back to travel quickly, to trade quickly, to enabling legal migration, but we have to do it in a way that is cognizant of the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 so that it is safe and secure, and we make sure we’re at a place where we can do that with the virus under control, so that we don’t risk regenerating it and creating another cycle.

So all of that we’re factoring in in a very practical way to our ability to move forward with travel as well as with immigration.

MR PRICE:  Well, I want to thank all the journalists for their excellent and engaging questions. I want to thank Secretary Blinken for taking the time.  And Secretary Blinken, I’ll turn it over to you for any final concluding remarks.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Just to say thank you to each of you.  Thank you for participating today but thank you for what you’re doing every single day.  As I said at the outset, nothing is more critical to free, open, democratic societies than the press, than our media.  I deeply appreciate the role that you’re playing every day to make sure that the people who we’re responsible to are informed about what governments are doing, that there is transparency, and that there is accountability.  And without you that, that doesn’t happen.

So thank you very much for the work that you’re doing, and I look forward to future opportunities to speak to you.  Thanks very much.