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 Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, who joins us from Washington, D.C.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Phee, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have 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 Assistant Secretary Phee for her opening remarks.
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thank you very much, Marissa. Good afternoon. Thank you for joining me today. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to speak directly to you.
Today is day 8 in Putin’s full-scale war against Ukraine. Here is why I wanted to talk to you, to African journalists. The United States believes strongly that African voices matter in the international community, that your voices matter in the global conversation. We believe that it is critical at this moment in time that the entire international community demonstrates unity and speaks with one voice against this aggression and in support of principles, timeless principles. These include sovereignty, territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes, protection of civilians.
Yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted for a resolution that condemned this aggression, and that vote was higher than almost any vote count we have seen in response to international events, and African votes were very important in that – in that discussion and in that vote. Why were they important? They were important to send a message that this aggression is unacceptable in Ukraine and anywhere elsewhere in the world.
I want you to know that we in the United States are sensitive to the legacy of the Cold War, particularly in Africa. The position and policy of the Biden administration has been to encourage more, not fewer, choices for Africans. But Putin’s unprovoked aggression is an assault on world order. We are not asking you to choose sides. We are asking Africans to join us in choosing the principles I’ve discussed, in choosing people who are now suffering from this assault.
We recognize that this early conflict, these early days of this conflict are already having an impact on African economies, as they are in the United States and elsewhere in the world. We see the rise of fuel prices, commodity prices, and we know that this disruption is doubly hard given the earlier impact of the COVID pandemic. But we are already engaged in efforts to promote stable energy and commodity prices, working on supply chains, and you saw this week that President Biden joined other international leaders in releasing strategic oil reserves in an effort to manage fuel prices.
I also know that there has been genuine concern and alarm about the treatment of Africans who had been studying in Ukraine, and I want you to know that we’re proud of Ukraine. The foreign minister has made clear that all individuals caught up in the chaos of this war must receive equal treatment. The Government of Ukraine has established an emergency hotline for African students. We’ve also talked to neighboring countries about the need for visa-free entry to help people caught up in this war. And we’re also working with our partners in the UN who are providing assistance to underscore the need that every individual deserves assistance and should receive assistance without regard to race, religion, or nationality.
So this is a difficult time for the international community, but we’re proud of the – of the global response, the global rejection of this aggression, and we’re grateful to Africans for being partners with us and other members of the international community in dealing with this unprecedented action.
So those are a few of my opening remarks. Let me hand it back to you, Marissa.
Moderator: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Phee. 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: the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine in the context of its impact on the nations of the African continent. Please do your best to go directly to your question. We don’t have time for long commentaries prior to your actual question.
Our first question will be one that was sent in to us from L’Express from Madagascar, by Mr. Garry Ranaivoson. The question is: “Why require African states, including Madagascar, to condemn Russian actions? Isn’t this going against a state’s sovereign right and self-determination? This is not our war.”
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thank you very much, Marissa. First of all, we are not requiring anyone to do anything, but we believe it is in the interests of all states to join the entire international community in rejecting this aggression.
I discussed principles that are enshrined in the UN Charter. And you might ask, why do those matter to me, an African? I’d like to start by quoting Ambassador Kimani, the Kenyan representative to the UN Security Council, who said last week, “We rejected” – that is, we, African states coming out of a colonial period – “We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural factors. We reject it again today.”
It is important that we all stand fast to say that it is unacceptable to use military force to resolve problems. We are very concerned about the civilians in the Ukraine, but we are also concerned about the principle that any government, any powerful government can invade another country without cause, without provocation. So those are the principles that are at stake, so they’re not only relevant in Europe but they’re relevant in Africa. And I think that in the United States, like Africa, I have seen a lot of discussion about why should we care about Ukraine. People in the United States are like people in Africa where we have been protected by our oceans, and we sometimes have the luxury of thinking that we don’t have to care about what happens thousands of miles away from us.
