US – Africa: Leaders Summit was a chance for ‘candid discussions’ with African leaders, says Molly Phee

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 23 December 2022 19:43

Assistant Secretary of State Mary Catherine “Molly” Phee

It’s been a busy 15 months for the State Department’s top Africa official driving the Joe Biden administration’s policy of respectful re-engagement with the continent while helming US diplomatic leadership on an array of crises from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa. 

We caught up with Assistant Secretary of State Mary Catherine “Molly” Phee in her office as she was still recovering from the first US-Africa Leaders Summit since President Barack Obama back in 2014.

The Africa Report: The Biden administration just hosted 49 African leaders for the US-Africa Leaders Summit. With dozens of discussions ranging from peace and security to business and trade, what are the administration’s main priorities for the US-Africa relationship?

Molly Phee: I think the breadth reflects, first of all, the diversity and complexity of the African continent. And it also reflects the breadth and complexity of our partnership. That’s why it’s hard to prioritise.

[After the summit] I received a phone call from a prominent leader on the continent, who said to me: “Don’t let it take so long again. We lost a lot of valuable time, and we want to be engaged with you.” To me, that’s the bottom line message. I felt, in our engagements with all the delegations, that there was a lot of hunger for American partnership.

Can you point to any immediate tangible progress? Or is that all going to happen in the future as promises get implemented?

Let me start with […] the food security crisis […] I expect coming out of the summit, a much more structured and focused effort to move beyond that really important emergency aid we provided last year [to] how we can move forward to help with fertilizer, where there remains chronic shortages, and how we can […] help African farmers increase productivity in a way that’s cognisant of the impact of climate change.

Related to that, I think there was a big emphasis on US trade and investment. We did something like 800 deals last year. But we can do more. [..] What I expect to come out of this summit is a real focus on improving our matchmaking between African needs and interests, and American capital.

The third area is health security. There’s [been] a real increase since the Biden-Harris administration team came to power in the pandemic response, with an investment in up to $4bn in training for healthcare workers to go forward to help meet the next health challenges.

The president is nominating one of your predecessors, Johnnie Carson, to help implement desired outcomes. Will the US seek to institutionalise the Africa summits, via a formal partnership with the African Union or congressional legislation for example?

I think those are all options under consideration. The appointment of Ambassador Carson is to reflect the US commitment to sustained engagement and to be responsive to African interests. But fundamentally, it’s sort of infusing this commitment throughout the US government apparatus. That’s the way to make sustainable and durable change.

Someone of Ambassador Carson’s stature can help with relationships and focus. From my perspective, as a leader of the [Africa] Bureau, I want to make sure that the apparatus of the US government machinery is geared to incorporating the energy and interest and commitments that were evident in the summit to have durable, sustainable engagement across these many files.

President Biden has promised to visit the continent next year. Can you give us a sense of the thinking behind a multi-country trip? Is there the idea of having him go to different regions, big and small, poorer and richer?

He spoke so well himself, I really don’t want to step on how he spoke about it. He’s very seized, as you’ve seen, globally, with the idea that we need to update the international architecture to meet the challenges of the moment. So that’s one of the reasons he’s looking for a permanent seat for Africans on the Security Council […]. That’s why he announced last week that we support an AU seat in the G20.

And Secretary [of the Treasury Janet] Yellen, at his direction, is also engaged in discussions with the multilateral development banks about making sure that they’re fit for purpose for meeting the challenges. So when he said “I’m all in,” he meant it, and I think a visit would be to advance and develop those themes and his priorities.

He’s also really convinced that we need to work together to do the never-ending spadework of keeping democracies strong and vibrant, and effective in delivering for citizens and therefore effective. So he hosted a meeting at the White House, for leaders of countries that will hold elections in 2023. I think that’s also an important, enduring element of his foreign policy.

That meeting was the president’s only direct personal engagement with the African leaders at the summit, correct?

