AMBASSADOR LEONARD: Thanks so much, everybody, for that warm welcome. I just wanted to tell the Secretary that, actually, although yesterday was local staff appreciation day, we saved it for today because we wanted him to be here to celebrate, as well. But you have before you, Mr. Secretary, our U.S. employees, our local employees, our family members, and they’re all dying to hear from you and not from me. So, please, welcome the 71st U.S. Secretary of State – (applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning. Good morning, Mission Nigeria. It is great, great, great to see all of you. This is quite a crowd. I especially want the Marines – we see you. (Applause.)
Can I just say at the start, we have a special bond with the Marine Corps in the State Department. Every single embassy that you go to around the world, if you’re an American citizen walking into that embassy, the first person you’re likely to see is a United States Marine. We could not do what we do without you, and we’re so grateful to you every single day. Thank you. (Applause.)
So I’m especially pleased to be here in person. We did a virtual visit, as some of you know, earlier in the year, but there is nothing like being here on the ground, in person, being with you all – being with all of our colleagues and partners here in Nigeria.
I just came from ECOWAS and spoke a little bit about the relationship between the United States and Africa, the relationship that all of you are working to build every single day. And in a nutshell, what I wanted to share with our friends and partners here and around the world is this very simple proposition that you’re making real every single day. We know that – and you know that – when it comes to the urgent challenges that we’re facing around the world, and the opportunities too, Africa will make a difference, maybe even make the difference.
We simply can’t achieve the goals that we’ve set for ourselves around the world, whether it’s dealing effectively with COVID-19 and building a better global health security system, tackling the challenge of climate change, building an inclusive global economy, revitalizing democracy and defending human rights, without the leadership of African governments, African institutions, African citizens. And that’s what we’re working to build. And I want to thank all of you, because you’re the ones who are doing that building every single day.
And you’re doing it with some pretty extraordinary leadership here in Nigeria.
Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard, an extraordinary leader. (Applause.)
DCM Kathleen FitzGibbon. (Applause.) Now, Kathleen was named as one of our 2021 Heroes of U.S. Diplomacy and our 2020 DCM of the Year. (Applause.) Thank you.
And our CG in Lagos, Claire Pierangelo, who is I think on the screen. Great to see you too. (Applause.)
But to everyone here at Mission Nigeria, as someone who was on the staff side of things for a while, I know what goes into these visits. In fact, when I first started working for now-President Biden – this was 20-some-odd years ago – I was his staff director on the Foreign Relations Committee in the United States Senate. And when I took the job, someone said, “You know, there are two words in your title as staff director; only one of them counts, and it’s not ‘director.’” (Laughter.) So I appreciate – very much appreciate all of the incredibly hard work that goes into one of these visits. We’re just here for a short period of time, but there is a long lead-up to the trip, there is a lot of work that goes on during it, and the good news is there’s usually a wheels-up party that follows. (Laughter.) So, I wish I could stay with you for that, but have a great wheels-up party. (Applause.)
In a very short period of time we’ve had already a great visit here. We spent time with President Buhari yesterday, with the vice president, with my friend the foreign minister. We’ve been colleagues for a long time. We celebrated a $2.1 billion development assistance agreement with USAID, and we will – (applause) – and can I say to our partners and colleagues from USAID how much I appreciate, we appreciate the work that you are doing every single day. Where the rubber really meets the road in virtually every place around the world where we’re operating, it’s USAID that’s doing that work, and we’re grateful for that. (Applause.)
As I mentioned, we talked about the relationship, the partnership that we want to build with Africa just a short while ago. We’ll be meeting with civil society and religious leaders, visiting a tech innovation showcase here.
So in all of this work, you are all at the heart of it. And I know that this has been a particularly challenging time in this mission and for missions around the world, especially because of COVID-19. I know we’ve lost colleagues and friends, including a few of our locally employed staff. I know that some of you have experienced the loss of family members and friends, who have gotten sick, and they’ve even passed, and that puts a special, special burden on the community. But as in our missions in so many places, you have – you stood up. You’ve come together. You’ve worked with remarkable resilience to carry on the work that we need to do.
And this mission in particular has been working to stop, to deal with, to meet the challenge of not one but three public health crises.
First, COVID, where you provided essential assistance to the Nigerian Government, to the Nigerian people, helping in setting up the testing network, offering technical expertise, supporting the donation thus far of 7.6 million vaccines with more on the way.
