Asst. Sec. Tibor Nagy And AU Commissioner for Peace and Stability Smail Chergui – Briefing

Commissioner Smail Chergui
Photo: African Union

Office of the Spokesperson

Department of State

Washington, DC

November 15, 2019

MR BROWN: All right, thanks, everybody, for being here once again. Today we’re lucky enough to be joined by two officials from our Bureau for African Affairs: Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy and Commissioner Smail Chergui of the African Union. They’re here to talk about the U.S.-African Union Commission high dialogue that just took place for the last two days, and we’re going to treat this on the record, both initial statements and Q&A afterwards. And we’ll start off with opening comments from these two gentlemen, so please.

When we get to questions, in an orderly fashion, please.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Me first, huh? Okay. Before I make any opening statement, I did want to just mention that my dear friend – we actually worked together in Ethiopia back – 1999 to 2002. We were both ambassadors there at the same time and we worked together on the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace process to end the war. So it was a delight to be back across from each other in the same conference room.

We just finished our seventh U.S.-African Union high-level dialogue. We alternate year by year. Last year it was in Addis Ababa; this year it was here in Washington D.C. We wanted to do a new format this year. We wanted a much more open dialogue, to have real exchange of ideas as opposed to prearranged topics, so our theme today was kind of along the lines of Africa through the windshield instead of the rear-view mirror, which has been kind of a theme of our Africa bureau for the past year-plus.

We had two major themes, and Commissioner Chergui can give you some more details on them, but his portfolio is peace and security, is commissioner for peace and security, so the first part of today’s – this morning, we talked about some of the what we call hot-button issues across Africa, the ones that are a challenge to peace and security. We talked at length about the Sahel. We spoke about South Sudan, spoke about Central African Republic, spoke about Somalia. That leaves a number of others that we could not get to within the time available. As we said, some of those issues are like deep swimming pools and the best we could do is kind of dip our feet in the water, but those will continue to be engaged between our two sides moving forward, obviously.

Then the second part of this morning’s high-level dialogue had to do on the economic, trade, and investment side, and for us in the Africa Bureau, that is one of our highest priorities, is dramatically increasing trade and investment between the United States and Africa. And we of course are delighted with the recent signing of the Africa-wide free trade area, and we discussed in detail how we can each take advantage of that, work with each other to support it, make a more conducive operating environment for U.S. businesses that are genuinely very, very interested in expanding in Africa. And very productive dialogue. We appreciated the exchange of views. We see a lot of issues in very similar ways. A few issues, obviously, we have some differences, but obviously we all want the same result: a peaceful, prosperous, stable Africa.

Overarching the entire discussion was the fact that we’ve talked about that before, that Africa’s population is going to double between now and 2050. Very few people in the world really are cognizant of that fact, but we very much are, as even by 2025, as the commissioner mentioned, 70 percent of Africans will be young and they will all be eagerly looking for jobs. So that’s something that the world will have to be assisting with.

And I’ll turn it over to my friend.

MR CHERGUI: Thank you, Tibor. I think you said it all, but I want just to confirm that this seventh session of the strategic dialogue was really conducive, was open, and was fruitful in the way that we addressed all the issues at hands, be it some situations of crisis that we have on the continent, but also the strategic issues in term of sharing the view that the most important thing for both of us is really to invest in prevention and human security. So – and to address those situations, that happily we secured agreements, like Central African Republic, on Sudan, and to make sure that we avoid relapses. So I think there is plenty of joint actions that we can undertake together.

We also highlighted the appreciation that we have in Africa for the capacity-building that we are getting from the United States, be it in the defense sector, security, but also in development. So happily, we have this new event that last time in Niamey we launched, as you know, this CFTA, which is a major game-changer for us, as it will provide us to have one market in the continent, thereafter giving new opportunities for the business community here to participate and to contribute to the development of the continent.

So I think we have discussed the issues at hand. Certainly, we are all concerned about the situation in South Sudan, and the extension of three months came as a way maybe to give them additional chance to cope with what we are expecting from them and put in place this transition government. But I think both our friends here in Washington and us think that this cannot be a game of extending all the time, but this is – this maybe – this is the last chance for them to respond to the – first the will of their own people. South Sudanese are tired of the war. I mean, the level of – the dimension of the humanitarian situation is really very difficult on the ground. So we also addressed the situation in Somalia where we are getting very welcomed support in addressing and in support in AMISOM to degrade Shabaab, and also supporting the economical and – endeavor of the government in term of bringing more transparency and good governance in the issues of the state, therefore, maybe allowing this country to benefit from better acknowledgement and maybe better treatment about its – the level of debt that they have.

