An official website of the United States government

U.S. Support for Combating COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa
Briefing With Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy
May 22, 2020

U.S. Support for Combating COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa
Briefing With Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy
Via Teleconference
MAY 21, 2020


MR BROWN:  Thank you.  Good morning, everyone.  Welcome to this on-the-record briefing with our Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy, who has one of the very best names in the State Department.  Just yesterday, Secretary Pompeo announced another 162 million in foreign assistance to benefit the global response to COVID, bringing our total commitments to more than $1 billion since the outbreak began.  Assistance to 39 countries on the African continent from Angola to Zimbabwe and three regional groupings – the Sahel, West Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa – these are essential components of this effort.

But the U.S. engagement and commitment to Africa extends far beyond our response to COVID. We’re working on economic growth, security, education, sustainable development.  Assistant Secretary Nagy will fill us in on the latest.

As a reminder, the contents of the briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.

Tibor, go ahead.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY:  Thanks a lot, Cale.  And what I’ll do is I’ll read a short statement and then we’ll open it up for discussion.  So with that, good morning, everyone.  Thanks so much for participating in the call.  We appreciate the great work you guys do.  It won’t be long before we’re all back to normal.  My sincere prayers go out to each and every one of your families during these unprecedented times.

I spoke to a group of journalists from Africa a few weeks ago, and what I said then bears repeating.  After a full career living and working on the continent, I am as optimistic as ever that we are not only going to get through this, but that our relationship with the African people will come out of it even stronger.

Nowadays, COVID-19 is taking up most of the news and our energy, and understandably so.  But our longstanding partnership with Africa on other issues continues as well.  Whether it be working together towards good governance, increasing trade and investment, enhancing development of Africa’s youth and women’s entrepreneurship, or increasing security, our commitment to the African people is as strong as it’s ever been.

I note that the people of Burundi went to the polls yesterday.  Preliminary results will be posted this coming Tuesday.  As the Secretary said yesterday, we urge all sides to refrain from provocations or violence, to respect the democratic rights of all citizens, and to use established legal processes to address potential grievances.

I am optimistic about the potential for progress in the U.S.-Burundi relationship following these elections.  We applaud the Government of France, an international residual mechanism for criminal tribunals, for the arrest last weekend of Felicien Kabuga, who is charged with playing a key role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  This is a milestone for international justice and a message to all those who commit genocide and other atrocity crimes that they will be brought to justice.  The United States remains committed to seeking justice for victims of the genocide and promoting accountability for all such crimes worldwide.

Secretary Pompeo has repeatedly stressed now is the time to reinforce America’s longstanding partnerships with our African friends, and that partnership has continued to grow ever stronger under President Trump’s leadership.  With the current global focus on public health, it bears repeating that the United States is by far the largest donor nation to Africa, having committed more than $100 billion over the past 20 years towards public health on the African continent and trained over 285,000 health care workers.  Millions of lives have been saved with our initiatives. With PEPFAR alone, over 18 million lives were saved in 18 years, and the President’s Malaria Initiative, or PMI, has helped save over 7 million lives while preventing over a billion cases of malaria in the last 20 years.

And now in the fight against COVID-19, again, no other nation is doing more than we are.  Of the more than $900 million the U.S. Government has pledged worldwide to fight the virus, close to $270 million is geared towards Sub-Saharan Africa.

With that intro, I will stop and turn it over to you all.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  So going to our queue, let’s start off with Carol Morello.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) to help Sudan.  In Tanzania, the U.S. Embassy put a note up on its website saying that the government to date is giving – providing – can you hear me?

MR BROWN:  It got cut off, the first part of your question.  So if you could start over, that’d be great.

QUESTION:  Okay.  I’d like – Tanzania – and South Sudan, the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania has a note on its website saying the government is providing no data on the number of COVID cases since late April and that they believe there is exponential growth.  Do you know what is going on there?  And in South Sudan, there are reports that government health workers have not been paid in four months, and at the same time Riek Machar, who is the head of the COVID task force, has tested positive and he is supposed to have $3 million his hands on somehow, but he has not paid them.  Do you know what’s going on there?  Is that true?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY:  Thanks very much for the question, Carol.

