MODERATOR: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today, we are very pleased to be joined by General Michael Langley of U.S. Africa Command and Command Senior Enlisted Leader Sergeant Major Michael P. Woods. General Langley and Sergeant Major Woods will provide an overview of the AFRICOM annual Senior Enlisted Leader Conference taking place September 10th through 13th, and discuss progress accomplished through mutual dialogue. The speakers join us from Zambia, where the conference is being held.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from General Michael Langley and Sergeant Major Michael P. Woods, and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the briefing.
So as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to General Michael Langley and Sergeant Major Michael P. Woods.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Thanks, Johann, and good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for taking time to join us here today.
It is an honor to be here in the Republic of Zambia for the fifth AFRICOM Senior Enlisted Leader Conference, and the first one held on the continent of Africa. Now, in many ways, this conference mirrors the annual AFRICOM Chiefs of Defense Conference, where we listen to each other, we share best practices, and we continue to strengthen our relationships and mutual understanding.
This conference here is designed to allow meaningful and practical discussions on how to better address our mutual challenges but, moreover, our opportunities. That includes everything from crisis response, rule of law, protecting natural resources, and ways to mitigate the many factors that cause instability.
A strong, professional non-commissioned officer corps is the true backbone of any military.
Throughout my career I have relied on the candid feedback from senior enlisted leaders; that continues today. There is a reason that Sergeant Major Woods is always by my side. I value his perspective, and his efforts to make AFRICOM a better and more responsive partner.
This week, Sergeant Major Woods is continuing AFRICOM’s mission, working with senior non-commissioned officers from African militaries. Now, professional and empowered enlisted leaders strengthen our partner-led, U.S.-supported operations. Now, this conference is another example of our efforts to coordinate and cooperate with our African partners.
In the U.S., we have a whole-of-government approach that defense is in support of diplomacy and development. And we – the military – remain committed to face our shared challenges together.
With that, I’ll pass it on to Sergeant Major Woods to say a few opening remarks before I take your questions.
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: Thank you very much, sir. And on behalf of the over 125 participants from 27 African nations attending this year’s Senior Enlisted Conference, we appreciate you attending and speaking at the ceremony. Your presence spoke volumes. Sir, we heard you loud and clear. Can’t thank you enough. And of course we’re all proud to say that this is our first Senior Enlisted Conference in Africa.
So far, we’ve had a very productive conference and look forward to continuing the discussions. This year’s theme is “Empower, Delegate, Trust,” which is woven throughout all of our discussions. Some of the focused discussions include ethical standards and support to the rule of law, leading by example, building empowered teams, and the importance of mentoring. These are common challenges that everyone in the military faces despite nationality or branch of service. We all agree it’s the senior enlisted leader’s objective to ensure all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are highly trained, disciplined, and fit for duty. We do this by recruiting the best individuals and then training and developing them to share the future force.
During this conference we’ve had the opportunity to hear the concerns and use our collective experience to share ideas and create a plan that offers multiple courses of action to enhance skill sets while tailoring to the exact need of that particular country and branch of service. The bottom line is we are stronger together, and I’m very proud of the work that we’re doing here. Thank you for that, sir.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you, General Langley and Sergeant Major Woods. So we will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. Once again, if you wish to ask a question live, please clearly identify yourself and your media outlet. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing, which is the 2023 Africa Senior Enlisted Conference.
So for our first question, I’d like to go to Mr. Onishias Maamba of Zambia News and Information Services in Zambia. So Mr. Maamba asks, “Following the opening of an AFRICOM office at the U.S. embassy in Lusaka, are there any plans to establish a base in Zambia in the near future?”
GENERAL LANGLEY: Well, the short answer to that is no, but let me elaborate what the Office of Security Cooperation is. This is just an office with a desk with a very capable officer manning that desk. His mission is to keep deepening our relationship, long-term bilateral security relationship between the United States and Zambia. For example, he or she that mans that billet has a responsibility that will include help assistance to other government organizations or the civilian population, because we work through a 3D approach – diplomacy, development, and also defense. So that’s just one example.
So the answer to the question is no, there are no plans to establish a U.S. base in Zambia.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you for that. And then also on the subject of Zambia – so with regard to the conference itself, Mr. Maamba asks, “What does the forthcoming conference seek to achieve and what influenced the selection of Zambia as the host for the conference?”
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: Thank you for that question. First and foremost, one of the main reasons we are in Zambia is because the Zambian Defense Force invited us to be here for the 2023 Africa Senior Enlisted Leader Conference. Even before I arrived at USAFRICOM, the command was planning to have the conference somewhere in Africa. But Zambia’s willingness to host this multinational conference, along with our shared values and commitment to developing a professionalized non-commissioned officer corps, made it the obvious choice for our first Senior Enlisted Leader Conference held on the continent of Africa.