We addressed also the situation in Sudan. We welcomed, indeed, the nomination of civilian government, and we are going to support the – first, the process of securing an agreement between the armed groups. Those negotiations, as you know, are taking place in Juba, South Sudan. But also, we discussed the best way to give a hand to the Sudanese people in term of the very appalling situation of their economy. I think that is critical. And that goes – that’s what we discussed, the issues of sanctions, how can we address and lift them so in order to allow this country to have a new start.

We also discussed Central Africa Republic. You know that we have a peace agreement since the 6th of February. It is holding, but we have challenges, indeed. Fourteen armed groups is not an easy issue to deal with, but we are maintaining permanent contact with the government, the armed groups, and all the stakeholders. And we highlighted the importance of also launching whatever development programs that can ease the situation for the populations in the remote area mainly where you find telling you, well, we are drinking the same water with the animals. So it’s a powerful message indicating the level of challenges we have to address.

So I think as we are moving to the elections, you can also see that some parties are trying to create a space for them and trying to destroy the agreement itself by – that’s the easiest way for them to attack the president is to destroy the agreement. So we are working together to undo those maybe intentions, but we – meanwhile, we are saying there is no more transition in that country. We – everybody has to stick to the electoral process and the dates in conformity with the constitution. So we cannot continue or – again and again, this country has been going in crisis, permanent crisis, so I think this time we are counting also on the leadership of the United States to support us in making things clear for everybody and making this peace process holding and respected by everybody.

We discussed in fact Sahel. I think that is the most difficult and challenging situation we have now in the continent. As you know, the threat of terrorism and violent extremism is expanding. It’s not anymore in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert. So we have to see what can be done to stop the expansion, but also how can we address in a comprehensive way – it’s not only security and defense, it is also development. It’s also giving hope to people there so that they cannot be radicalized.

So let me stop here. But thank you very much for giving us this opportunity.

MR BROWN: I’ll take the first question from – all right, Shaun.

QUESTION: Sure. Shaun Tandon with AFP. Thanks for doing this, coming down here. Can I follow up on South Sudan? The U.S. had a quite strong statement after this delay, talking about re-evaluating the relationship. Of course, some in Africa, the Ugandans for example, have talked – and you just spoke right now about the idea of giving some time for reconciliation, what do you see – you speak of the last chance for them to have an agreement. What do you see in terms of what the U.S. will do to re-evaluation the relationship? What do you see as measures that you would both take?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: I don’t want to discuss those publicly. Sorry, guys. We’re – we’re implementing those as we speak, literally. You said it was a very strong statement. It’s very mild what – what we really thought at the time. No – so rest assured, we are very seriously re-evaluating our relationship, as Smail said. I think the whole entire international community had hoped that this would be November 12th, that there would be a unity government announced. We saw no reason why it could not happen. Unfortunately – and I would put quotes around the word “leaders” – are obviously quite content with the situation because the quote/unquote “Sudanese government” is not conducting the responsibilities that governments have towards their own people. The international community is providing the food, the medicines, basically all of the human needs that are the responsibilities of governments to do. They’re basically sitting back.

Contrast that situation with what happened in Sudan, that in the midst of political crises, the Sudanese were able to form a transition government without finding solutions for all of their very, very difficult problems. They set those aside, came up with a transition, and now are addressing those one after another in a process.

The South Sudanese didn’t. They – the cost to the international community is enormous, absolutely enormous. At some point the international community has to say enough is enough. We have a lot of tools available to us, and we will not hesitate to use them. And I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION: But can I follow up on that? As you both acknowledged, we’ve seen this movie before. Sanctions have been put on both Salva Kiir and the –


QUESTION: Yeah, Machar. Thank you. And if the international community were to withhold some of the humanitarian aid, it would hurt the people of South Sudan, not the leadership. So when you say this is the last chance, my question is: Or what?

MR CHERGUI: For the leadership to respond to the seriousness of the situation, first politically, and then put in place this government, transitional government. This is key to address the other issues in terms of preparing the next elections – the issue of the number of the states, the issue of – I mean, addressing the humanitarian situation – I mean, you can name all the challenges that we have, but if we don’t have the transitional government, nothing can move.

QUESTION: Right, and so my question is: If that doesn’t happen, if there’s no transitional government, you said this is the last chance, and if they still don’t move forward, then what repercussions will they face?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Rest assured, there are available mechanisms, tools available – and I’m not going to go any – into specifics, but I can assure you also that the entire international community is hyper-mobilized. I had, for example, a very productive telephone call this morning with His Grace The Archbishop of Canterbury, to show you just the level of interest around the world in this issue. We all recognize the horrible suffering that the South Sudanese people have had to endure, and it really is time to – it is way past time.

