December 1, 2022

Victoria Nuland: U.S. engagement in Africa on security, terrorism, Wagner group and coups

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland delivers remarks to the press on Afghanistan in the Press Briefing Room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 1, 2021. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett/
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland delivers remarks to the press on Afghanistan in the Press Briefing Room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 1, 2021. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett/
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Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State, on Wednesday, provided a readout of her October 16-20 travel to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

She discussed the U.S. engagement in Africa on security, terrorism, Wagner group and coups.

Nuland led an interagency delegation to the four African nations last week that included Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander, AFRICOM Major General Kenneth Ekman, Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State Michael Heath and Gregory LoGerfo, and National Security Council Director Matthew Petit.

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 Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.  Under Secretary Nuland will discuss her October 16th-20th travel to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.  She joins us from Washington, D.C.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Under Secretary Nuland, 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. 

As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Under Secretary Nuland.

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  Unmute.  There we go.  Thank you, Tiffany.  Good morning, good afternoon, good evening to everyone joining us from Africa and around the world, and thanks for making good use of our spectacular Africa Media Hub.  As Tiffany said, I’ve just returned from my third visit to – multi-country visit to Africa in the 18 months that I’ve been in this job.  This was an interagency visit to key countries in the Sahel – as Tiffany said, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – in advance of President Biden’s African Leaders Summit, which is scheduled for the middle of December. 

I was lucky to be joined on this visit by Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander; AFRICOM Major General Kenneth Ekman, who is our strategist at AFRICOM; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mike Heath, who covers the Sahel region under Assistant Secretary Molly Phee here at State; and Greg LoGerfo, who is our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism; along with Matt Petit, the Sahel lead at the White House. 

So we went to the region in force.  We were looking in particular at how the U.S. strategy towards the Sahel is working.  This is a strategy that we put in place about a year ago to try to bring more coherence to our efforts to support increased security, strong governance, in those countries that have had coups return to democratic governance, development, good health, education in all of the countries of the region – of this difficult, difficult region where the people are increasingly being victimized by terror. 

So we want – it is a very important region with a vibrant civil society, and we wanted to ensure that we are doing all that we can to help the people of the Sahel and to strengthen their trust in their governments’ ability to meet the challenges that they face, whether it is on the security side, the food and development side, education, et cetera.

Why don’t I stop there, Tiffany, and we can go to questions that folks have.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Under Secretary Nuland.  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: Under Secretary Nuland’s recent travel to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Our first question will go to Moussa Sayon from Journal L’Independant in Mali, who asks:  “You have just completed your visit to Mali.  Have you seen signs in the direction of holding timely elections?  Isn’t there the risk of a new extension of the transition government?”

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  So thanks for that question.  We did meet with election officials in Mali.  We also met with civil society activists on this front, and we had very intense conversations with the prime minister and the government.  I will repeat what I said in Mali, which is that so far, from what we were able to ascertain, the Malian interim government is holding to its commitment to ensure that it will meet the agreed timeline of elections in 2024.  However, there are going to be a number of challenges, largely having to do with security across the country, and security is in fact becoming more difficult as Wagner forces and others take on a larger role in the country and squeeze out UN peacekeepers.  So – and as incidents of terror have risen some 30 percent in the last six months. 

We also have expressed concern about ensuring that elections are fully inclusive.  That’s also tied to security throughout the country but also to the fact that there are a lot of IDPs now.  They are going to need registering, et cetera.  So a lot of challenges, but at least the civilians responsible for the election appear to be keeping the preparations on track.

MODERATOR:  We will next go live to Julian Pecquet from the Africa Report.  Can you open the line, please, for Mr. Pecquet? 

QUESTION:  Hi there, can you hear me?

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  We can.

MODERATOR:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Oh, great.  Thank you so much for doing this.  I had a question about Mauritania.  Mali, Burkina, and Niger have all suffered coups or attempted coups in recent months.  Mauritania is a bit of an outlier here.  I was wondering if you could talk about your reasons for visiting that country in particular, and also the diplomatic role it plays in some of these – trying to get some of these countries back on track.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  Well, thanks, Julian.  We had a really good visit to Mauritania.  We provide significant security support there and humanitarian support, and among the reasons we wanted to go was to talk to President Ghazouani and the prime minister and defense officials about the success that they are having in working against terror, particularly on their border with Mali.  With our strong support, other international support, they have largely been able to manage their borders and terrorist issues.  As I said when I was there, they are a 10-year island of stability in a very, very rough neighborhood.  But they are obviously concerned about what’s going on in Mali and what’s going on in other parts the Sahel, and they were particularly concerned about the entry of Wagner forces in Mali and some of the border incidents that they’ve had, including impacting human rights, et cetera. 

So we talked about those issues, but we also talked about the opportunity in Mauritania.  As I said, we have a strong humanitarian program.  We are looking at whether we can do more together on the energy security side.  There is a new gas find, as you know, off the coast of Mauritania, a field that they share with Senegal.  We have an American company, part of the consortium, exploiting that.  We believe that there is huge opportunity for wind and solar in Mauritania.  And we also talked about the importance of attracting more investment and helping more on education and other development goals.

