Blinken: US to help Kenya, Africa boost trade, security, health, youth programmes

Antony Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Photo credit: Jacquelyn Martin | Pool | AFP

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a virtual trip to Kenya and Nigeria on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. He held talks with presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Muhammadu Buhari, government officials, youth leaders and representatives of the private sector.

Below are excerpts from a roundtable Q&A with Kenyan and Nigerian journalists.

Question:  Kenya and the US 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 falling-out 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 for 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. We also understand that a fresh review has begun 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. 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 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.

Question:  The US Government has been pivotal in funding health projects in Africa. Among areas that have benefitted immensely is HIV/Aids, malaria prevention, and Covid-19. Now in the recent past, Kenya, a great beneficiary of US funding, has suffered a slow supply in distribution of ARVs in the country, which threatens the very gains made over decades.  How is the US collaborating with the Kenyan government to ensure this issue is addressed amicably? And on Covid, sir, African countries are struggling to access the vaccines, leading to accusations of hoarding. We are happy to note that the US is ready to donate AstraZeneca vaccines to countries needing it. Is Kenya among the countries that will be prioritised? And what are the quantities?

Secretary Blinken:  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 programme, something that President Bush initiated many years ago.  I think it’s hard to think of any initiatives 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. 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. 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 is 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 is done on an equitable basis, responsive as well to where the need is most urgent.

When President Biden took office, one of the first things he did was to rejoin the World Health Organisation. And then similarly, and very quickly, we engaged with Covax and are now the largest contributor to Covax. We invested $2 billion upfront in Covax, and there’s another $2 billion to come between now and 2022 as other countries step up. 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.

There has 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 announced yesterday is, having got 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. 

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.

Question:  My question is on the free trade agreement between the US and Kenya. We think the whole of Africa is watching these negotiations with interest, because the emergent pact will define how the US intends to deal with Africa going forward. What does this trade agreement mean for Agoa, which expires in 2025?  And how does the US intend to use this trade agreement to help strengthen African economies, which have suffered immensely on account of Covid-19?  I’d also like to know whether this free trade agreement is going to be used to address the US concerns about China’s growing influence in Africa.

Secretary Blinken:  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 US 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, 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. That is 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.

Question:  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. He died from gunshot wounds 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:  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.  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, 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, we, 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 easier spread of disease, all of which can produce an environment in which terrorism, criminality, other forms of violence are more likely.

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.

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.

Question:  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. 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 andeven Nigeria and Africa as a whole?

Secretary Blinken:  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 organisations in Nigeria. That’s remarkable, and, of course, they’re driven primarily by young people.

On this virtual visit, I had the opportunity to talk to about a dozen alumni from the Yali programme, 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 programme 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 recognise 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. That 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 programmes that have been put in place, including Yali, and strengthening 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.

Question:  The Covid-19 pandemic has affected economies across the globe. Nigeria has not been spared. How much support should we expect from the US government considering that Nigeria is already in a dire humanitarian crisis? Nigerians are also eager to know what to expect from the Biden-Harris administration considering the fact that the previous administration placed some restrictions or travel bans, which have actually been lifted.  But there are also concerns about not really getting visas. What can Nigerians expect from this administration, which has made the African diaspora a priority?

Secretary Blinken:  You’re right to put the focus on the economic effects and impacts of Covid. And we’ve had 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 programmes. 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 cognisant 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.