MR BROWN: Carol.

QUESTION: Well if the South – or if the Sudanese have done such an admirable job of being able to form a transitional government in the midst of all of their – all the problems that remain, why haven’t you lifted sanctions? When are you going to? Why don’t you reward that kind of thing by lifting sanctions and change the designation of them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Believe it or not, I have gotten that question and my colleagues have gotten that question in just about every single forum since the government, the transitional government, was formed in September. This is what I want to underline: One, we’ve had a 180-degree turn in our dealings with the Sudanese Government. Previously, it was a very – but it was an adversarial relationship in many respects. We now see the Sudanese Government as partners. That’s one. Two, ending sanctions and ending especially the state sponsor of terrorism, it’s not an event. It’s not flipping a light switch; it’s a process. And we are heavily, continuously engaged with our Sudanese interlocutors on how we can go about doing that. Again, I’m not going to put the details out in the public. This is something to be done behind closed doors.

QUESTION: Well, can you say how far along in the process you think you are?


QUESTION: You said you expect it next month.

MR BROWN: Robbie was next. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Can I just, as a quick follow on that?

MR BROWN: Follow up on the same question?

QUESTION: Can you say whether or not you would expect it to happen next month when the prime minister is expected to come to Washington?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: It will happen when it happens, as quickly as possible. Again, we’re working in partnership. That, to me, is the most important factor.

QUESTION: Can you confirm he’s coming to Washington next month?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Neither confirm nor deny. Ask the Sudanese.

MR BROWN: Robbie was next.

QUESTION: Yeah, but – can I just – just to clarify – thanks, Robbie, I appreciate it. Are you committing then to lifting the sanctions? It’s just a matter of when, not if.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: No. No, because they’re – because it’s a process. There are conditions to such an event, so everybody is hoping that it will happen. Everybody is hoping that it will happen as quickly as possible because we all understand the hardships that it is causing. But again, to me the bottom line is we are now dealing with partners.

MR BROWN: Okay. Robbie?

QUESTION: Two questions, the first on South Sudan, three-month extension, but at the end of those three months, it’s the same actors at the top who are the ones who are responsible for not meeting the November 12th deadline. So how optimistic are you that three months from now there’s actually – they’re actually going to magically decide to form a new government? And I know you’re being coy about all options on the table. Your office has mentioned sanctions in the past. Would that come before or after the three-month deadline?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: You want to go first?

MR CHERGUI: I think coming from Addis, we just had the ministerial meeting of IGAD member states, which addressed thoroughly the situation. But also I had the chance to meet Riek Machar in August. The easiest thing is we told him, okay, what are you expecting, because he’s – we want to see him and the – and President Salva Kiir together. That’s the message to their nation. So we identified the elements that he wanted to be addressed before going back, and we are going to start working – we’ve already started working on them. So in my public address to the ministers meeting, I said we consider this additional three months as the extreme prolongment, but we are hoping that we can gather those conditions before, because now they are well-known. We have been discussing this over and over.

So we hope that this time things will go better, and we have the leaders of the region, mainly president of Uganda and president of Sudan themselves, who are also accompanying this process. It can be an added value to the process compared with the – what we had in the past. So if we have a kind of – and in consensus also with the neighbor of South Sudan, I think we might move quicker. But I agree with you, I think we have to remain vigilant in addressing such things, and we want to make sure that this time we’ll not miss the new date, because as you are saying, I mean, the Sudanese – South Sudanese people are really tired of this situation.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: And from my point of view, coy may also mean diplomatic discretion, but I will just read a statement – I will read one sentence from the statement that Morgan put out as spokesperson. This is talking about Kiir and Machar. “Their inability to achieve this basic demonstration of political will for the people of South Sudan calls into question their suitability to continue to lead the nation’s peace process,” end quote.

MR BROWN: Who’s next? Humeyra.

QUESTION: So can I ask you about Libya?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: No. Not my – you can ask this gentleman. He covers all of Africa. I get 46 countries south of the Sahara.

QUESTION: Okay, okay. Then I’ll ask you about what you said about rising terrorist threats in West Africa and beyond. Islamist groups around there long used gold and artisanal mining and then financed it with, like, diamonds. We have had quite a lot of investigations going in that area, and we see Burkina Faso and that area doing the same with gold, artisanal mining. What is the scale of this from your side? How worried are you about this? What are the tools that you’re deploying to prevent this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: The Sahel is very, very difficult to discuss briefly. It is complicated. It’s a multilayered problem. It involves ethnic rivalries. It involves history. It involves the way borders were drawn. And on and on and on.