We’ve had large group discussions and have also done more focused breakout sessions where smaller groups can have in-depth discussions about what works, what doesn’t work, and how we can better support each other to train the next generation of competent and committed enlisted leaders.
While professional military education is a worthy goal on its own, it’s also critical for supporting our national security interest. Each nation faces many of the same security challenges – for example, countering violent extremist organizations, transnational crime, responding to a natural disaster, or any other type of crisis response. These military missions are more complex than ever, and having a professional, empowered enlisted corps makes our militaries more effective. The collaboration across multiple nations helps increase our ability to work together and address our shared security concerns.
I hope that answers your question, sir.
MODERATOR: All right, yeah, very good. Thank you very much, Sergeant Major.
So moving on, we had a few questions about some of the geopolitical situations on the continent. And so there was one from Ms. Lucia Blanco of EFE, Spain’s international news agency, based in Kenya. And that question was, “After shifting the American forces based in Niger, what is the future of those troops? Will they leave the country? With the last developments in Gabon, a return of Ali Bongo to power seems less and less likely. What is the U.S. take on the transition process?”
GENERAL LANGLEY: Okay, Johann, I would just – let me address Gabon first. Now, Gabon is in a transition, if you will, but the State Department is monitoring that closely. They have not reached out to DOD for any assistance – the country team. Things are calm there. So we’re letting that diplomatic process work out, so not just the U.S. but globally.
So – but switching over to Niger, yes, we still have troops in Niger. We plan on – as the diplomatic processes work within Niger, we are continuing to base troops there. We’re moving around out of abundance of caution, per se, but for the most part, it’s still focused on our national security interests, and one of them is countering terrorism, to enable our freedom of action to continue that fight, which is good for the stability of West Africa writ large and across the Sahel.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much.
Moving back to the conference, the ongoing conference, so Ms. Pearl Matibe of defenceWeb in South Africa has a question for both General Langley and for Sergeant Major Woods: “I’ve been monitoring your enlisted conferences since you first launched in 2017 with 37 percent participation of African countries, followed by growth and engagement and even at times the plan agenda based on specific requests by African countries. So what is different this year? And could you provide some data which supports both growth in engagement and participation, in particular engagement by General Langley?”
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: So, sir, I can speak to that regarding the enlisted development side. While I don’t have past statistics, I’ll tell you that this year 27 African partners participated in the conference, which is 50 percent of the 53 countries in our area of operations. We continue to build on our best practices of including our State Partnership teammates, which is an amazing program, and, of course, all of our operations activities and investments as it pertains to enlisted leader development via our service components.
As you mentioned, we build our agenda based on feedback and the request of our partner countries. And we aim to be responsive partners, especially focused on course development for the new sergeant major academies and non-commissioned officer professional military development institutions and programs.
As far as General Langley’s participation goes, from my perspective – from our perspective in this conference – we have his full support. He allowed us to plan, execute these conferences, and of course, equally important, engage in our enlisted development strategy across Africa. And his presence here in Zambia, as I said before, speaks volumes. We hear, our partners hear him loud and clear. Bottom line is enlisted leadership is a game changer, and when General Langley says it, people hear him.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Thanks, Sergeant Major, and I’ll just add to that and sum it up with the three words which just happen to be the theme of your conference. When I look at the staff NCO or the NCO corps being the backbone of our service militaries, it’s about leaders, officer leadership empowering staff NCOs, delegating tasks to staff NCOs and expectations, and extending trust. So that sums everything up, so you guys picked the right theme this year to share our ideas and best practices with our African partners.
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: Thank you, sir.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much for those answers.
So I have a request from a journalist in Malawi, John-Paul Kayuni, to ask a question live, so let’s see if we can get John-Paul’s microphone open.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for recognizing me. I hope you can hear me.
MODERATOR: We hear you.
QUESTION: Yes. I’m interested – thank you once again for allowing me to join this conference. I’m just interested to know how – what is it in this for Malawi? How will Malawi benefit from the conference this year?
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: So as it pertains to the conference, sir, in November and December of 2022, U.S. and Malawi army instructors met in Malawi to discuss courses to be offered at the Malawi Armed Forces College to provide foundational training for non-commissioned officers in your army. Additionally, we’re proud of the progress Malawi has made in their sergeant major academy. In their most recent course, they graduated 41 NCOs, 12 NCOs from eight different countries across Africa. And they’ve also graduated their first female sergeant major, who is currently attending the U.S. Army Sergeant Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas. They are a shining light, and frankly, everybody has seen them during this conference as being an example about how you can do this at a higher level, at the sergeant-major level, sir. I hope that answers your question.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks very much for taking that question. So I do see that there’s a lively interest in asking questions, and I’m glad about that. We do have until the – until half past the hour to take questions. But just like to remind everybody to please identify yourself if you have an interest in asking a question. The more you can tell us about yourself and what you’d like to ask about, the more likely it is we’ll call on you, so please do keep that in mind.
