December 4, 2021


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Secretary Antony J. Blinken And Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama At a Joint Press Availability

38 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Abuja, Nigeria

Aso Rock Presidential Villa

MODERATOR:  Good evening, gentlemen of the press.  We have had the United States Secretary of State visiting.  He has interfaced with our president and with the vice president.  He is now here with our Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama, and they’re going to address the press. 

The procedure is that the Secretary of State will speak for about three to five minutes, then Mr. Onyeama will also speak for the same time, and thereafter there will be questions: two questions from the Nigerian end and two questions from the United States end.

It’s my pleasure to hand over to Mr. Antony Blinken to make his remarks.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very, very much and good evening, everyone.  Foreign Minister, Geoffrey, it’s wonderful to be with you, wonderful to be back in Nigeria.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to have spent time with President Buhari, with the vice president as well.  And as I was saying, it’s a particular pleasure to visit in person.  I actually was in Nigeria virtually as part of the first trip that we did – virtual trip that we did to Africa some months ago, but nothing replaces being here.  And as we’ve been saying, if we’re not quite yet face to face, at least we’re mask to mask, and that’s important.

Nigeria touches us every day in America through the amazing power of its diaspora.  Musicians, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, athletes enrich our lives, make them more interesting, more rewarding, and we’re grateful for that as well.  Our meetings today, the engagements that I’ll have throughout my time here in Nigeria, reflect the depth of this partnership of now more than six decades and the way that our collaboration is vital – and maybe more vital than ever – to tackling shared challenges and actually delivering results for our people, which is what our responsibility really is.

Let me just touch on a few of the issues that we’ve been talking about today and where our cooperation is especially important.  First, we’re working together to beat back COVID-19 and to build back better as we address the devastating impact that it’s had on all of us – on our communities, on our economies.  The United States has delivered 7.6 million doses of safe, effective vaccines to Nigeria, and we expect to send another significant number of doses by the end of the year, donated with no strings attached.  And we’re providing significant aid to save lives right now, from the more than 150 testing labs that we helped to set up nationwide to helping tackle a food security crisis that was worsened by the pandemic.

We have teamed up for a long time to confront epidemics and to improve public health.  In that sense, this is not new.  The United States and others worked with Nigeria toward eliminating wild polio virus, supporting vaccination campaigns, aiding surveillance to detect and isolate cases.  That collaboration was key to the country being certified free of the virus in August of 2020.  That’s a huge achievement.  American assistance is helping to bring treatment to more than 1.5 million people in Nigeria living with HIV/AIDS, and we’re on track for epidemic control by 2023.  Our support for primary health care helps provide vital services to more than 60 million Nigerians.

These and other efforts have helped create a robust infrastructure for Nigeria’s COVID-19 response and broader efforts to strengthen public health security, which are essential to detect and prevent the next pandemic.

Second, we’re working with Nigeria to build back better from the pandemic by fostering inclusive, sustainable economic growth.  That’s the goal of the 2 billion development agreement that Geoffrey and I just signed, and which will make, I think, significant investments in improving access to quality education, public health, and other services and tools that Nigeria’s rising generations are looking for and need to thrive here at home and in a global economy.  And we’re committed to working with the government as it pursues economic reforms, for example, to create a more stable regulatory environment to attract more foreign investment.

Third, we’re working together to address the global climate crisis.  The foreign minister and I were both just at COP26, where President Buhari made significant new commitments to join the Global Methane Pledge and build on the progress that Nigeria has made in solar power.  This is crucial as more and more Nigerians feel the impact of the crisis, something the president, I must say, talked about very eloquently when we were together a short while ago, and people displaced, people who have lost connections with their livelihoods as a result of climate change, among other disruptions.

Our work together also demonstrates how tackling this crisis represents an opportunity – a once-in-a-generations opportunity – to create good-paying jobs and expand renewable energy access.  The USAID has a five-year, $110 million project, the Nigeria Power Sector Program, and that’s supporting key initiatives like the Solar Power Naija, which will bring solar energy to 25 million Nigerians who are off the electric grid and lack access to power.  That, in turn, is expected to create as many as 250,000 new jobs in the energy sector, spur local industry, generate $18.5 million in annual tax revenues.  So it will have practical, meaningful effects.

