Press Briefing: Kenyan State Visit

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This transcript is from a CSIS press briefing hosted on May 14, 2024.

Samuel Cestari: Thank you, Brad. Appreciate it. Hello, everybody. And welcome to this CSIS press briefing previewing next week’s state visit to the United States by Kenyan President William Ruto. We’re pleased to have two of our Africa Program experts on the call today to share their perspectives on the visit’s significance, the state of U.S.-Kenya relations, and the Biden administration’s Africa strategy.

Just a couple of housekeeping notes before we get started. Each of our speakers will offer several minutes of introductory remarks, after which we’ll turn to your questions. We’ll also be distributing a transcript of today’s call to all participants in the next few hours, and a transcript will be made available on later today.

So with that, why don’t we go ahead and get started? I’ll first turn to Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, CSIS Africa Program director and senior fellow. Mvemba, over to you.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Thank you very much, Sam. Good morning, everyone. And thank you for joining us today for this briefing.

Africa has been at the center of U.S. policy on specific areas, right? Security, and then trade, AGOA. Those are some of the issues that have been front and center when we talk about Africa. But Africa, of course, has not always been – and rarely been top of the list. But we know that with the Sahel and the U.S. asking – they have been asked to leave Niger, the various turbulence and trouble in places like Mali and Burkina Faso has affected the state of relations with Africa quite a bit as of late.

But we also know that the various crises across the continent – in places like the Horn, in places like the Great Lakes region, Mozambique – continue to worry the security – the security part of U.S. foreign policy. Those seem to get all the attention in a place like Washington. We also know that the White House, especially about two years ago, were very involved in redesigning, quote/unquote, “engagement with Africa,” with the new U.S.-Africa strategy document that came out, and laid out some of the changes, at least the way that the U.S. had intended to engage with Africa from that time. Meaning they stressed the value of partnership with Africa. Of course, “partnership” is a word we hear a lot when we talk about Africa. And often it’s not very clear what that means and how that will be different from what has been done in the past.

Another key element of that strategy document was African agency. And African agency in this case meant that Africans will be able to choose their partners, the U.S. will engage them in a respectful manner, keeping in mind that these are sovereign countries that have their own agendas and their own strategic interests.

The other point was also the acknowledgement of the role that Africa need to be playing in the world, particularly with climate change and that entire space with COP-28 and so on, the forests, the rivers, and the value that Africa may add. That has led to a set of discussions, especially in the last iteration of COP, over mitigation and climate funds, and so that came to be.

The other point that we also need to be mentioning from that strategy document is engagement with the youth, knowing that Africa is very powerful when it comes to demographics. It’s a young continent with a median age of 19, and many other countries actually much lower than that – 17, 16, depending on the country. This means, of course, when you compare to Europe where the median age in a place like Germany is 49, there is a major gap, almost a 30-year gap, with most of these African countries. This means that when we consider the various contingencies in the world, Africa is poised to play a key role.

That role is not always clear. This means that when it comes to climate change, security, and even labor force, Africa should be playing a major role. Does that translate necessarily into policies, both on the African side and also on the Western side, that make sense? That’s a question that we all are grappling with to see what kind of policies should be put in place.

To come to the visit, we know that Africa does not always get that access to the White House in the way that a lot of us who follow Africa believe it should get. So the last state visit from an African president happened in 2008 when the then-President of Ghana John Kufuor, was received at the White House, at the Blair House. Kenya itself has been at the forefront of U.S. Africa policy, being a steady and reliable partner of the United States. But again, it’s not something that translate directly into a state visit.

In Africa, because of the dearth of this engagement, any state visit is celebrated. And Kenya, of course, coming to the White House in a state-visit format, it’s something that is applauded because, as we see it, it’s not just a bilateral between Kenya and the United States; this is actually representative of the entire engagement with the United States and Africa – between the United States and Africa.

So President Ruto coming signal a few things. One is what we like to call the emergence of Kenya as a regional power. Kenya has always been a regional power, to be sure, but it is the kind of regional power that has projected more of its economic might – the strong banks, the very strong economy, the – heavy on the financial sector, but also agri sector and also health sector, public-health sector. So they’re present through Equity Bank, through Kenyan Airways, and others.

What they’ve not done in the past is to get involved in security and regional issues, and security and regional issues in that neighborhood. We saw this changing with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who got involved first. We know that Kenya was provoked to get involved in Somalia, that they were literally provoked by al-Shabaab, so they went to Somalia. But then, since, we saw President Kenyatta then get involved with the conflict in Tigray, where he uses diplomatic might to try to help open a humanitarian corridor during the war in Tigray.