But we don’t believe that is true anymore in our world. Let’s take one example. We are all now dealing with the COVID pandemic. The COVID pandemic doesn’t recognize borders, and what happens in one part of the world affects another part of the world. We see that in trade. And so we also see it in the matters of peace and security. As we in the West care about peace and security in Africa, Africans, as important, significant members of the global community, also need to care about peace and security in other parts of the globe.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go live to Catherine Byaruhanga of BBC Kenya. Catherine, you may pose your question.
Question: Wonderful. I don’t know – I hope you can hear me okay.
Moderator: Yes, we can.
Question: My question is about possible consequences for African countries that maintain close military and economic ties to Russia following the invasion. I’m thinking particularly of Mali and the CAR, where Russian mercenaries are deployed and their weapons as well. Are there consequences for countries that maintain such relationships with Russia?
Assistant Secretary Phee: Catherine, prior to this war that Putin launched, the United States and many African countries have been concerned about the presence of the Wagner Group in Mali and in the CAR. I think we share the concerns of the populations of those countries as well as many other Africans about the conduct of those mercenary forces. What we have seen is a reckless disregard for civilians. We have seen the abuse of force to achieve political objectives. And those are the types of behaviors we’re now seeing in Ukraine.
A third element in Africa is we’ve seen these foreign mercenaries exploit the natural resources of African states for their own ends, not for the development of African economies and countries. So regardless of what happened in Ukraine, we believe that the presence of such mercenaries on the continent is not good for those countries and is not good for Africans, and we support particularly the voice of ECOWAS in rejecting and calling for an end to the presence of such groups which are so disruptive to the lives of Africans where they are present.
Moderator: Thank you. Next question goes to Egide Harerimana of the IWACU Press Group out of Burundi. This question was sent in our Q&A. “Is the U.S. ready to send troops in Ukraine in case Russia keeps killing civilians across Ukraine? If no, to what extent do you think Putin can be affected by economic sanctions?”
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thank you for that question. President Biden has made quite clear that he has no intention of sending U.S. troops to this conflict. We believe that that is another reason why it’s important for Africans to join us in making resolutely clear to Putin that this type of action is unacceptable to the entire international community. We believe this unity, this overwhelming consensus of objection to this kind of conduct is the best way to prevent the expansion of the war.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to Eric Naki out of South Africa, participating in a listening party. You may ask your question.
I’m sorry, Eric’s question is in our Q&A. Eric writes – he’s from The Citizen in Johannesburg – “What is your view regarding South Africa’s abstention at the United Nations General Assembly regarding the Russian vote?”
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thanks very much, Marissa. Sorry, I had a problem with my buttons here. I’m going to quote Secretary Blinken, who said yesterday that we are “not going to parse the individual votes.” He noted that in some cases, an abstention actually speaks loudly itself as opposed to a no vote, and he suggested that in these instances we need to look at the individual countries, assess the relationship with Russia, and vote – and look at how they voted in that context.
So I think the bigger story is that we again had what is pretty much a historic vote count: 141 votes for the resolution. And I’m sure that Russia will hear the abstention. They understand that does not mean support for their actions. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to Ephraim Keoreng who is participating in a listening party in Botswana. Ephraim, please state your name and your affiliation. You may ask your question.
Question: Good afternoon. My name is Swift from Gabz FM in Botswana. I wanted to ask, what is the position of the U.S. on censoring of social media and the complete wipeout of the other party, in this case obviously Russia, since free speech and free press is the cornerstone not only of democracy but a tool that can create a counterculture or counternarrative?
Assistant Secretary Phee: Swift, thanks for raising that question. That is a tension that we are all grappling with, but I believe it’s very clear to African audiences as it is to us here in the United States that Russian conduct in the social media space is not free and fair. In fact, they right now are shutting down their own media outlets for their own citizens. We’ve also seen an abuse of social media with bots to distort dialogue and conversation. We saw that in our 2016 elections here in the United States. So I think it’s very clear that Russian behaviors in this space do not promote freedom of speech, and so it’s appropriate for us to respond.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to – live to Simon Ateba of Today News Africa. Mr. Ateba, you may ask your question.