What started as a problem in northern Mali stemming from the flow of arms from Libya was severely mishandled by the Malian Government and has grown to first threaten other Sahelian states and now to threaten the littoral states of West Africa. I’m sure about Smail can tell you about his experience. I’ve had discussions with the leaders of most of those states, most recently yesterday with the Togolese foreign minister, and every one of those states is very concerned about – and I call it a cancer, cancer that started in Mali and how is infecting the region.

Just as the problem is multilayered and complex, the solution is going to be the same. It’s going to involve, first of all, the will of the governments impacted to face up to it in a very serious manner, starting, again, with Mali. There is a lot of mechanisms in place. There are the United Nations peacekeeping forces. There are the French with Operation Barkhane. There is a G5 Sahel Forces. Now ECOWAS is discussing very seriously getting involved and putting up incredible financial resources to confront this. There is the larger international community. There is the EU. There is obviously the African Union.

QUESTION: Is it working?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: No, it is not. We need to have a much, much more robust engagement. There has to be much more robust coordination. But at the end of the day, it gets back to the willingness, capabilities of the governments involved to confront the issue. And it started out with a couple of countries. Now it’s grown to many more than a couple, and more and more countries are involved. Those that take it very seriously and confront the problems.

The boundaries, as was discussed this morning during the discussion, the boundaries are artificial. You have to remember the boundaries were set at the Congress of Berlin, not through history and geography. So you have to treat it now as a regional problem by the entire international community in a coordinated, organized, very serious manner.

MR CHERGUI: Yeah. If you may allow me, I will add a new phenomenon which is killing more than terrorism. That’s the violence between the communities. And they are also manipulated by these armed groups. So I think the situation is more and more complicated, and I agree with Tibor that it’s also the fact that we have porous borders, the immensity of the desert, and if you take in account that the G5 force was composed of 5,000 troops only in this immensity, it’s just a drop. And even though it has not been operationalized until now, two years after the meeting in Brussels and the announcement made there, out of 414 millions only 18 arrived to the region. So you can see that, on one hand, the terrorism is expanding, and obviously, what we have in play is not helping to cover the situation. So I think the approach advanced by ECOWAS during their last summit in Burkina Faso might be the way out, because it’s the issue of appropriation also. They have put 1 billion on the table to support the security, I mean, apparatus of the region. So we are going to work with them in how we can revisit the ConOps of the forces that we have there, and now address the situation in the best way, but not always whenever we have crisis that the countries of the region have to look outside for the support.

QUESTION: Can you –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY: Can I add one thing? Because for American audiences especially, we say Sahel, very few people know what we’re talking about – and in the countries of the Sahel. When I was a professor and I talked about this, we have to remember each of those countries by themselves is twice as big as Texas. Burkina Faso is as big as one Texas. You know the others are twice as big. And we’re talking about that immense territory. These few numbers, it’s just incredible.

QUESTION: Can I ask the minister to follow up on –

MR CHERGUI: And then indeed, the response cannot be only security. You have also to add the development dimension which is very important, which means preventing additional radicalization of the youth both by terrorists but also you have all the criminal networks. And I think you spoke about the gold, but don’t forget also the drugs coming through Guinea-Bissau which is fueling terrorism also.

QUESTION: So from your perspective, why is it that the local governments –

MR BROWN: I hate to cut this off, but I have to get him to the White House.

QUESTION: I just would like to hear from – since he’s in from – coming from Africa about his perspective since we – that’s one we don’t get very often. Why is it Tibor said that the – it goes back to the willingness of the governments who are involved? Why do you believe the governments are not willing to participate in this? Are they corrupt? Is there not enough – or do they not have enough money to do it? What does that come down to?

MR CHERGUI: Well, I think the governments are doing their utmost efforts to cope with that situation. Now, as we were all saying, it is very complicated. It needs a lot of investment. It needs a lot of equipment. And the armies of these countries were not prepared or trained for such a challenge. It’s a new one which needs then a different approach which needs specific equipment. And that’s where we are. I mean, if you take Burkina Faso, they are in the stage of reconstitution of their army, but they don’t have a breath. They are just every day targeted. So I think it is really an appalling situation, but I think talking to partners like United States of America, I think together with other partners we have to deal with this global threat because, I mean, Sahel is not far from any country in the world.

MR BROWN: All right, thank you all.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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