We also saw President Kenyatta literally singlehandedly bring the DRC into the EAC, the East Africa Community, when he was chairman of that community. This is huge, because the DRC literally doubled the size of EAC. The DRC being such a large market provided great opportunities for the Kenyans to open the banks. The largest bank in Kenya acquired the largest bank in DRC. The second-largest bank acquired the second-largest bank in DRC. So on the economic front, this was very key, very important for Kenya.

But Kenya also inherited some of the security problems of the DRC. So Kenya then joined the regional force that went to DRC, sent in a contingent in DRC. That engagement did not go well, the mandate particularly was problematic, and Kenya withdrew its forces. Kenya declared it a success, but everybody else who follows the region consider it a failure.

So as the president of Kenya now, President Ruto, asserts or continues to assert that projection of power in the region, we’ve seen him be very active. They hosted the climate summit, the first such summit in Africa, which by all means was a success in terms of engaging the world from the African perspective and Africa putting out its own agenda on those issues. We also have seen President Ruto play major roles in various areas across the continent where the presence of Kenya is felt. And we saw and heard President Biden give him a shout-out at the General Assembly at the U.N. last year. And Kenya is now pushing a foray into Haiti, which is a point both of surprise but also of caution, because if the engagement in a place like DRC did not pan out exactly as people had expected, question is how will this work in a place like Haiti that is equally complicated. But he also – President Ruto, that is – is not getting the support that he was supposed to get from his own parliament, from his own various institutions in Kenya.

These are some of the issues that we would like to discuss with you today. I will turn the time to my colleague Cameron Hudson to flesh out some of the issue that I just touched around. Cameron?

Mr. Cestari: Thank you. Thank you, Mvemba. I’m just going to provide a quick transition here. Just adding in a reminder that if anyone wants to ask a question, that they can press 1 and then zero to be added to the queue. And after our next speaker, we’ll turn to your questions and answer them as best as we can.

So next we have Cameron Hudson, senior fellow with the CSIS Africa Program. Cameron, over to you.

Cameron Hudson: Thank you, Sam. And thanks, Mvemba, for that comprehensive introduction. I’ll just add a couple of points of my own and try not to overlap with what’s already been said.

I’ll just try to maybe situate this in terms of the significance, not just of the U.S.-Kenya bilateral relationship, but I think how the Biden administration of using this visit as a – as a proxy for signal-sending on its broader strategy for Africa. I think when the Biden administration came in, there was a real sense that it needed to mend ties to Africa. There was a sense that the Trump administration had – either by omission or commission – neglected African partners, didn’t see Africa as a particular strategic region of the world. To the extent that it did, it saw it as a battlefield for doing – for containing China and competing with China.

And so I think the Biden administration made a very concerted effort coming in to try to reset relations with Africa, and quickly out of the gate, you saw them announce the development of a new Africa strategy that Mvemba – which Mvemba referred to. That was launched in August of 2022. By December of 2022, the president convened 49 African heads of state in Washington at an African leaders summit, something not done since the Obama administration. And there was a real sense that Africa was emerging as an important priority for the Biden administration up to that point.

I would say, however, after that summit, we really saw a drop-off in at least presidential, if not high-level senior involvement from the administration, from the Secretary of State especially. I think we have seen not the level of engagement that we would have expected to see from an administration that had launched this strategy and launched this summit.

In the course of the nearly now 18 months since the – since the African Leaders Summit, the president has met with only one African head of state in the Oval Office – that was the president of Angola last December – and he’s made only one phone call to an African head of state in 18 months. And that was to President Ruto last year to talk to him about deploying Kenyan peacekeepers to Haiti. So despite the sort of high level of talk and rhetoric about making Africa a priority and situating Africa squarely within a strategic context for the United States, we haven’t seen that translate into greater involvement personally by the president or the secretary of state since that time.

Obviously, in that period the president made repeated promises to visit Africa in the first term, which didn’t come to fruition for a variety of reasons. I think many would ascribe it to the war in Gaza that derailed efforts late last year to have him go. So in many respects, I think this feels – this visit today feels a bit like a fig leaf, not just for the Kenyans but for Africa in general, and a kind of a placeholder for the administration to say: All of those things that we said early on in the administration, they all remain true. We’ve remained committed to the continent and to our partners on the continent. And this is a sort of downpayment on some of those promises that we made – that we made before.