Second, HIV/AIDS. The mission has reached an amazing, amazing milestone this year: helping to provide 350,000 Nigerians with access to HIV treatment. The first AIDS-free generation is now within sight, and that’s because of the work that you’re doing.
And third, of course – thank you – (applause.)
And third, of course, wild polio, which you have all been a part of helping to eradicate.
In each of these areas, you are literally, literally saving lives. And we get to do a lot of things in these jobs, but when it comes to something as fundamental and basic as that, literally saving lives, it doesn’t get much better than that. And I hope you take pride and at least 30 seconds to say to yourselves that you’ve done a remarkable thing. Thank you. (Applause.)
I also want to underscore the work that you’re doing on education. This mission makes it possible for over 14,000 Nigerians to study in the United States. That’s more than any other African country. Now, obviously the last year and change has been very, very challenging on that front. But you found very creative ways to do more with less. I heard about how the embassy rallied together to host student visa days and process almost 13,000 applications. And I know we’re going to see the impact of that work for decades and even generations to come, because nothing connects our countries more than these exchanges, especially when it comes to education.
Let me say, too, that I really appreciate the culture that this mission has exhibited and worked on. You’ve taken on hard topics. You’ve taken them on together. Diversity and inclusion councils hosted, what I understand, were very candid but also productive conversations.
You were there for others, with USAID, the EFMs and the LES. Our Marines donated over three metric tons of food and 12 metric tons of water to internally displaced persons in Abuja. And I understand that you have in Lagos some special mascots – Claire’s chickens. (Laughter.) I’m told they’re called “the Hop-along Gang.” (Laughter.) And on my next trip, Claire, we hope to actually get a chance to meet them.
I also want to recognize a particularly special group of colleagues: our locally employed staff. Simply put, we cannot do what we do without you. You are, here and in our missions around the world, the lifeblood of our work. You’re our public emissaries for incredibly important issues. Through the LE staff council, many of you represent our local staff community worldwide. And I’m glad that the celebration, the appreciation day, was – is today. I don’t want to spend too much more time here getting between you and that actual celebration, but I did want to say thank you, thank you, thank you for everything you do. (Applause.)
Now, one last thing I wanted to mention. Last month, I spoke about the modernization of American diplomacy that we’re launching at the State Department. And I know that over the years, secretaries have come and gone, and launched different efforts at reform and modernization. But my hope, my belief, my expectation, is that the work that we are now undertaking, based on looking at – intensely at a lot of the very, very good studies that have been done in recent years, but especially talking to and listening to all of our teams, both back at Main State and around the world – I think the work that we’re going to do is actually going to make a difference in the mission of the department and, critically, I hope, in your own lives and experiences as members of our team.
We’ve got five pillars that we’re working on:
Building our capacity and expertise in new areas because we know that so many of the challenges that we have to deal with demand new kinds of expertise, new kinds of experiences, whether it’s climate, whether it’s public health, whether it’s economics, whether it’s new technology. So we’re going to be building that out and building that up.
Elevating new voices within our community to encourage innovation, and I’ll have more to say about that.
Building but also retaining a diverse workforce. And we know we have a lot of work to do there as well.
Modernizing our own technology, our communications, our analytical capabilities.
And reinvigorating, especially as we get through COVID-19, in-person diplomacy and public engagement. And of course you are a critical part of that work.
One thing I want to emphasize: We launched a new policy ideas channel, and that’s an opportunity and a vehicle for anyone and everyone who has a good idea to try to put it forward and to make sure that those of us on Mahogany Row up, on the seventh floor, actually get to see it, get to hear it, get to consider it.
So it’s a lot of work to be done to making that real, but it’s a feal focus on what we’re doing back home and I think it’s s going to have positive impacts here and around the world.
So, finally, this: Whether you are locally employed staff, whether you’re part of the Foreign or Civil Service, whether you’re a family member, whether you’re a contractor, whether you’re a representative of one of the dozen or more agencies that are here in Mission Nigeria, I just wanted to come by and say, simply, thank you. Thank you for the work you’re doing every single day. (Inaudible.) (Applause.)
Thank you especially for the work you’re doing every single day for our fellow Americans back home. It’s challenging because it’s hard for a lot of our fellow citizens to – obviously to see the work you’re doing, to know the impact you’re having. But small steps and big steps, they are making a difference in the lives of our own people, making them just a little bit safer, a little bit healthier, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more full of opportunity. And that’s because of you. My thanks to you. I am honored to be working with each and every one of you. Thank you. (Applause.)