The U.S. currently supports school lunches for some 600,000 Mauritanians in key parts of the country outside of the capital, which helps to keep kids in school.  So we talked about that program and other things that we can do.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will go live to Nick Turse of The Intercept in the UK.  Could you please open the line? 

QUESTION:  Good morning, Ambassador Nuland.  Thanks for taking the time to talk today.  In the recent past, U.S.-trained officers have overthrown the countries you just visited seven times: Burkina Faso three times, Mali three times, Mauritania once.  Why do U.S.-trained officers keep overthrowing the countries that the U.S. is trying to prop up, and what is the U.S. doing to try and stop it?

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  Nick, that was a pretty loaded comment that you made.  Some folks involved in these coups have received some U.S. training, but far from all of them.  You need to talk to them about why they are overthrowing their governments.  Our message, in all cases, was that the citizens of these countries deserve to see democracy restored and that, particularly in Mali and in Burkina Faso, we expect both of these interim governments to meet their commitments to ensure elections with full participation by 2024, as they have committed to, and we’re providing strong support to that.

As you likely know, our ability to provide military equipment in particular is greatly constrained in countries that have had coups under U.S. law, and we were there to explain the restrictions that we have.  And unfortunately, in the case of Mali, it has resulted in that government, that interim government, making some very bad choices in inviting Wagner forces to be part of their security mix.  And we see the results, as I said earlier, with violence and terror going up and the UN forces being pushed out.

MODERATOR:  Our next – I will read a question submitted in advance, before we go back to live questions, from Georges Stanislas Ouapure Zeze from Le Tambourin newspaper in the Central African Republic, who asks, “What is – what was at stake during this visit?  These countries are going through moments of turbulence and conflict, by which I mean Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, which are in the grips of jihadist attacks.”

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  Well, I think you put it well yourself in terms of what’s at stake.  In all three countries, actually in all four countries, they are fighting growing terrorist violence, whether it is from al-Qaida or ISIS affiliates.  And they have – in Burkina, in Niger, and in Mauritania, we are working very closely with those militaries, with their gendarmerie, with their counterterrorist forces, to support them in their effort to push back and protect their populations from this poison in Mali.

As I said, they have made their own choices, which we have serious concerns about, to invite Wagner forces in.  So what we wanted to do in the countries that we’re working well with is talk about how we strengthen our support, what they need, how things are going.  We were also talking about how we strengthen cooperation across the region because, as you know, terrorists know no borders, so they are running back and forth across and there are significant border security concerns across the region.

And in Mali, we were there to express our concern both about the shrinking space for MINUSMA and the constraints that both the government and Wagner forces have put on their ability to operate and fulfill their mandate, but also to raise concerns about the fact that terrorism is going up, not down, and that we are firmly of the view that Wagner works for itself, not for the people of the country that it comes to.  So that was the nature of the conversation there.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question goes to Geoffrey York of The Globe and Mail in Canada.  He is based in Johannesburg.  Please open the line.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I typed in my question.  But basically, I’m asking what is your assessment of the strength and presence of Wagner Group forces in Mali?  Do you see any indications that Burkina Faso’s government is considering any arrangement with Wagner Group, and what are your exact concerns about Wagner Group in both countries?

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  So let me start with Burkina Faso first.  We had a chance to sit with Captain, now President – Interim President Traore and his leadership team, including his defense minister.  He was unequivocal in saying that it is Burkinabe who will defend the security of their nation and that they have no intention of inviting Wagner in.  We made clear, based on experience elsewhere in the region, whether it’s Mali or CAR, the risks should they change their view there.  And we talked intensively, even within the constraints that we have in a situation where a coup has happened or, in this case, a coup within a coup, how we can continue to support strong efforts by the Burkina military to push back terrorism in its midst without outside support from Russia and Wagner.

In Mali, as I said a little bit earlier, we were very straightforward about our concerns that the Malian junta has invited in Wagner and terrorism has gotten significantly worse; that there are significant numbers of Wagner forces on the ground; they are giving some equipment, but that equipment is malfunctioning.  We recently saw them behaving badly in one of the airplanes that they offered and then having a crash that killed civilians.  There are broad reports of human rights abuses across the region where they are working.

They are encouraging the Malian forces to deny MINUSMA access to large swaths of the middle of Mali where MINUSMA has a very clear mandate.  And we worry that these forces are not interested in the safety and security of the people of Mali but, instead, are interested in enriching themselves and strip-mining the country and are making the terrorism situation worse. 

And so that was the conversation that we had.  The neighbors are also extremely concerned and want to work together, particularly where their countries border Mali, to ensure that Wagner and terrorism both stay on the Malian side of the border.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question live, we’ll go to Portia Crowe from Agence France-Presse.  Could you open the line, please?

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Can you hear me?

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  We can, Portia.