I think we need to acknowledge the way Washington has traditionally managed its relationships in Africa as a way of looking at this visit. I think, you know, there’s 54 countries in Africa. And Washington has, I think, always struggled to have an equal amount of influence across that very broad landscape. And so traditionally, one of the ways it has done that is through very deep ties with regional powers. And I think that model for how Washington engages in Africa is actually right now under a lot of strain.

Those traditional regional powers have been countries like Nigeria, which in recent years has really struggled as a regional power because of a lot of internal disarray, both political and economic. South Africa has traditionally been a regional power that we have relied on a great deal to police its own region and regions well beyond its own region. But, again, we have very strained ties with South Africa over the last few years – owing to the war in Ukraine, the war in Gaza, and now upcoming elections in South Africa just next week – or, two weeks.

And then, of course, Ethiopia, a similar regional power that we’ve relied on significantly over time to help demonstrate – to help demonstrate peacekeeping and other mediations. But, again, they’ve had a war in the Tigray region over the last few years that they’re still trying to overcome and recover from, which has made it not an ideal partner. So Kenya really stands alone right now, I think, among regional powers that the United States can rely on. And Mvemba has outlined a number of the ways that we are – that we are relying on them regionally to provide security services across the continent.

And then the last thing I’ll say is President Ruto himself is using this as an opportunity to raise his profile on the global stage. We have seen since coming to office that he has really promoted himself internationally as a leader of the continent. So as Mvemba said, the hosting of the African Climate Summit, his engagements at the U.N., his engagement around peacekeeping outside of Africa. So he is using this as an opportunity to raise his personal profile even further. So I’ll stop there.

Mr. Cestari: Perfect. Thank you, Cameron. Really appreciate that. And thank you to Mvemba as well.

So at this time why don’t we open it up for questions?

(Gives queuing instructions.)

I’ll turn it over to our operator, Brad, to open up the line. Seems like we have a number of great questions here in the queue. Brad, why don’t we go ahead with our first question?

Operator: Perfect. Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

First we’ll go to George Condon with the National Journal. Please go ahead.

Q: Great. Thanks much. I had two questions. The first I simple. How much damage to continent relations did Trump do with some of his comments and his actions? And then, secondly, a broader question. In the past when Bill Clinton went to Africa, and so on, the focus seemed to be blunting China’s influence. But it seems like Russia’s more a factor now, after what we saw in Niger. Can you talk about the – what the challenge is there in dealing with both China and Russia on the continent?

Mr. Hudson: I’ll take that. Mvemba, you want to start?

Mr. Dizolele: Yes, I’ll take that. Trump damage, I think there was – of course, it feels now like so long ago – (laughs) – still like so long ago. But there was some damage in the sense that people were surprised, particularly youth populations at large – I’m not even talking about leaders here – that they view the world that way. That damage was not as much of a shock as we may think. Africans themselves have this discussion all the time in terms of where are they, where the country’s going. So on one level the people felt offended; on another level people felt like Trump was articulating something that a lot of people thought of anyway. The question was at the same level a lot of people feel like he spoke the truth, and how does Africa then engage the rest – engage the rest of the world in a way that is practical? At the same time, everybody understood also that Trump was transactional and it was time maybe for Africa to be transactional as well in the way they dealt with the United States.

Like Cameron said, following Trump – the Trump administration, the Biden administration tried to reset in many ways. We saw the flurry of high-level officials – U.S. officials – visiting Africa. The question that we’re left with today is: How did it really translate into anything substantial for U.S.-Africa relations? Do we see any new way of engagement that didn’t exist before? Did we see any increase in terms of foreign direct investment, in terms of security programs, in terms of mutually beneficial programs or engagement? It’s not clear at this point. And if we push a little more, we say not really much has changed, right, beyond – we see this particularly in places like the Sahel. What has really changed, question mark?

In terms of the shift with Russia and China, this actually speaks to the crux of the problem. The U.S. is not always engaging Africa in a way that makes sense to Africans. It’s heavily security-oriented, and that security orientation means U.S. protection, right? So if the U.S. has bases in Niger, it’s primarily to protect the homeland. It’s primarily to say how do we protect ourself from those guys. The issue of China and Russia is key because it goes to the original point that I made with regard to the security strategy document, the Africa strategy document, where the U.S. said we’re going to respect Africa agency. Well, Africa agency within the context of the great-power competition is that great-power competition is a good thing.