Fourth, we’re working with Nigeria to address security challenges, including those posed by Boko Haram, ISIS West Africa, and other terrorist and extremist groups.  In meetings with the president, with the vice president, with the foreign minister, we discussed the importance of a comprehensive approach that builds effective security forces, addresses the underlying drivers of extremism, and respects Nigerians’ basic human rights.  The United States is committed to helping Nigeria do that by continuing to invest in our security partnership and the institutions that strengthen the rule of law and that hold accountable those who commit human rights abuses, corruption, and other acts that harm the Nigerian people.  By tackling these issues, we can help to address some of the problems that have been key drivers of insecurity.

To that end, let me say that we welcome the conclusion of the investigation by the independent of inquiry established by the Lagos state government to look into the events that took place near Lekki toll gate in Lagos in October of 2020, and this, of course, was amidst the “End SARS” protests, including the killings and other alleged abuses by the security forces.  We anticipate and look to the state and the federal government’s response to the findings and expect those to include steps that ensure accountability and address the grievances of the victims and their families.  We’re also working closely with Nigeria to help the populations most affected by conflict and violence in the country, particularly in the northeast, where the United States is providing vital humanitarian aid to approximately 2.2 million internally displaced Nigerians. 

The United States continues to build the capacity, together with Nigeria, of the military, including through the recent delivery of 12 A-29 Super Tucano aircraft.  But capacity building goes much deeper than delivering military hardware, something that we talked about as well.  We’re also providing more human rights and rule of law training because military and civilian security forces are more effective when they act in accordance with these values and because it’s crucial that Nigeria hold accountable members of the military who commit abuses. 

Journalists, human rights defenders, and others in Nigeria’s very vibrant civil society are playing a vital role in shining a spotlight on these and other issues.  Their ability to exercise freedom of expression and other basic human rights is crucial to advocating for individuals and communities and strengthening this country’s vibrant democracy, as we’ve seen in the successful efforts to promote electoral reform and lower the age at which Nigerians can run for office.  I look very much forward to meeting several of these leaders tomorrow, including faith leaders who are defusing communal tensions and promoting peace.  And we look forward to Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, joining the Summit for Democracy next month.  All participants from government to civil society will make commitments to improve and strengthen democracy in our respective countries and strengthen the partnership among democratic nations.

The range of issues that we’re working on together is vast, but given the interests we share and the challenges we have in common, delivering for our people demands that we find ways to deepen our existing ties and partnerships even further.  That’s ultimately what this visit and the work that we’re doing every single day between our governments, between our people – that’s what it’s all about.

Lastly, let just say one brief word about yesterday’s events in Sudan.  The United States is deeply concerned by the violence used by Sudanese military against people engaged in peaceful protest, which reportedly killed more than a dozen civilians and wounded scores more.  The military must respect the rights of civilians to assemble peacefully and express their views, and we continue to support the demand of the Sudanese people for the restoration of the civilian-led transition, including the return of Prime Minister Hamdok to office and the immediate release of all those detained since October 25th.

With that, thank you.  Geoffrey.

FOREIGN MINISTER ONYEAMA:  (Inaudible) Secretary of State of the United States.  Antony, a very warm welcome again to Nigeria.  It’s wonderful to have you back here with us.  And this, I think, shows the importance you attach to the relations between our two countries. 

So as was mentioned, the Secretary had excellent meetings with Mr. President and also with the vice president.  We were able to sign – again, as he mentioned – an agreement that, within the framework of USAID, will engage and provide assistance in very important, critical areas for the country, and we thank you very much indeed for this technical assistance and support.

There are various areas that we cooperate with the United States in.  First off – as, again, the Secretary has mentioned – to thank the United States for the assistance that was provided, especially the vaccines, in the health sector to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.  We appreciate this enormously.  Of course, the real challenge – we’re a country of 200 million people, and we have to – we aspire to about 70 percent vaccination level for our people.  That’s a huge number. 

And what we really need to be looking at, of course, is manufacturing vaccines ourselves here, and we’re hoping to have some cooperation and support from the United States and other friendly countries in the transfer of technology that is required and also in the licensing agreements, especially for the transfer of intellectual property rights, the permission or the license to produce.  That might take some time, but we are hoping that we can count on the United States to help bring that about as some of the pharmaceutical companies, American ones, are producing very important vaccines.