On Tanzania, yes, it’s very disappointing.  Allegedly, according to their statistics, they stopped providing any more COVID statistics as of April 29th, and so obviously there are much greater numbers since then.  Dar es Salaam, we don’t know exactly what the situation is there.  I mean, our embassy is doing its best to take surveys and see what’s happening, but unfortunately the government there is just not being very transparent with the entire process.  Also, I think the Tanzanian Government is taking steps to try to reopen everything.  Obviously, they are very concerned with the economic impact that the loss of the tourism industry is going to have on them, but I can’t imagine any tourists flocking back there in such an uncertain environment.

South Sudan – interesting you mention that – just this morning, just like an hour before talking to you guys, I had a conversation with the South Sudanese foreign minister on a whole range of issues.  One of them has to do with obviously the COVID-19.  Our embassy there is also keeping very close track, engaging with them on a daily basis.  My conversation obviously was more than COVID because we’re also very concerned with some events going on there, whether it’s resumed fighting in Equatoria, access of humanitarian organizations to potential refugees, internal migrants who – where COVID might be springing up.  And yes, our information is that both Senior Vice President Riek Machar and his wife, who is the defense minister, are both suffering from COVID-19.  I don’t have any details on any possible $3 million, but obviously our embassy is very engaged in discussing with them on how best to move forward, and not paying workers certainly is not helping in that effort.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Okay, for the second question let’s go to Michel Ghandour.

QUESTION:  Two questions on Sudan.  First, what is the next step after the Supreme Court ruled that Sudan has to pay more than $4 billion to U.S. East African embassy attack victims?

And second, news reports that the U.S. has reached an agreement with the Sudanese regarding this issue – is this accurate?  And when do you expect Sudan to be removed from the list of state sponsor of terrorism?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY:  Okay, thanks so much for that question.  That’s going to involve also an involved answer, but let’s go with the last part first because I get asked that not only by every single media representative I’ve done, but also with our friends in various governments.  And I wish I could tell you, because the termination of the designation of state sponsor of terrorism is not going to be flipping a switch.  It is a process involving several branches of the U.S. Government.  So I wish I could give you a definitive answer.  Unfortunately, I cannot.

On the court decision, a couple of points.  Again, I have to be very careful in what I say here because I am not a lawyer or a legal expert, but here are a couple of points on that.  Okay, we obviously note the court decision, the Supreme Court decision, the May 18th decision.  We also recognize that litigation related to those claims is going to continue.  And I want to underline that we remain absolutely committed to our efforts to work with Sudan to achieve a resolution of the claims related to the 1998 East Africa bombings.

I can confirm that we have reached a common understanding with Sudan – and my words here are very careful – on the contours of a future bilateral claims agreement, on the contours of such an agreement.  Also, this final agreement will reflect Sudan’s agreement to pay – it would include compensation in connection with claims relating also to non-U.S. nationals killed and injured in the embassy bombings.  This has been a high priority for the U.S. Government given that these foreign nationals were our employees and contractors, so obviously two sets of litigants: U.S. citizens and non-U.S. nationals.

So yes, I can confirm we have reached, but again, my words are very careful on that: the contours of an agreement, contours of a future bilateral claims agreement.  Over.  And I wish I could go into more details, but like I said, I am neither an attorney nor a legal expert, and obviously we’re not going to get into the nuances or the details at this stage.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Next, Francesco Fontemaggi.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  I wanted to ask you about Burundi.  I heard what the Secretary said.  I saw your tweets commending the Burundian people who are going massively to the polls.  What kind of process do you have in this regime without observance to conclude democratic elections?  And also, if you can give us your comment on the decision to expel the WHO team during this pandemic.  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY:  Yeah.  It’s no secret our relations with Burundi have not been what I would call cordial at all.  We are encouraged – I mean, obviously, we’re receiving reports from our embassy about the events going on there related to the elections.  One good point is that these elections are in no way as violent or as problematic as the elections were in 2015.

So having said that, we’re obviously going to be following not just the elections, but the post-election period.  The preliminary results are supposed to come out on Tuesday.  Very important to press for non-violence for the government following the – as positive a democratic process as possible.  And then, as invariably happens with many elections, that if there are contestations of the results, they should follow whatever the prescribed process is for that.

And one other hope I have is that going forward, once there is a government that emerges from the elections, we hope that we can look again to see if we can resume a more normal relations, bilateral relations between our two countries.  In the past, we’ve had cordial relations with Burundi and there’s no reason not to get back to that.  Those people who I know who have had postings in Burundi all speak glowingly about the warmth of the people and just the potential that the country has.