Question: Thank you, Ambassador, for taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C. You just mentioned reporting about Africans facing racism in Ukraine and Poland, being denied entry into trains in Kyiv, and being turned back at the border with Poland. Is there any reason why the State Department has not publicly condemned racism against Africans in Ukraine and Poland? And how do you counter the argument that it’s not in the interests of Ukraine to be part of NATO just like it’s not in the interest of the U.S. to allow North Korea or Iran to have nuclear bombs? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thank you very much for your question, and it’s nice to hear your voice. I hope you follow my Twitter account because you will have seen statements by me also reflecting statements by the Ukrainian foreign minister rejecting racism in the treatment of African students in Ukraine. So absolutely we have – that’s very clear, I think, to you if you live in Washington that the Biden administration, Secretary Blinken, me personally, none of us support racism, and we call it out wherever we see it.
On the issue of NATO, the issue is simple. It should be the choice of a sovereign country to choose which alliances they wish to participate in. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to a question sent in to us from Mr. Mallik Sullemana of the Ghanian Times in Ghana. His question is: “Do you think the war between Ukraine and Russia has long-term impact on Ghana’s economy?” So we can expand this to several economies on the African continent.
Assistant Secretary Phee: I think it’s hard to say today what the long-term impacts will be. We can speculate together. We have not given up on the diplomatic path. We would prefer – it has always been our preference that there would be a diplomatic solution to this conflict. That is why we so strongly oppose the use of unprovoked violence against the Ukrainians.
There is a lot of discussion about how this action is affecting political alliances, it is affecting sort of the relationships between the great powers. There is acknowledgement that there are immediate impacts, as we’ve discussed, on the fuel and commodity sectors, but there are also ongoing efforts by the United States and other international partners to take steps to stabilize energy prices, to improve supply chains, to maybe develop new African supply chains to Europe – new relationships.
So I think it’s fair to say there might be a reordering of economic engagement, but it’s hard today to know conclusively how that will play out.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll stay in Ghana and go to Diana Ngon of CitiFm/TV. The question is: “How is this going to impact economic development on the continent?” So you’ve already answered that a bit. And the – “Is the world ready to deal with this, especially considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?”
So if I can expand on this a bit, essentially sort of all these things that are part of the Biden administration’s Africa strategy – COVID, trade – combatting COVID, trade and investment, peace and security, democracy – how is the U.S. Government going to be able to do all of this now with this war on top of all of those goals?
Assistant Secretary Phee: It’s natural for all of us to be concerned about how this aggression by Putin is going to affect not only the – our friends in Europe but all of us because of the interconnectedness of the international community. I want to confirm and reassure you that the United States remains deeply committed to continuing to help Africans cope with the COVID pandemic, both in the medical space, making sure that you have vaccines. We have doubled our efforts to get vaccines out to you so that everyone can be vaccinated so if there is another variant of COVID, we’re all better protected. We’re working to help Africans, including in Ghana, develop production facilities for vaccines.
We remain committed to our work to promote trade and investment in Africa from the United States and African trade with Americans to help develop your economies and create jobs. We also remain committed to doing what we can to promote an end to conflict on your continent, and we remain supportive in the humanitarian space addressing Africans who are suffering from conflict in the continent. We remain interested in helping you deal with the impact of climate change and supporting protection of your natural resources so that they can be used by you and can contribute to a better environment for the entire community.
So we are not going to change our policy. We remain interested in continuing to elevate and deepen our partnership. So you should be reassured that the crisis in Europe will not affect our goals and our engagement.
Moderator: All right. We’re going to go back to the listening party that’s being hosted at the U.S. Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana for their question. Botswana, please ask your question.
Question: Hello. Yes, this is Katlego Isaacs from Mmegi News. I wanted to ask, why should African countries support the position of the U.S. to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when the U.S. supports the aggression in Israel against Palestinians?