An area that’s also of importance to us here in Nigeria is also the consular one.  I mean, a lot of Nigerians are asking how we can ease the regime of visa applications to the United States embassies.  And so, of course, we had a mechanism, the drop box mechanism, and now a lot of us – and because COVID has, of course, exacerbated everything – have very long waiting times to even secure interviews for their visa applications.  And so this is an area that we hope that we can really look at and try to find some solution to.

The security aspect that you’ve also mentioned that was discussed with Mr. President and also with the vice president.  It’s an area, again, that we have very important and very fruitful cooperation with the United States.  Of course, the global terrorism is a global scourge, and we all need to work together to address it.  And we appreciate enormously the weaponry that’s been provided to Nigeria.  And as you say correctly, it’s not just the hardware but also the, quote/unquote, “software,” of training the personnel to be able to have – to take maximum advantage of this weaponry.  But we do appreciate the cooperation in security, in the security area, the sharing of intelligence, and we’re very much on the same page with regards to the fight against terrorism.

In the area of trade, of course, once upon a time, the United States was our largest market for petroleum, for selling oil.  And in a few years, we’ve seen the U.S. become totally self-sufficient, so our largest market has disappeared right there.  But we would, of course, like to also access the U.S. markets for other products that we have.  This government has, as a priority, the diversification of our economy.  Of course, we relied far too heavily on one commodity, petroleum. 

And the United States has a mechanism, the African Growth Opportunities Act, to facilitate market access for African countries.  And we’re not taking advantage of it as much as we should.  And one of the areas of challenge for us is a priority area for us, which is agriculture, and we’re hoping to export more agricultural products to the United States.  And there are certain market access issues we have, some with regards to the quality of the agricultural products, phytosanitary aspects, and we would like to be able to work with you to be able to try and address that and facilitate more easily for our agricultural sector access to the U.S. market.

And the U.S. is coming up to look at other areas of cooperation with developing countries.  And our president, President Muhammadu Buhari, met of course in Glasgow during the COP26 with President Biden.  And President Biden is one of the presidents or leaders behind an initiative to access – to make – to facilitate the support for developing countries in regards to infrastructure.  And again, this is a key priority area for our government, the huge infrastructure deficit that we have and challenges that we face.  And so we really look forward to working together in trying to help solve some of these infrastructure challenges that we and other developing countries face.  And they’re really happy that it’s now become a real policy objective of the United States to do this, and we look forward to working with you very much in this area.

Of course, in the humanitarian field, we’re extremely grateful to the support that has been provided by the United States in the humanitarian area.  The large number of internally displaced persons that we have in north and the work that some of your agencies are doing in this area is something that we welcome enormously. 

And of course we discussed with the vice president on the issue – the area of climate change.  And so here, after the Paris Agreement, developing countries, United States and others, big emitters I might say, made a commitment to provide $100 billion a year to developing countries to help with adaptation, mitigation.  And so far, it’s been observed more in breach than in the observance of this promise.  So we’re hoping also that the U.S. – and we’re delighted to have the U.S. back supporting the multilateral system and back in the climate change, finding a solution to – on climate action.  And so we’re also hoping that the U.S. will push the other industrialized countries to make good on this promise, because we certainly need this kind of financial support to be able to put in place all the actions that we need for mitigation and for adaptation.

And of course, in this context, as the vice president mentioned, is a very important issue for us as a gas-producing country.  In fact, Nigeria is seen more – well, we are actually more of a gas-producing country than actually an oil-producing country.  And we’re looking to gas to help to address our energy needs.  And we noticed that a number of the big industrialized countries and financial institutions are now defunding projects and gas projects, and of course this would really be a huge blow for countries such as ours that really want to see gas as a transition fuel and to have time in which to work towards net zero – 2050, 2060, net zero emission, but in the meantime to be able to also continue to use gas and exploit the gas that we have at our disposal.  So we hope that the U.S. will understand and support us in getting financial institutions such as the World Bank and others to go easy, as it were, on some of these countries that need this transition period to use these fuels.

And you talked about the “End SARS,” and of course the Lagos panel has come out with a report.  But I think one thing is absolutely clear, is that the government believes in the rule of law and are following all the processes.  The government’s been totally transparent and actually encouraged and helped to set up these panels of inquiry and to make it transparent and totally open.  And we’ll continue to do so.  So I think that there’s no issue there.