Africans see it as a good thing because it provide them with option and – option and choices and opportunities that they didn’t have before when it was just either bipolar world or unipolar world that it was for 30 years. The U.S. doesn’t see it that way. So where do we go from the Clinton years to today? This has been part of the friction that exists between African countries and the United States with engagement. In other words, the United States is not putting itself squarely in the middle with clear choices for Africans. Africans would like to continue working with the U.S. I think I can say that Africans believe the U.S. a lot of good – offering a lot of good things. But if the U.S. is not meeting them where they are, then this relationship is not yielding the result that is expected.


Mr. Hudson: Yeah. I don’t know if I would add too much, other than maybe one datapoint, which is President Ruto made a state visit to China about eight months ago, and I think that those of us in Washington, I think, can get trapped in this kind of Cold War mentality which Africa feels like it’s been trapped in for many decades as well, which is you’re either in our camp or you’re in this Russian and Chinese camp, but you can’t be in both camps. And I think the fact of the matter is that Africans see the world very differently. And they reject this idea of even a bipolar world anymore. And a multipolar world is a strategic objective for Africa and Africans. And they are pursuing that model of a world order very aggressively.

And so I think that whereas before, you know, 20 years ago you wouldn’t have conceived necessarily of an African leader taking, in the course of 12 months, two state visits to two competing countries. But that’s very much, I think, in keeping with the kind of international order that Africans want to see. And I think the challenge is, how willing is Washington to accept this rapidly changing world, where Washington might be the preferred partner for health, education, and development, but that China is going to be the preferred partner for mining, or for port development, and that Russia could be the preferred partner for security cooperation.

Are we going to be able to coexist with these great powers within a single African country? That’s a question, I think, that that we in Washington are posing to ourselves right now, and that policymakers are posing to themselves right now. But that question has been answered by African heads of state. And the answer is resoundingly, yes. They want those choices, and they want those options, and I think this visit is a demonstration of that.

Mr. Dizolele: Also, quickly, Sam, I’d just add, the other thing is while the U.S. is so focused on Russia and China, George, there are the middle powers that are making a big difference in the continent as well. Countries like Turkey, which are very popular, which are offering real choices to some of these countries – both on the security front, as well as the investment front. Great soft power. You have the UAE. You have a lot of these Gulf countries as well. We cannot dismiss those, because they actually filling major gaps in a lot of these countries as part of this option that Cameron just laid out as well.

Mr. Cestari: Thank you. Brad, go ahead.

Operator: Thank you. We’ll go to Toluse Olorunnipa with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

Q: Good morning. Thank you so much for this call.

I’ve got two questions as well. The first, you both sort of touched on this, but I wonder if I could just follow up to ask you specifically about President Biden’s decision to not fulfill his promise of traveling to Africa. Specifically, during 2023 he made that commitment during the African Leaders Summit, and didn’t follow through. And I’m wondering if you could talk about how that is being received on the continent, and what President Biden could do to try to address the fact that he didn’t fulfill that promise.

And then the second question is somewhat related. In The Washington Post, we had an interview with the prime minister of Niger. And one of the things he said was, just to read his quote, “We have seen what the United States will do to defend its allies because we have seen Ukraine and Israel.” And I wonder if you could talk about sort of how President Biden’s, you know, response to the situation in Ukraine and the situation in Israel, and sort of his robust engagement on those two sort of areas of engagement, are being seen on the continent, in comparison to his engagement, or lack of engagement, with countries in Africa.

Mr. Dizolele: Thank you, Toluse. I’ll take the first one and my colleague Cameron will take the second question. The failed – you know, the unkept promise to visit Africa by President Biden is actually a negative – a major negative for Africa. You know, one of the major gaps between the U.S. and Africa, and the way that the Africans perceive the U.S., is that the U.S. promises a lot and does not deliver what it said it will deliver. And there were a lot of high-profile engagement with the summit. Cameron pointed out, the last summit before that happened eight years. So there’s a trust deficit to start with.

A visit by U.S. president are important, particularly because of the symbolism. We said earlier, at the outset of this discussion, that Africa does not always receive the attention that it deserves. We talk about Africa being critical more and more, but we don’t see an engagement that reflect that level of importance – we’re talking about material – raw material here, critical minerals, demographics, and so on – that the president who promises to visit them that doesn’t come, while they see him visiting conflict zones and others, it becomes very difficult to justify. So that underscores are we really taking – are we really being taken seriously, a question that a lot of Africans ask themselves.