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thanks for that question. I would say you’re not supporting the position of the U.S. That is our position, but it is the position of the majority of the international community. There’s near universal support in Europe, and there’s also near universal support in Latin America and in East Asia and in Central Asia and the Middle East. You’ve seen most of the world come together because they recognize that this kind of naked aggression, unprovoked, brutal assault on the civilians of Ukraine is not acceptable anywhere in the world.
So we believe it’s appropriate for African governments and countries to choose to support the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty and protection of civilians, and we hope you will join the rest of the international community because that is the best way to put pressure on Putin to end this senseless and tragic war.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’re going to go to Togo. This question is from Joel Dadzie from the Quotidien Liberte out of Togo. The question is: “Is it true that there is an agreement between Russia and the United States that the United States does not want to respect? And what exactly are you asking of African countries?”
Assistant Secretary Phee: I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but there is no secret agreement between the United States and Russia. What we are saying – and again, this is our position, but we believe it should be the position of all free nations in the world – that it is critical that we stand together right now and speak with one voice to reject this type of aggression. I think you are all journalists. You can watch on TV, online, on the radio. You can hear the voices of the Ukrainian people. You can see what’s happening. You would not want that to happen in your country. That’s the principle at stake. Nobody wants that to happen to their home and community, and we should stand up against it wherever we see it. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question is – came to us from the Q&A from Peter Fabricius of the Daily Maverick in South Africa. “What else should African countries do to express their disapproval of the invasion of Ukraine? Should they boycott the Russia–Africa Summit in St. Petersburg? And do you see Ukraine ever regaining its independence? And if so, when?”
Assistant Secretary Phee: Marissa, I think it’s important for all of us to look for ways to show our support for the Ukrainian people, whether that is a vote in the United Nations, whether that is a decision to decline to engage with the – with Russia until Putin changes his country’s behavior. Everyone should be exploring what is possible.
If you look at what the international community is doing, you’ve seen unprecedented reaction; for example, major oil companies decline to engage with Moscow. You’ve seen major airlines refuse to allow Russian airplanes to fly to their countries. You’ve seen orchestras or other cultural groups refuse to engage with Russians until this aggression ends. So I think there is no one way to stand up for the Ukrainian people. There are many ways, and it’s up to each country to decide how to move forward.
Moderator: Okay. I believe we have one more, possibly two. We’ll see. The next question comes from Vidya Gappy from the Seychelles. Question is: “A concern for small island states: Our government is regularly updating us on the economic impact as we are heavily dependent on tourism coming from both Russia and Ukraine. At this moment, we do not need to take sides, but we do need to see how small island states and small countries will suffer from this war. Will the U.S. be looking into that like the World Bank and other institutions are doing?”
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thank you for the question and also thank you for the decision of the Seychelles to vote for the General Assembly resolution to stand with a majority of the international community in rejecting this aggression. I expect – we just talked about decisions, individuals, and countries are taking to protest Russian action. I expect positive decisions. So for example, decisions by tourists to choose the Seychelles to demonstrate solidarity.
In terms of actions we can take to support small economies, you saw during the COVID pandemic we worked with the World Bank and the IMF to provide special resources to countries in Africa that were suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic. There is now a discussion underway on how to continue to help countries that will be suffering from the economic dislocations of this conflict. Again, it’s early in the conflict. We would prefer if we all stand firmly and try and deter an expansion of the conflict. We might be able to recover sooner. But those are activities and assistance that we can explore developing and assisting those who stood up for principles and for the people.
Moderator: Thank you. Unfortunately, that’s all the time that we have for today. Assistant Secretary Phee, do you have any final remarks?
Assistant Secretary Phee: Thank you very much, Marissa, and thank you to everyone who joined this call and who asked such thoughtful and constructive questions. I just want to emphasize what I said at the start: you matter. Africa matters. And we want you to join the rest of the international community because unity at this moment in time is the most effective way we can return to peace and stability. So thank you very much for listening to me, and I look forward to engaging with you in the future.
Moderator: That is all the time we have for today. That concludes today’s briefing. I would like to thank Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee for speaking with us today, and thank all of our 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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