Yes, you could look at it that way. I’m not as comfortable with that description. Because I think what you saw was he brought his whole Cabinet to bear. That’s sort of how he is: He’s a team player, and a leader. Of course, he chaired that important agenda [AU] 2063 discussion […] which was really designed […] to let the Africans speak to him and to his team, about their priorities and how we can work together.

He asked Vice President (Kamala) Harris to chair the [leaders’] lunch. In addition to the leadership role that Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken played, we also had [USAID] Administrator [Samantha] Power, Ambassador [to the UN Linda] Thomas-Greenfield, the secretary of Commerce, the secretary of Agriculture, the secretary of the Treasury, the secretary of Defense. The A team was there to meet their African counterparts, and talk about our partnership. So I really feel like the US government showed up, and showed up in a big way.

What about Congress? You will need lawmakers to implement the president’s promise of $55bn for Africa. How will you engage with Republicans when they take back control of the House of Representatives next year, especially when some may feel they had limited buy-in at the summit?

It was unfortunate that the timing worked out where the summit was held on the last week of the congressional session. So I think if there was any challenge in engaging members of Congress, in the discussions, it was literally purely scheduling, not because of interest.

One of the strengths of US foreign policy in Africa is that it is largely bipartisan. And of course, we invited different members of Congress to participate […]. We encouraged delegations to meet with members of Congress. And we had a specific event with members of Congress related to the Global Fragility Act, which is focused in its first years on coastal West Africa, and also Mozambique. So from my perspective, Congress was engaged. 

State Department vacancies – notably in the Africa Bureau – are a perennial issue. If personnel is policy, can the US really say Africa is a priority?

I think the personnel situation is really complicated. And depending on which aspect you look at, there’s a different explanation for why we are where we are. Everyone regrets the delays in visas. But when the US government made a decision to tie funding for consular staff to visa fees, no one anticipated Covid. The team is working very hard to address that challenge.

We have a specific challenge in the US government with regard to how our confirmation process operates. It’s not quick or smooth. And so we do have prolonged absences for chief submissions. We have great diplomats in the field keeping the fire burning, but governments rightly want a confirmed ambassador.

And then certainly there is the issue [of] the shortage of staff. And that is a global shortage in the State Department. All the bureaus have a shortage of staff, particularly at the mid-level. […] This administration has moved significantly to seek congressional authority to hire massive amounts of new folks [and] fill the gap that they inherited when they came in.

There were a lot of diplomatic side meetings at the summit, including discussions about the conflicts in northern Ethiopia and in eastern Congo. Was any progress made on these files?

Secretary Blinken and I are really respectful and we really admire the leadership of Africans to tackle some of these challenges. And we are trying to position the United States to be as supportive as possible. So I think it’s terrific that Africans who were visiting here […]  took advantage of the venue and the platform to get together to follow up on the eastern DRC. […] 

It didn’t go unnoticed that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Rwandan President Paul Kagame both skipped the group photo, leading to speculation that they may have gotten upset at their reception.

I’ll leave it to those delegations to explain for themselves decisions about those particular events. But remember, we just talked about how it was a rich week, in terms of many different types of engagements, private, public, one-on-one, groups. The president and the secretary really strongly believe that we can’t solve problems if we don’t sit down and talk about different perspectives, understand different points of view, and have candid discussions. 

Do the pictures of the president watching the football World Cup with controversial leaders such as Abiy conflict with your message that the US is leading with its values?

I think in the specific instance of the situation in Ethiopia, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the US has worked extensively and vigorously and seriously to help bring an end to the conflict […]. We’re also talking very seriously about the need […] for there to be independent, international human rights monitors to demonstrate that the conflict is no longer resulting in human rights abuses. And of course, it’s critical that Eritrea withdraw its forces.

Regarding Eritrea, President Isaias Afwerki was not invited to the summit. How is the US engaging with Eritrea to get them on board?

Well, it would be helpful to me and to US policy if the government of Eritrea would grant a visa to a chargé d’affaires so we could have someone in the capital engaging directly.