So there was a question from Mr. Camille Tawil of Asharq Al-Awsat Newspaper in the UK. And he’s asking about Somalia. He says: “Do you share the government’s optimism that al-Shabab is going to be defeated soon?”
GENERAL LANGLEY: Johann, thanks for that question. I’ve made a few trips in – of late to Somalia. And I had the pleasure of meeting with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and he has a lot of optimism, and we collectively are cautiously optimistic, and here’s why. It’s not – just not just the operations against al-Shabab. It’s his whole of government operations of establishing his vision, reaching his vision.
So through his whole of government – we read about – in the papers – about his operations of clearing a building through the central region and going into the south, but he’s doing this not just by tactics. He’s doing this by engagements, continuous engagements. So what we don’t see a lot of times is him being able to continuously engage with the federal member states, and also engaging with al-Shabab. And some members have put down their arms, have come back into the whole of government fold, as he calls it, into reaching Somalia’s vision as a nation. So yes, I’m cautiously optimistic in their operations and his whole-of-government approach.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much for that answer. So Nick Turse from The Intercept has a question about showing leadership and leading by example. So Nick, your microphone is open.
QUESTION: Thanks very much. And thank you for making yourself available today, General. In my reporting on the continent, I’ve often run into a lack of transparency with the senior enlisted leaders. Unfortunately, it’s also been the case at AFRICOM. Over the last 15 years or so that I’ve covered your command, both public affairs and FOIA offices have consistently thwarted efforts to better inform the people of the United States and people of African nations about U.S. military operations. I’m glad to see you doing this today; I think it’s an example of leading by example. And I’d like to ask if you would publicly direct your FOIA and public affairs offices to embrace transparency and be more forthcoming with information. Would you do that here today, General, lead by example?
GENERAL LANGLEY: Nick, absolutely.
MODERATOR: All right. That’s an inspiring example of transparency right there. All right. Thanks very much for that Q&A.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Hey, yeah, I just wanted to give a follow-up, just back to Nick Turse.
MODERATOR: Of course.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Yeah. Yes. And I – he accepted my one-word answer, but yes, absolutely. And I need to be fully transparent. As my travels on the continent, I extend out to you, Mr. Turse, to meet us where we’re going, and I’ll – and we want to be transparent. We want to make the assessment of the same thing. Okay?
MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks very much. Thanks very much, General Langley.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Okay. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Okay, so let’s see, we’ve had very patient Michael Phillips from The Wall Street Journal in Nairobi. Michael, would you like to open your mike and ask your question? You did type your question in, so I could ask it, but if your mike is open, feel free to go ahead and speak your question.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: We got you.
QUESTION: Okay. General Langley, thanks for taking time to talk to us. To what extent do you think that Africa is again becoming absorbed by the military, economic, and political competition among the world’s great powers, which now include the U.S., Russia, and China?
GENERAL LANGLEY: If I’m understanding your question, so what degree does strategic competition play in the African countries being able to reach their goals of stability and security?
GENERAL LANGLEY: Yes, yes. And here’s my approach – and here’s, from what I’ve seen, the department’s approach. This is – as we try to establish security and stability across the many challenges they have, whether it be from climate change or whether it be from violent extremist organizations, collectively we try to bolster the African partners’ capability and capacity to address these challenges. We do not come to it from a position of hey, we should be the partner of choice exclusively. We don’t give them an ultimatum. We just give them a value proposition and they make their choices. But we want to have it African-led and also U.S.-enabled to achieve those – their established goals, which are in common values with the United States. Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, General, for that answer. So just in general, we did have a submitted question which I think goes to a lot of the interest on the part of the journalists that are here with us today. And just in general the question is: What activities is AFRICOM conducting on the continent and what benefits are accruing to both the U.S. and Africa because of these activities? So maybe we could just step back to a 10,000-foot view and see if you can give us some information about that.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Yeah, Johann. So yeah, at the 10,000-foot view, yes, there’s a number of activities that we do, but it’s along the theme as I stipulated. Our African partners, they have their prescribed national goals. There’s 53 countries with my AOR and all of them have different goals and sets, but those that we extend out to and work in partnership to address their challenges and also be able to leverage opportunities. There are a number of things that, that are in sync with our national security interests from the United States. So building strategic partnerships with our African partners is also at the forefront of our planning and working together and building partnership and capacity, and is institutionalized in their militaries, and then also in the realm of deterring threats.