QUESTION:   Okay, great.  Thanks for the time.  So would you say that Mali’s heightened partnership with Russia risks interrupting U.S. activities?  And sort of on the flipside of that, with France’s pullout, withdrawal from Mali, what sort of impact has that had on American operations?  And what, if any, changes have been made to manage that?

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  The United States’ ability to help Mali on the security side is greatly constrained now first and foremost by the fact that there was a coup.  So, under U.S. law, there is a limit on how we can support government forces, as I said, in the context of a coup until democracy is restored, so until 2024, but even more by the choice that the Mali Government made to get into bed with Wagner.  We are just not going to operate in the same space, even if we were invited to or able to do so, because of the negative way they operate, their human rights abuses, the way they treat people.

As you know, France has relocated some of the forces that they previously had in Mali into Niger and strengthened up their component there.  We were supportive of that.  We worked together very, very closely.  Nigerien authorities were positive on the role that French forces are now playing in supporting their operations, particularly along their borders with Mali, as I said, to try to keep both the terrorists and Wagner on the Malian side of the border.  And we are working very closely together on the entire Sahel security situation, as we historically have and as we do with other European countries with both forces, security support, and development support.

Now, in Mali we do have – retain significant development, health, election support, and we’re trying to get to as many of the people of Mali as we can.  We had a conversation with the Malian authorities about ensuring that U.S. support can get to the people where it is most needed and also with MINUSMA, who is frustrated as well.  So, there are real consequences to the fact that we are constrained in how we operate; France has repositioned out of Mali, so we’re all trying to help the people, but we are limited by the bad security choices that the junta has made.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to Pearl Matibe from Power FM 98.7.  Can you open her line, please?  There seems to be a technical problem with Pearl and her line.  We’ll take the question then from Simon Ateba from – oh, there’s Pearl.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?  Ambassador Nuland, I’m really pleased that you were available to talk to us today.  My question is there are reports that are critical of America’s approach to these four countries, and I wanted to have an opportunity for you to respond to this growth that – of anti-status quo.  So my question to you is beyond what lies at the surface, what do you understand lies at the heart of African frustrations there in these countries, and what existing and new understanding do you have now that you’ve returned from your visit to these four?  Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  Well, Pearl, obviously I would need more detail about what you are alluding to.  I would simply say that in Niger, for example, where we are very strongly invested both on the security side, counterterrorism side, and on the development and humanitarian side, this was my second trip in a little bit over a year.  And I have to say that this time it – we were impressed that the Nigerien forces with our support, with support from other international participants, are more confident and more effective in the way they are dealing with the terrorist threat.  I think their concern now is what’s going on in Burkina, what’s going on in Mali.  They were very supportive, as were the Mauritanians, of us talking to all of the governments of the region. 

I think one of the things that we conclude is that whereas we have very strong relations Washington to Niamey, Washington to Nouakchott, we are talking well Washington to Ouagadougou, with the Malian withdrawal from the G5 we have not been able to develop the kind of regional approach to countering terrorism, particularly in the context of Mali going its own way, that will protect the other countries and enable them to work as effectively together as they need to. 

So one of the things that we’re looking at is how we can strengthen intra-African dialogue, intra-Sahel dialogue on these issues and bring our security support to bear in a more regionally effective way.

The other thing I would say here is that the development needs are acute everywhere.  We are strong supporters, for example, in Niger of President Bazoum’s education initiative.  The fact that only 50 percent of Nigerien kids are in school is a future security problem.  And President Bazoum is very focused on that, and we had a chance to meet with education activists and get some of their ideas about how to strengthen our programming.

In Mauritania, as I said, I think we can do quite a bit more on the investment side, on the energy side, and supporting them in trying to bring better prosperity to their population.  And that will also provide jobs and indemnify their young people against terrorism, et cetera.

And then we were very eager to get to Burkina and Ouagadougou at this time to make clear that our humanitarian and development support will continue.  We’ll do whatever we can, and we are doing quite a bit, on the security and counterterrorism side to help the military even as we are somewhat constrained by U.S. law given the coup, but that we also are intent on providing election support so long as the government there is committed to the ECOWAS 2024 timeline.  So we wanted to hear them – hear their reassurance on that front, which we did hear.  And so we also met with civilians who are intent on implementing that timetable, and that’ll be very, very important as well. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today.  Under Secretary Nuland, did you have any final words?

AMBASSADOR NULAND:  Just to say that as President Biden and our team head to the African Leaders Summit, we are firmly committed to working with the continent to meet the many global challenges that we had – we have had for some time now, whether they are the risks of climate, whether it is coming out of COVID, but also to meet the new challenges that have been exacerbated by Russia’s vicious war against Ukraine – food insecurity, the price of energy, inflation, et cetera. 

We worked very well together in New York during the UN General Assembly to spur more support for the World Food Program and other international efforts to get food – to strengthen food security, particularly in Africa.  We’ve worked very well together to strengthen health security across the continent, and we very much look forward to sharing ideas on how the U.S. and countries across Africa can work together to answer the world’s problems.  And that’s what this summit will be about.

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