And we’re also learned with and have read with much appreciation that Nigeria has been taken off the list of concern for countries that the U.S. feels have issues with religious freedom.  So we appreciate that you have recognized that Nigeria need not be a country of concern as far as religious freedom is concerned.  So we welcome that decision by your government.

And so once again, thank you very much indeed for coming to see us. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Mr. Blinken and Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama.  Now we’ll take questions.  There will be two from the Nigerian end, while Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department, will also lead American friends to ask two questions. 

So from Nigerian end, Gloria Ume-Ezeoke from Channels Television, and Emmanuel Anune of AFP.  Can we ask our questions back to back? 

QUESTION:  Good evening, Mr. Blinken.  My name is Gloria Ume-Ezeoke from Channels Television.  Recently the U.S. made a not-too-tidy exit from Afghanistan, and we saw a huge number of weaponry left behind to the Talibans.  Have you had any worries that this act alone can implicitly empower terrorist groups in other African countries, like Nigeria and its sister countries?  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thanks. 

QUESTION:  Yes, Mr. Secretary, my name is Dr. Anune Emmanuel; I write for AFP News Agency.  Mr. Secretary, what can the United States specifically do?  I heard you mention issues about human rights.  What specifically can the U.S. do to support the achievements of human rights in Nigeria?  And quickly, are you looking forward to providing more hardwares, particularly fighter planes, for Nigeria, considering the level of insecurity in the country?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  With regard to your first question, I’ve seen —

QUESTION:  Turn on the microphone.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It looked like it was on.  Okay, there we go. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  With regard to the first question, I’ve seen no evidence that any of the weaponry that was originally provided to the Afghan security forces over 20 years and then wound up in the hands of the Taliban after the Afghan Government and military forces imploded in Afghanistan – I’ve seen no evidence that any of that weaponry has been transferred to any other group.  And, I might add, the most significant terrorist group that is present and active in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, is for the Taliban a mortal enemy, and indeed ISIS-K has been engaged in attacks against the Taliban, against Christians in Afghanistan, against other groups.  And so again, I’ve seen no evidence of that.

Second, with regard to human rights, let me say a few things.  First, as the foreign minister saying and as I just noted, we stand strongly for human rights at home and abroad.  And that means, among other things, ensuring that governments are protecting the right of assembly, of free speech, and in that context, of course, in Nigeria, we have the “End SARS” protests, the actions taken by security forces, the alleged abuses which have now been investigated by these panels that were established at a state level, and very important to provide that accountability, to provide that transparency, and depending on the conclusions of the reports, to take action – to take action to, as necessary, reform the security forces; to hold accountable any of those responsible for human rights abuses; and to do that, again, in full transparency.  And so we’ll look to the states here as well as to the national government to do that when the reports are published.

More broadly, in everything that we’re doing together in partnership with Nigeria, human rights is of course a feature, and we’re discussing as well – and you heard the foreign minister talk about this too – when it comes to security assistance that we’re providing, we want to make sure, together with Nigeria, that the assistance we provide is used in a way that fully respects the human rights of every Nigerian.  And as I think the foreign minister said very eloquently, along with providing hardware, we are also working together on the software to make sure that those using the military equipment that we provide are trained, are steeped in the laws of armed conflict, bring to bear the absolute necessity of doing everything possible to avoid, for example, civilian casualties when that hardware is used.  So that also infuses all of the work that we’re doing in partnership with Nigeria.

MR PRICE:  Our questions will go to Ben Hall of Fox News and Courtney McBride of The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Secretary, Foreign Minister, thank you very much.  Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask about the competition in Africa between the U.S. and China.  How would you characterize the U.S. approach versus the Chinese approach and how would you compete with these no-strings-attached loans that China seems to hand out around the continent?  Would you advise Nigeria, who is heavily reliant on Chinese money, to perhaps be less reliant on that?

And then how much of a priority is it for the administration to secure resources in Africa, particularly rare earth minerals, which are going to become so important in the future when it comes to battery technology and the rest?  China is laser focused on those and some say they are reaping the benefits.