Other presidents have visited Africa several times. You take President – people like Erdoğan. You take very high-level representations from China and other countries who are in Africa quite regularly. Then you take the level of reception they get in places like China, where pretty much every African president who visit China gets a state visit with all the pomps and circumstances that goes with it, and the U.S. president can barely visit. And we know that when a U.S. president visits, he typically visit two or three countries only anyway. The significance of it cannot be understated. And the fact that the president did not keep his promise, it’s really problematic.

I’ll just leave it at that. Cameron?

Mr. Hudson: Thanks, Mvemba.

I would just add one point to what you said, which is the Biden administration, their strategy, to make up for that, has been to kind of flood the continent with sort of midlevel administration officials; you know, assistant secretaries, undersecretaries. And we have seen, you know, in the last year really an unprecedented number of mid- to senior-level visitors to Africa. I think there’s been six Cabinet officers who have visited the continent on various stops, and a number of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries; so an unprecedented level.

But I think that what they missed is that there is no – there is no equivalent for a presidential visit and the symbolism that Mvemba talked about, which have come with every presidential visit to Africa. I think we all – certainly, those of us who follow Africa have these indelible images of President Bush in Liberia or President Clinton in Rwanda. These are moments that mark a president’s agenda with the continent. And so not having that is a real detriment to the relationship that the president says he wants to build.

And I’ll use that as a pivot to the next question, which is I think that there is this big and growing gap between the administration’s rhetoric and the reality. The rhetoric is that we want to be your partner of choice, that we want to hold you at the center of the strategic relationship, that we want to elevate you on the world stage. But the reality is something very, very different.

And I think the quotes from the Nigerian prime minister reflect that Africans are just not listening to what we tell them. They are looking at our actions across the globe; and in a place like Sudan, for example, today, which is experiencing the greatest displacement crisis in the world, the greatest food crisis in the world, and where we see millions of people displaced and hundreds of thousands more on the verge of famine and death, as we see essentially a new genocide in Darfur engulfing that region and drawing in neighboring states into this fight.

You know, Africans will say the casualties in a place like Sudan – which the special envoy told a Senate hearing last week, they’re estimating at 150,000 – dwarf any of the numbers, the famine numbers, the displacement numbers, the death numbers, dwarf any other conflict in the world today. And yet Sudan is getting virtually no attention from the administration and it has received absolutely no public comment from the president of the United States.

And so I think that Africans, you know, they read The Washington Post and The New York Times, just like we do, and they see what the president has said and what his administration is doing. And I think they’re calling out that growing gap between the role that we say Africa has in our strategic outlook at what the reality is in sort of the day-to-day how we spend our time and what we spend our time on.

Operator: And next we can go to Darlene Superville with the Associated Press.

Q: Hi. Thanks for taking the question.

I have two. The first speaker said it was 2008 in Ghana was the last time an African head of state had come to the U.S. on a state visit. When was the last time that the leader of Kenya has come to the United States on a state visit?

And the second thing I was wondering is, we’re now just a little over a week away from President Ruto arriving here for his state visit, and can anyone speak to the feeling on the ground in Kenya or Nairobi? Are people excited, you know, that their leader is being – is going to be treated with this, you know, big pomp-filled event in Washington? Or just what’s the – what’s the feeling on the ground? Thank you.

Mr. Dizolele: The last time a Kenyan visit – president had a state visit was Mwai Kibaki and G.W. Bush was the president. So that was in 2003. It’s been a long time. That’s how far we’re talking about. And that’s what I meant at the beginning of our conversation today, that every time one of these rare events happen with an African president we take notice. This is not the case with any other parts of the world, where it happens quite often.

Cameron? Take the next question, please.

Mr. Hudson: Yeah. I mean, I think the feeling on the ground is, obviously, one of hopefulness; obviously, one of celebration because it puts Kenya on the world stage. But I think that President Ruto is under a lot of pressure right now to show results from this visit. I think President Ruto has had as part of his own strategy putting himself and putting Kenya on the world stage. There has been criticism at home for his many international engagements and all of his travel, and questioning what does it all amount to. Where are the jobs? Where is the investment that is supposed to come from all of that? And he, obviously, ran a campaign on developing what he calls a hustler economy, which is to say, you know, having these investments not just benefits elites within the country and the economy, but having it really kind of trickle down and affect average Kenyans with higher living standards, greater employment, greater revenue and wealth for average Kenyans. And he has really struggled to make that transition happen.