The Africans are talking about inviting Eritrea to rejoin IGAD [the East African bloc] to make sure they’re part of the conversation in solving the problems (Eritrea left the group in 2007 over a border dispute with Ethiopia).

Final question on Ethiopia. There’s been some criticism that the administration hasn’t targeted more Ethiopian actors since the president signed an executive order in September 2021 expanding US sanctions authorities in the conflict. Is the State Department reluctant to pull the trigger?

The State Department fought very hard to achieve the establishment of that executive order.

[…] Right now, with the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements, where the parties themselves have laid out a path with the support of Kenya and South Africa and the African Union to end the conflict, we would like to see that African leadership succeed. If it doesn’t succeed, we have that tool available to us.

You have played a personal role in Chad. Since your visit in March, President Déby has delayed new elections and more than 100 people were massacred on 20 October. Would you qualify US policy in Chad as a success?

First of all, I would not characterise the US as the predominant external actor in Chad. But we’re still the United States of America. And I view last week’s meetings as an opportunity to tell not only current president Déby, who had not had an opportunity to meet anyone in Washington before […]  an opportunity to discuss with them first of all our expectation that there be a credible, independent international investigation into the events that took place that resulted in the death of protesters […] And secondly, to express our concerns about the transition and our expectations about what would constitute a credible transition.

The process in Doha last summer, which brought together many of Chad’s opposition groups […] was a step forward. But extending the transition timeline by an additional two years, that will cause questions of credibility. And it’s really important that there be space given to the opposition.

While Zimbabwe was excluded from the first summit in 2014, President Biden extended an invitation to Foreign Minister Frederick Shava. But then just days before the summit, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions, notably on President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son. Were you able to make any progress with Shava?

I met with him. We do not accept the allegation that US sanctions against specific individuals and firms in Zimbabwe are the cause of Zimbabwe’s economic troubles. [These] are primarily a reflection of the leadership of the country.

We hear the concerns of the people of Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries about next year’s elections. The goal of the discussion was to encourage the government to create an opportunity where they can have free and fair, credible and peaceful elections. And so those were some of the messages passed.

In terms of the review of our sanctions policy […] there’s a real interest in making sure that our sanctions are targeted and appropriate to the situation. So we have updated the list of sanctions against Zimbabwe, we’ve removed individuals who are no longer relevant [and] added sanctions against individuals who are opposing democracy or whose conduct is of concern with regard to human rights. 

We are also trying to work with SADC (the Southern African Development Community) partners, because they will be the ones most directly affected if there’s a failure in the election and if there are refugee outflows from Zimbabwe. Again, in line with the broad theme, having direct conversation opens the door to opportunities for solutions and constructive engagement.

You mentioned that the summit was a chance for President Biden to hear first-hand from African leaders. AU Chairman Macky Sall used his turn in the spotlight to criticise both US sanctions on Zimbabwe and legislation that passed the House of Representatives that threatens to punish countries that don’t abide by sanctions on Russia.

It wasn’t clear to me that President Sall was fully updated on the new US policy towards sanctions, where we have revised the sanctions list specifically for Zimbabwe, in part to meet concerns expressed. 

With regard to the [Russia] legislation, I don’t have any anticipation that that legislation is going to move forward. Of course, it’s up to President Sall to speak on behalf of Senegal and the AU. And we welcome candid conversations. So that means we are ready to listen when Africans have concerns about US policy.

One final question, about special envoys. The Biden administration has not named new envoys for the Sahel or the Great Lakes. Do you have concerns about having too many cooks in the kitchen? Or can we expect to see some announcements in 2023?

No, there’s not at all an institutional disinclination if you will, or resistance. I’m in constant conversation with the leadership of the State Department about how best to mobilise our diplomacy to support these challenges. 

[…] We’re always willing to look and see where we might be able to surge resources. I think it was suggested at some point that I in particular, opposed [special envoys], and I don’t at all. It’s just finding the right match and seeing what’s the best way to meet our diplomatic obligations.

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