And Foreign Minister, there has been much criticism that your government is heavily reliant on Chinese money and Chinese loans.  What would you respond to that, and to what extent does that give China leverage in Nigeria?  And what do you make of the competition between the U.S. and China here in Africa?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I’m happy to start.  Thank you.  Look, first and foremost, our engagement in Africa, with Africa – our partnership with Nigeria, with many other countries – is not about China or any other third party.  It’s about Africa.  It’s about working together to make the investments in Africa, make the investments in its people, and ultimately to ensure that across the board we help create the conditions so that there are truly, ultimately African-led solutions to any of the challenges that Africa faces.  But our support, I think, can be critical in doing that.

When it comes to infrastructure investment, again, this is not about China or anyone else.  It is about what we would like to think of as a race to the top when it comes to those investments.  So it’s not simply the resources themselves.  It’s how they’re used and according to what principles.  In our case – and the foreign minister referred to this – we have coming out of the G7 the Build Back Better World program, and what – the feature of that program is that there are certain principles by which all of the countries involved will make infrastructure investments, including here in Africa. 

And so, for example, we want to make sure that as investments are made, countries are not labored with tremendous debt that they can’t repay.  That’s something we won’t do.  We want to make sure that the rights of workers are foremost in our minds, that the environment is protected, that there’s no corruption that comes along with these investments, that we build together to the highest possible standards, and that we invest in areas and sectors that really will be the future for Africa as well as for the rest of the world, to include in green technology and green infrastructure, to include in health care systems, to include in information technology.  So this is for us an affirmative vision of what investment can and should be, and again, it starts with the people of Africa.  That’s the focus that we’re bringing to it.

And look, on one level, if there’s investment or trade coming into Africa or with Africa from anywhere else, including China, in principle that’s a great thing.  And investment in infrastructure is a good thing and a necessary thing.  But I think it’s important as countries are considering that that, again, they focus on not just the resources made available but how those resources are actually used.  And that, at least in my mind, is where our focus is and where I think – and certainly in conversations that I’ve had just in the last couple of days as well as before that – where increasingly the minds of our partners in Africa are.

FOREIGN MINISTER ONYEAMA:  Thank you very much.  Well, regarding the debt of the country, we try to be extremely prudent in this.  We don’t just borrow willy-nilly, and in fact, in reality, our debt-to-GDP ratio is still actually very good.  So it’s sustainable debt and – that we focus on and we keep our eyes very much on that.  And – but the reality also is that the government realized, this president realized that to have – to industrialize, we just have to get the infrastructure in place, and there was just a huge infrastructure deficit that we’re facing in this country.  And we saw a great opportunity with the Chinese.  I mean, they’re used to a lot of these huge capital projects and infrastructure projects.  We would have gone with anybody else that was providing something at a competitive rate for us, but in many areas they were.  But there are others like the Germans, Siemens and others that are also coming in and that we’re working with and who have also given us a good facility.  So it’s not a question of one country or the other per se.  It’s really a question of the best deal that that we can strike.  And we’re paying for those.  So the issue of Chinese influence really doesn’t come in because these are not grants, these are not gifts.  We’re paying for these things but making sure that we’re incurring those debts sustainably. 

And regarding U.S.-Chinese competition in Africa, I mean, I don’t want to sound almost – well, cynical, almost, about it, but sometimes it’s a good thing for you if people are – if you’re the attractive bride and everybody is offering you wonderful things.  So you take what you can from each of them.  So that could be the situation there.  But we have wonderful relations with the U.S., and we have wonderful relations with China – economic relations.  And it will just – it’ll be on an ad hoc basis and based on the interests of Nigeria, not on the interests of China or the interests of the U.S. 

And as I said, Mr. President was at this very important meeting in Glasgow.  It was convened by President Biden, Boris Johnson, and the President of the European Commission and with presidents from various regions, and the President of the World Bank was there, looking at the new direction that the Western industrialized countries want to go to.  They’d agreed on that in the G7 meeting, and we welcome that.  It’s something that sounds extremely attractive for – to cooperate with these countries to look at how we can improve the infrastructure in developing countries.  And so it was something that our president found extremely attractive, and we really hope that it’ll take off very quickly.  So it should be a win-win-win for everybody.  It should be a win-win.  That’s the way we look at it.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Mr. Foreign Minister, do you do view the U.S. as recognizing, and acknowledging the size, the economic power, and the influence of Nigeria on the continent as part of this visit?  And are you – what role do you do believe that Nigeria can play in helping to resolve several regional crises?  Obviously, we’re watching Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia. 