And so I think that while these visits are important and there’s a great deal of national pride, there’s also a certain amount of pressure that comes with them to translate this kind of moment of goodwill into actual jobs, actual investments. And so I think that we have heard him say that trade and investment is the centerpiece of this visit. He is coming here to do deals and to make deals. And if he doesn’t do that, and if he comes home emptyhanded, I think there will be criticism that awaits him, you know, in Nairobi.

I think the other point that I would make here is that Africans – and Ruto is among them – are really demanding at this point that we transition in the bilateral relationship to moving away from one where we talk about aid and assistance and, you know, charity as the basis of our – of our giving with Africa, and that we take much more of a kind of almost Chinese model, which is, you know, driven by investment. And I think that if we were to do that, which is what the Africans are asking for, then we would move away from some of the criticism that we continue to get about paternalism and the like. When we – when we identify ourselves as donor countries – which, you know, if you talk to a lot of U.S. officials, they will often talk about themselves as donor countries. Oh, we’re the donor countries. We and Europe, we’re donor countries. That creates – that creates a relationship paradigm that the Africans just no longer want to hear about and no longer ascribe to. They want to be treated as equals, and equals reflects a change in how that relationship looks. And it’s one based on trade and investment, not one based on aid.

And so I think all of this is very much packaged as, you know, the symbolism mattering. But for both sides, I think it’s important that we try to move into that – into that area.

Q: Thank you.

Mr. Dizolele: I also want to – I also want to add just something. We cannot underscore enough the pressure that President Ruto will be under, because there’s the bilateral element to this – the dimension of it – but there is also – because Africa rarely get these opportunities, you need to represent the entire continent, which is a Herculean task for one president to do. (Laughs.) The issues are so many. The entire diplomatic corps in Washington is looking up to him to do that, without, of course, dismissing what his peers on the continent may be thinking of the visit as well.

The challenge being, it seems – at least that’s the impression we get – like they can only be one African leader who speaks for the continent at one time, right? If you look at the history, different presidents have played that role. Which is a problem for a continental 54 countries, right? You have the Mobutus. Then you had the Meles Zenawi. Then you had the – (inaudible). You had Museveni. Now you have Ruto. And each one plays that role for a certain time before they exit the stage, or lose their credibility, or friendship, whatever. So a lot of pressure. A lot is riding on this visit.

Operator: And next we’ll go to Martin Siele with Semafor, Please go ahead.

Q: Yes. Thank you.

Cameron answered a bit of my question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is the, I’d say, shift to commercial diplomacy by the U.S., in terms of more focus on deals and programs, such as – trade-focused programs, such as Prosper Africa, as opposed to traditional aid programs – is that a response to sort of China’s activities on the continent? And also the entry of what we are seeing with the Gulf states, who are – their activities on the continent are heavily investment driven?

And the other thing I’d ask, in Trump’s time, when he met former President Uhuru Kenyatta they started negotiations on a trade deal that carried over into the Biden administration. But looking at Ruto’s visit, that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. And it seems to be more about the renewal of AGOA. So does a trade deal, which was sort of supposed to be a kind of a landmark trade deal for the U.S. with an African country, has that kind of been put to the backburner by Washington?

Mr. Dizolele: Cameron, it’s yours.

Mr. Hudson: OK. So, yeah, I mean, I think – I think you’re right. I think that some of these trade promotion activities are a response to what we have seen China, and not just China but many other countries – Mvemba talked about Turkey, but you could put Saudi Arabia, you could put the Emirates in those categories of countries that are increasing their political influence across Africa through their investment agenda. And I think that Washington is learning late that it’s missing opportunities. I think one of the things that you hear U.S. officials say is, well, we’re not China. We’re not a state-run economy. I can’t just tell Microsoft to go invest in Kenya. I can’t tell them to open, you know, a factory there.

And so that’s been a kind of excuse, I think, built into a lot of U.S. officials’ talking points for a long time. I think what they’re learning is that, through mechanisms like the Development Finance Corporation, they’re developing new tools to help promote those investments. And so whether it’s political insurance or investment guarantees, there are things that Washington can and should be doing to promote those investments.

I think one of the challenges that Washington continues to face in trying to drive investment to Africa, though, is a general impression that the American business community has and the American community has of Africa generally. And I think, you know, that’s attributable to much of what makes it into kind of mainstream media reporting, which tends to focus much more on the problems that African countries face. Whether it’s on climate, or democracy and governance, or security. All of which are true. And it focuses much less on sort of the hopeful side. And so what ends up happening is you have – you have, I think, a very skewed relationship, which Africans are trying to correct now.