So we would like to be optimistic.  We’ll watch very carefully.  Can’t say at this point yet that all will be well.  We’re just very hopeful and we’ll see what happens starting Tuesday, but meanwhile, following the atmospherics of the elections very closely.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Jessica Donati from Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION:  (No response.)

MR BROWN:  Jessica, go ahead.

QUESTION:  (No response.)

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Not hearing anything.  Let’s try Barbara Usher.

OPERATOR:  One moment.

QUESTION:  It’s for me?  This is Barbara.

OPERATOR:  Barbara, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Good morning.  I was wondering if the State Department has an assessment and/or a projection with regards to COVID-19 in Africa.  I know that’s a big question, but broadly speaking, what I’ve been picking up is that there is far fewer cases – confirmed cases and elsewhere, but sort of dire predictions that it could all explode.  Do you have a view on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY:  Thanks so much, Barbara.  Wow, that’s another one of those really difficult questions, and here’s the situation:  Of course, you guys know just how immense Sub-Saharan African is with its 51 countries and – but there are a couple of common points that I can make, and these kind of work against each other.  First of all, Africa still is majority rural.  I think the urbanization rate is up to now about 40 percent – some countries much more urban than others, for example, South Africa.

Point two is that Africa’s population is incredibly young.  Those of us who live in places like the United States, I don’t think we can fully appreciate just how young and youthful Africa’s population is.

Point three:  Just about anyone in Africa, unfortunately, chances are that they have had some kind of a serious illness in their lives, whether it was Malaria or Dysentery, or you name it.  So these factors kind of play off against each other, and then you add to that the lack of really good data.  Again, being such a huge continent with so many different countries, there are a few countries – for example, South Africa – that has quite good statistics and data measures, and then there’s others.  We were just talking about Tanzania, which has stopped providing any data whatsoever.  So when you don’t have access to the – certainly the number of test kits, the fundamental health systems, or the data, you just don’t know.  So it’s anecdotal.

Our embassies around the continent – I get literally daily reports from all of the embassies as to what’s happening in their back yard, and even there some of the numbers seem to be extraordinarily low.  And you say to yourself, “That just cannot be.”  But then you further complicate the matter with the issue of social distancing.  I mean, in the developed world, we – yes, there’s been hassles and everything, but social distancing, for the most part, worked relatively well.

In Africa, where you have large segments of the population who literally live day-to-day, and they exist in the informal economy, and they live in cheek-to-jowl housing in urban slums, there is just no way at all that you can implement any kind of serious, especially long-term, social distancing.  So very quickly, those activities will revert to what they always have to do, because if you have to choose between the possibility of getting COVID or not eating or not having fresh drinking water, that’s – unfortunately that’s not a very difficult choice to make.

So given all of those factors, I don’t think anybody can you tell you definitively what is the situation on the continent.  A pretty good idea in South Africa and in a couple of other countries.  For example, I think now it’s been weeks since they’ve had a new case in the Seychelles.  But the Seychelles – again, a middle-income country, fairly developed, island nations that can control entrance and egress much easier than a large country that – with porous borders.  I mean, just look at the Sahelian countries across the Sahel.  Each and every one of them is about twice the size of the state of Texas, and certainly the borders are not controlled strictly.  So it’s a very difficult question.  All we can go on is our anecdotal evidence, and our embassies are going to keep reporting on the best information they have locally.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Okay, let’s try again for Jessica Donati from Wall Street Journal.  I think she may be listed as Beth Donati on your queue.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me?

MR BROWN:  Yep, gotcha.

QUESTION:  Okay, great.  Thank you.  I was just wondering if you could talk about the repatriations that are still ongoing in Africa and which countries are still repatriating Americans.  And do you have any issues there getting government to cooperate?

And a non-coronavirus question on Sudan, over a year has gone by and there’s still no TMC and there are no civilian governors, and we were wondering if you’re losing confidence in the military’s commitment to the transition.  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY:  Okay.  Very good two questions.  Let’s talk about Sudan first.  Actually, no, it’s not an easy transition.  I mean, I’m very honest when I talk about Sudan and to even more of an extent South Sudan.  I mean, the transition has been a house of cards because of where they’re coming from.  We talk to everybody.  We believe everybody, especially the leadership, has very positive intent.  They do have their own coalitions, whether it’s the civilians with the prime minister or the military with the military leadership, with Burhan.  They have their own factions to deal with and they set some fairly ambitious goals, and understandably, they’re having problems meeting some of them.