And to Mr. Secretary, the foreign minister outlined several areas of concern for Nigeria.  Were you able to make any headway on those?  I mean, do you envision further opportunities for collaboration on security, on economic and other issues?  And just on the news of the day, you joined your counterparts in the G7 on – in condemning Belarus’s fomenting of irregular migration.  I’m just wondering if you have a comment on the clearing of the encampments.  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER ONYEAMA:  Yes, I mean, the cooperation between the U.S. and Nigeria I think is also based on a number of shared values.  And as the Secretary has mentioned, in December the President of the U.S. is going to host a summit on democracies.  And that’s obviously one area that we have a great deal in common.  Our governance architecture and system is based on the U.S. model, so there is a lot that unites us and brings us together. 

We – we’re honored by this visit, and over the last five, six years of this government, we’ve maintained very close relations with the U.S., and the different interlocutors – presidents and secretaries of state – that we’ve had to interact – that we’ve interacted with have recognized that Nigeria is the largest economy on the continent, the most populous country, and has a very important role to play. 

And I think our engagement and the nature of our engagement brings this out.  We see the U.S. as a very important global partner – the largest economy in the world, the most powerful country in the world – and we engage at the multilateral and bilateral level with the U.S.  And we also can appreciate that they also see us as having a very important position and a very important role to play on the Africa continent.  And so we also engage with the U.S. in playing a regional role also on the continent. 

And this brings me to your second question about the role of Nigeria, especially in the context of some of the developments, political and otherwise, on the continent.  And yes, Nigeria, we’re a bit – it’s a bit like the U.S. globally.  When you’re a big country, a big economy, a big population, of course a lot of the countries are going to expect a lot from you, and we do provide a lot to other African countries, a lot of support materially and in other ways. 

But at the same time, you have to always be careful not to become too overbearing.  So we believe in the regional integration mechanisms that are in place.  So in West Africa, we have ECOWAS, the Economic Community Of West African States.  Continentally, we have the African Union.  And so we try to build consensus within those entities rather than going it alone.  So you’ll recall, for instance, in The Gambia some years ago when we wanted to restore the constitutional order, and we did this in the framework of ECOWAS.  So yes, we play a role.  Much is expected of us.  We support elections in a lot of countries.  There’s some West African countries that we intervene with, with peacekeeping forces in a number of countries and helping to restore constitutional democratic order in others.  We’ve had that history – in Sierra Leone and Liberia, you’ll recall.  And we have peacekeepers today in Somalia.

And we are expected to play this role and we take on that role.  We appreciate that that’s something that we have to do and we believe, for instance, in African solidarity and peace and security on the continent, but at the same time, we want to believe in empowering these regional mechanisms like the African Union and prefer to work within the consensus.  So like some of the crises that you’ve talked about in Ethiopia, in Mali, Guinea, and so forth, we prefer to try and work through these continental and subregional bodies.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And let me just for a second pick up where the foreign minister left off because we strongly support Nigeria’s engagement, leadership, and strong voice in both regional and, for that matter, leading international organizations.  And if you look at the role that Nigeria’s playing in ECOWAS, the African Union, the UN, this is something that to us is very welcome and also very important.

It’s also striking, if you look at the senior leadership positions in many of the leading international institutions in the UN system and beyond, you will often find a very highly respected and experienced Nigerian leader, maybe a former president, a former vice president.  And indeed, when it comes to the situation in Ethiopia, the former President Obasanjo is the envoy leading the efforts on behalf of the international community, mandated by the African Union to resolve the crisis there.  So I just wanted to say this is something that, to us, is a very, very welcome development.  And it makes sense.  It befits the fact that this is an extraordinary country with – not only by the size of its population and the expanse of its landmass, but its human resources, which are extraordinary, and we really welcome seeing them used to the greatest extent possible in dealing with these common challenges that we face.