On the – on the free trade agreement with Kenya, I would just say that that was a topic of conversation going back more than a decade now. That preceded, I think, the formation of the Africa Free Trade Area. And I think that the pivot that we have seen in this conversation is one driven in many ways by Africans themselves. So rather than the U.S. investing the time and the energy to create a series of bilateral free trade agreements – first with Kenya, there was one talked about with Ghana, with other countries – that if Africa was taking its own – its own trade priorities in hand, then we were going to support the formation of this African Free Trade Area.

So I think there’s a question as to whether or not we develop a free trade area with the African Free Trade Area, whether we – whether we create some kind of more formalized structure there. I think the immediate – because of the expiring of the AGOA legislation – that’s the African Growth and Opportunity Act legislation that dates to the Clinton administration – because there’s an opportunity right now to renew that legislation, I think that’s where the administration’s focus has been. And it’s been moving away from individual kind of one-off, bilateral free trade agreements. But I think it’s – it will be interesting to see what Ruto brings to these conversations next week about engaging with and through the African Free Trade Area.

Operator: And next we can go to Howard LaFranchi with Christian Science Monitor. Please go ahead.

Q: Hi. Thank you for doing this call.

A couple of things. First of all, Mvemba, you talked about the new strategic partnership that the U.S. had developed. And I thought you said that, as part of that, that the – that there was a greater acceptance on the – that there would be a greater acceptance on the part of the U.S. of countries, you know, developing their partnerships according to their interests, and that the U.S. wasn’t going to be – you know, wasn’t going to expect, you know, that they would be the unique partner. And so I’m just not clear if the U.S. has followed through on that kind of promise from that strategic partnership, that it recognized that countries could go to different international partners for different reasons, different interests. So I wanted clarity on that.

The second thing, it seemed me that when – I didn’t hear any mention at all of democracy. And, of course, when Biden came into office, as we know, is his emphasis on, you know, this would be the battle of our time, democracy versus autocracy. And that’s pretty much fallen off of his – you know, fallen out of his vocabulary in general. But I’m just wondering where that stands kind of with Africa. Has that too just been sort of given up?

And then the last thing, Cameron, you made the point on Sudan. And I recall that at the beginning of the conflict in Sudan – the war, this current conflict – that actually the U.S. was very involved, and Blinken was very involved. And then, as you know, that just seemed to sort of fall away. So I’m wondering if that is seen also in Africa as an example of what you all have been talking about, this kind of, you know, the, well, we can’t trust the U.S. to follow through on commitments or, you know, big ideas that it puts out there.

Mr. Dizolele: Well, thank you, Howard.

The question on strategic – the new strategic expanse, it’s really the U.S. – if you look at the document, the strategy document, it says: We want a rules-based African agency. And on the surface, it sounds good. It sounds like, oh, finally the U.S. has gotten the memo, and they will understand that we have options and choices.

The reality has not been that, right? The reality has been if there is conflict in Ukraine, and the U.S. and the partners in Europe have one position, they will expect Africans somehow to align with them. So we saw this with the vote at the General Assembly in the United Nations, and that caused a lot of friction because a lot of African countries have different relations with Russia. A lot of those same countries have a different relation with Ukraine. So they didn’t see this conflict in a place like Ukraine, or in places like Israel in the Middle East with Gaza, the same way we tend to look at those issues from Washington or from Paris or from London.

And that was not respected in the West. African countries were forced or pushed under tremendous pressure to choose to pick up sides, which they resisted. And they resisted that – Cameron referred to this – because the Cold War did not work out well for African countries. The Cold War did not generate strong partnerships between the United States and any African country in the way we saw, for instance, in Asia, right? Countries like Thailand, countries like South Korea, Japan, the Philippines became very strong partners of the United States throughout the Cold War. And those partnerships have flourished, and they continue to exist today, so much that in a place like Thailand we still have schools. Thailand still has schools today. Barely make the news. Barely we read about the U.S. putting pressure on a country like Thailand. We saw the Duterte – presidents in the Philippines who were drug lords, and other people were being killed and attacked. The partnership stood because those were choices that those countries made and were respected.

We seem to be seeing every six months or every year a new set of adversarial relations between the U.S. and the so-called friends in Africa. We see this in the Sahel. We see this in DRC. We see this in other countries – even countries like Rwanda, which are supposed to be close to the United States. So there are frictions all the time. And the question becomes, why is this always happening within the African continent when, in fact, we’ve signaled that we respect the agency, we respect the choices? The U.S. is not following through with that.