We are hyper-engaged with Sudan.  We’ve had calls with the Sudanese leadership from the highest points in the State Department.  Our special envoy, Ambassador Don Booth, is engaged on a continuing basis on the whole range of issues, whether it’s trying to find a peaceful resolution to the remaining internal conflicts, whether it’s trying to garner support for the civilian-led transitional government, whether it’s trying to help the civilians within themselves come up with mechanisms for forming the transitional assembly and other things.  So to answer your question, I mean every day that goes by and the system works, it’s like adding another card into that house.

But the COVID has really been a punch to the gut, as it has for any number of our countries in Africa, and for our country as well.  So with all the problems that they’ve had to deal with, and then to have the COVID on top of that, it’s – it is a huge, huge challenge for them.  But I can say the international community I believe is being as supportive as possible.

On the repatriations across the continent, again, I have to say it’s a – like I did for the general posture of COVID across the continent, it varies greatly from country to country.  We’ve had extraordinary success in being able to evacuate American citizens.  I believe we are now over 14,000.  There may be a couple of thousand left scattered throughout the continent.  But we have now progressed from the very large flights, having several hundred people from one destination, to literally going from one place to another to another to another and picking up handfuls or dozens.

And you guys who work for – with Africa, you know, again, it’s impossible to describe just how immensely large the continent is.  So if you’re doing one of those quote-unquote “milk runs” that may start in a place in East Africa, hope to the center, go the south, go back to the west, and then come to the United States, you are talking about some very, very complicated logistics.  I mean, my hat’s off to our incredible embassies, who have been doing this with reduced staff, with the headquarters support here in the State Department, the Office of Management, Medical Services, our own Executive Director’s Office, and then a number of airlines.  And amongst the African airlines, I do have to cite Ethiopian Airlines.  They have been phenomenally, phenomenally helpful in their willingness to charter their aircraft to pick up our citizens immaterial of where they were.

So it’s been an incredible effort.  I am just so pleased.  In my 40-plus years of government service, I have never been involved in such an endeavor, and I have never been prouder of our employees across the board, from folks here in the State Department but folks at our embassies, especially – especially – in the small embassies that have been doing these repatriations in extremely difficult circumstances.

And hats off also to the African governments.  I’ll be talking this afternoon to all the African diplomats in Washington, and the African governments have been just extraordinarily cooperative.  And it’s not just a matter of saying yes, we’ll let your plane come in and pick up X number of citizens, but as I said, those planes have to travel circuitous routes, and that involves also getting overflight clearances from all the countries they’re going over.  And we’re asking them to do those literally in hours, not in days.  And they’re also ministries of foreign affairs which are not staffed or people are at home trying to do this.

So it’s been just an incredible effort.  I am just so proud of so, so many different people to have been able to provide for our citizens.  I mean, we have to remember that’s why the State Department existed in the first place.  It was to take care of American citizens overseas, and that remains our first, second, third, fourth-highest priorities.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Okay. We have time for one more quick question, so Humeyra, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Thank you.  Can you – I know that you said it’s the contours of an agreement, but can you give any details about how much will they have to pay, or at least on what basis those calculations will be made?

And my second question is:  We understand there are Sudanese are sent to fight for Haftar, to Libya.  They were originally deployed in Yemen by the UAE, and now it seems like they’re being shipped to Libya to help out Haftar.  What is the U.S. assessment on that, please?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NAGY:  Okay, so I can’t be very helpful to you on the first part, because obviously those kind of details which are being worked out and will be part of the overall claims agreement – we’re no – we have discussed, obviously, numbers with the parties involved, but in no way can we make those public yet.  Like I said – and I’m very careful with my wording on this – that we have reached a common understanding with Sudan on the contours of a future bilateral claims agreement, and that’s the phrase I want to stick with.

On the possibility of Sudanese going to Libya to fight, we have held discussions with the Sudanese Government on that very same issue.  The Sudanese Government tells us that there’s no official Sudanese in any capacity in Libya.  Rest assured we continue looking into that and we continue with our discussions on that.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Thank you.  Assistant Secretary Nagy, appreciate you briefing us all today.  And for everybody who jumped on the call, as this is the end of the call, the contents or the embargo on the contents is lifted.  Everybody have a good day.  All right.