In terms of some of the issues that the foreign minister brought up, yes, we’re working on all of them.  In fact, these meetings of one day are usually followed by work going on every single day afterwards.  Just to take one example, on visas, yes, we’ve had – not just here, but around the world, we’ve obviously had a serious challenge brought on by COVID and the great difficulty and in fact almost impossibility at various points of processing visas.  We’ve done a tremendous amount of work to build back our capacity to do that.  We have backlogs of people who are looking for visas.  We have new applicants coming forward.  And here, as in other countries around the world, the State Department has put tremendous resources into being able to get back not only to where we were, but hopefully, even in this case, to build back better as well.  So we are – we’re working on that and we’ll be talking about with our teams other questions or concerns that our partners have brought up.

And I apologize because I didn’t actually hear your question.  I heard it was Belarus, but I didn’t hear the end of the question.

QUESTION:  Just on clearing of the encampments.  

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, let me say this.  The – it is profoundly unconscionable that Lukashenko and Belarus have sought to weaponize migration.  And the EU has made clear its views on that, including with new sanctions.  We have in place authorities to, as necessary, add to the sanctions.  The – this effort to, as I say, weaponize migration has to stop, and we are looking very hard at exactly what actions Belarus is taking.

But first and foremost, it is doing a terrible injustice to these people that it is victimizing by making them pawns in the efforts that the Belarusian regime is engaged in to be disruptive.  And that has to stop and we will, along with our European partners with whom we’re in very close consultation on this – I was on the phone with the Polish foreign minister just a few days ago.  We’ve been in regular contact with all of our EU partners.  We will remain very focused on this and we’ll see exactly what this actually means and what the practical effect of the clearing of the camps is.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Thank you, Mr. Onyeama.  That brings us to the end of this media interaction.  Thank you very much.