So a number of opportunities that build capacity, whether it be through exercises, joint combined exchange trainings, or security force assistance, are a number of ways that we achieve these activities of working collectively together to reach our common goals based on our common values.
Sergeant Major, you have anything?
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: I could certainly talk to the conference, sir. During the Africa Senior Enlisted Leaders Conference, we’ve had really deep robust conversations, discussions about hard leadership choices and the importance of ethical leadership, mentoring and delegation strategies that make better military leaders. This is just one of the military conferences that focused on specific topics, like the maritime domain, land forces, air forces, and intelligence sharing. Each conference increases our mutual understanding and improves our relationships.
And speaking of long-lasting relationships, I want to highlight that we also have members from the U.S. State Partnership Program, who are paired with African nations that participated in this conference and often attend our other military conferences. These state partnerships in Africa are as old or older than USAFRICOM.
This means that the same people get to work together, year after year during training events and exercises and see each other at conferences. That long-term interaction is truly unique. People can build more personal relationships than what you can build during an annual exercise with rotational forces. Both types of training are valuable, and those friendships are very special, sir. And Malawi was also selected for the State Partnership Program.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for those answers. So we do have to be mindful of our speakers’ time today, as they do have a conference to get back to. However, I think we might have – since we’re moving pretty briskly here, we might have the chance for one more question. So I did see that Gerald Koinyeneh from FrontPage Africa Newspaper in Liberia had a question. Gerald, if you can unmute yourself and ask a question really quick.
MODERATOR: We hear you.
QUESTION: Yeah, my name – thank you. I was asking, Liberia’s army is developing; what has been some of the benefits from AFRICOM, and how will this upcoming conference benefit the Liberian army?
MODERATOR: Thank you for that.
GENERAL LANGLEY: You got it?
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: I got it. Well, a recent example, and this is specifically for Liberia – and I apologize – my last sentence about Malawi in the State Partnership Program – I didn’t realize that we had shifted back to Zambia, so I’ll make a correction on that.
But going back to Liberia, sir, a recent example of training with the Armed Forces of Liberia occurred from March to April earlier this year at the request of the Liberian army. The U.S. Security Assistance Training Management Organization conducted drill instructor training at Edward Binhai Kesley barracks in Liberia. Twenty-four soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia, from private to first sergeant, received training on instructional techniques, tactical combat, casualty care, land navigation, physical readiness, training and drill. They then built, prepared instructors, and briefed plans for the Liberian soldiers, and are using them as instructors at the Liberian basic leader course.
The Michigan State Partnership Program has partnered with the Liberian armed forces, and they’re also enhancing leader development and a number of military skills.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much for that answer, Sergeant Major Woods. So this has been a really lively and highly interesting conversation. I hope everybody’s gotten a lot out of it. We do have to let our speakers go back to their conference. However, I wanted to ask if General Langley or Sergeant Major Woods have any final words to share with us before they go.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Sergeant Major.
SERGEANT MAJOR WOODS: Thank you, sir. Thank you for this opportunity. I’m never going to not take the opportunity to talk about this year’s theme, which is: empower, delegate, and trust. I believe it is the ready, aim, fire of leadership, empowerment being the investment in the individual noncommissioned officer; setting conditions to learn, to be evaluated, even to fail, to be remediated, before you’ve got the experience and the knowledge to have responsibility delegated to you. And of course, the gold standard is trust. All of this is to develop trust, trust from the led in the noncommissioned officer and the officers in the commander in the noncommissioned officer.
So I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my perspective of enlisted leadership and this year’s theme and what we’re focused on here in Zambia, 2023, sir.
GENERAL LANGLEY: Johann, Sergeant Major said it all. If you look at officers that lead militaries, we use our right-hand advisors, that senior military, that senior enlisted. Empower, delegate, and trust is what we will continuously – these are the best practices that we extend to our staff noncommissioned officers. And I want to reiterate that strong empowered Noncommissioned Officer Corps is truly the backbone of any military. I learned this firsthand growing up, as my father proudly served as a senior enlisted leader in the United States Air Force. I learned from him and then learn from every noncommissioned officer that I work with.
I’m proud of the work being done here at this conference, and with the senior enlisted conference, the sharing of ideas is going to set the path forward across our African partners and their respective militaries. And I look forward to working with every one of these leaders in the future. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. Well, that definitely brings us to the end of our time. We’re a little bit over time. So thank you very much, General Michael Langley and Sergeant Major Michael P. Woods, for joining us. Thanks also to all the journalists for participating and for your lively participation and for your questions.
A recording and transcript of today’s briefing will be distributed to participants on this call as soon as we can get them out. If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. I would also like everyone to follow us on X at our handle @AfricaMediaHub and our hashtag, #AFHubPress. So thank you very much, and have a great day.
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