Somebody here, I don’t remember who – I think it was Toluse who asked about Niger. This is what is at the crux of part of the conflict, the adversarial relations that we see now playing out between the United States and Niger. Like, whose agency is being respected here? Is there a way to see – to meet halfway and agree that we see things differently, but let’s still be partners? And those are the challenges that we face.

And in terms of democracy, the way democracy is promoted in Africa doesn’t seem to work, right? If we – I think Africa is better understood when we compare it to other regions. When we just engage Africa for the sake of engaging Africa in the vacuum, often we end up with policies or stances that do not translate to anything useful for anyone.

So in other parts of the world – in Eastern Europe, when democratic movement and waves emerge – so I’m talking here about the Orange Revolution, the Velvet Revolution, the Rose Revolution, all the revolutions that we’ve seen in Eastern Europe in places like Georgia, Ukraine, and so on – those revolutions get massive support from the West. And by massive support, I’m talking the financial support that go with that movement or those movement(s) to make sure they succeed, not just by toppling authoritarian regimes that may be in those countries but for the transition to work, right? Massive investment.

We’ve never seen any such thing anywhere in Africa, right? Instead, we end up fighting – claiming that there is a democracy that works so well in Niger that we’re absolutely going to defend it. Nobody who follows Africa believed Niger was a democracy, right? If you look at Burkina Faso or you look at other countries where coups are the norm, if coups are the norm, do we still want to insist on democracy before we engage those countries? Or do we engage those countries and, through our proximity, gradually push them in the direction of democracy instead of always talking about our values, values, values, almost an Evangelical missionary approach to governance which does not translate to anyone’s advantage? And just having elections do not meant that we have – we have a good democracy.

So I think the U.S. need to be working hard towards democracy. It is part of the mainstay of U.S. engagement and U.S. body politic. But I think it also need to be anchored in the reality of the – of the various countries. So to hear Secretary Blinken or other high-level official insist that Niger was a democracy that the U.S. is going to fight for itself smacks of misinformation, right, because that’s simply not true. Niger is not Botswana, is not Kenya. Democracy is important, but we need to be realistic on how we engage and how we push and advance democracy. Most importantly, we need to be willing to put the financial wherewithal that is needed to make a democracy work.

If you look at Mali, Mali was an exemplary emergence of democracy in the early ’90s. We have almost forgotten that Mali was in – (laughs) – a democratic experience because it faltered and it failed, and now we go back to square one with military coups.

Cameron, I’ll let you take the Sudan case.

Mr. Hudson: Sure. So just briefly, I think Secretary Blinken and the U.S. were, I think, very involved at the beginning of this war when it looked like American diplomats were going to be caught in the crossfire of war. Within the first month of the conflict starting, the U.S. very dramatically evacuated their diplomats from Sudan, and shortly thereafter Sudan lost the attention of senior policymakers once Americans were out of harm’s way. And I think it has been a struggle over the course of the last year to get senior people in the U.S. government to turn their attention back to Sudan.

There’s a new special envoy who was appointed about two months ago; unclear yet what exactly his role is going to be and what impact he is – he is having on the course of U.S. policy. But I think it reflects something that was mentioned already in this – in this interview with the Nigerien prime minister in The Washington Post today, where he says, you know, we – you know, Washington wants to stay in Niger and operate its drone bases in Niger to collect intelligence, but he said, you know, it’s the Nigerien troops who are dying on the frontlines fighting terrorists that concern Washington, and yet you’re not going to share that intelligence with us. You’re not going to support us in this fight. You’re just going to watch it all happen/play out through your drones because you’re protecting your interests.

And so we – U.S. officials – talk about these engagements as partnerships, but I think on the African side they don’t see the partnership or they don’t feel the partnership in the way that we express it in Washington. And I think we’ve seen both in Sudan and in Niger, you know, U.S. officials talk about partnerships on the ground that are – that are partnerships maybe in name only, but what it is is an advancement of U.S. interests and U.S. priorities that may or may not come at the expense of local interests and local priorities. And I think that is what is increasingly being called out by African leaders today.

Q: Great. Thank you.

Mr. Cestari: OK. Well, we’re about to reach the hour mark here. I want to thank both of our speakers and all of our participants for joining us this morning for this timely call. Feel free to please reach out for anything we can do to help in order to be a resource looking ahead to the visit next week. We’re happy to help, so please don’t hesitate to reach out. As mentioned at the top of the call, we will have a transcript distributed to all of you in the next few hours. It’ll also be available on

So, with that, I hope everybody has a good rest of your day, and thanks for joining us.