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    In U.S GAO News
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    In Crime News
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    In U.S GAO News
    When the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) became fully operational in 2008, it inherited well over 100 activities, missions, programs, and exercises from other Department of Defense (DOD) organizations. AFRICOM initially conducted these inherited activities with little change. However, as AFRICOM has matured, it has begun planning and prioritizing activities with its four military service components, special operations command, and task force. Some activities represent a shift from traditional warfighting, requiring collaboration with the Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other interagency partners. GAO's prior work has identified critical steps and practices that help agencies to achieve success. For this report, GAO was asked to assess AFRICOM in five areas with respect to activity planning and implementation. To do so, GAO analyzed DOD and AFRICOM guidance; observed portions of AFRICOM activities; interviewed officials in Europe and Africa; and obtained perspectives from interagency officials, including those at 22 U.S. embassies in Africa.AFRICOM has made progress in developing strategies and engaging interagency partners, and could advance DOD's effort to strengthen the capacity of partner nations in Africa. However, AFRICOM still faces challenges in five areas related to activity planning and implementation. Overcoming these challenges would help AFRICOM with future planning, foster stability and security through improved relationships with African nations, and maximize its effect on the continent. (1) Strategic Planning. AFRICOM has created overarching strategies and led planning meetings, but many specific plans to guide activities have not yet been finalized. For example, AFRICOM has developed a theater strategy and campaign plan but has not completed detailed plans to support its objectives. Also, some priorities of its military service components, special operations command, and task force overlap or differ from each other and from AFRICOM's priorities. Completing plans will help AFRICOM determine whether priorities are aligned across the command and ensure that efforts are appropriate, complementary, and comprehensive. (2) Measuring Effects. AFRICOM is generally not measuring long-term effects of activities. While some capacity-building activities appear to support its mission, federal officials expressed concern that others--such as sponsoring a news Web site in an African region sensitive to the military's presence--may have unintended effects. Without assessing activities, AFRICOM lacks information to evaluate their effectiveness, make informed future planning decisions, and allocate resources. (3) Applying Funds. Some AFRICOM staff have difficulty applying funding sources to activities. DOD has stated that security assistance efforts are constrained by a patchwork of authorities. Limited understanding of various funding sources for activities has resulted in some delayed activities, funds potentially not being used effectively, and African participants being excluded from some activities. (4) Interagency Collaboration. AFRICOM has been coordinating with partners from other federal agencies. As of June 2010, AFRICOM had embedded 27 interagency officials in its headquarters and had 17 offices at U.S. embassies in Africa. However, the command has not fully integrated interagency perspectives early in activity planning or leveraged some embedded interagency staff for their expertise. (5) Building Expertise. AFRICOM staff have made some cultural missteps because they do not fully understand local African customs and may unintentionally burden embassies that must respond to AFRICOM's requests for assistance with activities. Without greater knowledge of these issues, AFRICOM may continue to face difficulties maximizing resources with embassy personnel and building relations with African nations. GAO recommends that AFRICOM complete its strategic plans, conduct long-term activity assessments, fully integrate interagency personnel into activity planning, and develop training to build staff expertise. DOD agreed with the recommendations.
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    In U.S GAO News
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    In Crime News
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    In Crime News
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    In Crime News
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    In Crime News
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    In Crime News
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  • VA Disability Benefits: Actions Needed to Better Manage Appeals Workload Risks, Performance, and Information Technology
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In March 2018, GAO made recommendations to address gaps in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for reform of its appeals process for disability compensation claims. This reform was intended to offer veterans who are dissatisfied with VA's initial decision on their claim more timely options to appeal. Since then, VA has implemented new options for appeals in February 2019, reduced the backlog of preexisting appeals from 425,445 in fiscal year 2019 to 174,688 in fiscal year 2020, and addressed aspects of GAO's recommendations. However, opportunities exist for VA to more fully address GAO's recommendations and thus better (1) manage workload risks; (2) monitor and assess performance; and, (3) plan for further development of information technology (IT). Specifically: Managing workload risks fully. Since 2018, VA has made strides to manage appeals and address GAO's recommendations. For example, VA has taken steps to monitor workloads and calibrate its staffing needs. However, further efforts are needed to sustain progress and manage workload risks. Specifically, VA has not fully developed mitigation strategies for certain risks, such as veterans using the new hearing appeals option at higher rates than the options that do not require a hearing. The lack of a risk mitigation strategy is significant because in mid-June 2021, VA reported that this resource-intensive new hearing option accounted for nearly 60 percent of the new appeals inventory, but VA has made relatively few hearing option decisions in fiscal year 2021. This could mean veterans have longer wait times and increasing backlogs under the new hearing option. VA's ability to effectively manage workloads lies, in part, in planning ahead and in proactively addressing risks that may impact timeliness of decisions. Monitoring and assessing performance. VA has made progress to address GAO's recommendations, but it is not monitoring or assessing important aspects of performance. VA recently established timeliness goals for all new appeals options, which better positions VA to monitor this aspect of performance and define resources needed to process appeals. However, VA lacks a quality assurance program and related measures to assess the accuracy of its appeals decisions. Planning for further technology development. Since 2018, VA has deployed a new IT system to support its new appeals process, but has yet to address issues GAO identified with VA's IT planning, such as specifying more fully how and when the new IT system will achieve all needed functionality. VA implemented appeals reform in February 2019, but continues to report that the new IT system provides “minimum functionality” and to identify functionality yet to be implemented. Also, a May 2021 VA report itemized over 35 problems with the new IT system, such as the need to reconcile records contained in multiple IT systems. VA officials told GAO that they are working on a plan to address the identified IT shortfalls. These shortfalls and VA's response suggest opportunities exist for VA to identify all key and necessary IT activities, responsibilities, interdependencies and resources, as GAO previously recommended. Why GAO Did This Study In fiscal year 2020, VBA paid about $88.5 billion in disability compensation benefits to over 5 million veterans injured in service to our country. Prior to 2018, veterans who appealed decisions on their initial claims for benefits often experienced long waits for resolution of their appeals—up to 7 years on average. These long waits are one reason GAO designated VA's disability workloads as a high risk issue. The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 made changes to improve VA's appeals process. The act required VA to submit to Congress and GAO a plan for implementing a new appeals process (which VA submitted in November 2017) and periodic progress reports. The act also included a provision for GAO to assess VA's original plan. In March 2018, GAO found that VA could help ensure successful implementation of appeals reform by addressing gaps in planning and made several recommendations, with which VA agreed. This testimony examines the extent to which VA (1) manages workloads and associated risks for processing appeals, (2) monitors and assesses performance, and (3) plans for further development of information technology. For this statement, GAO reviewed its prior reports on disability appeals; VA's progress reports to Congress; and information VA provided for GAO's ongoing monitoring of this high-risk issue and about steps VA has taken to implement GAO's prior recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth H. Curda at (202) 512-7215 or
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