The United States and Africa: Building a 21st Century Partnership (Speech by Secretary Blinken)
Speech by Anthony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
November 19, 2021
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, everyone. Thank you very much, Vice President Koroma. Thank you for the very kind introduction, but thank you especially for your leadership here at ECOWAS – not just today, but every single day. And it’s very good to be here at ECOWAS, which makes vital contributions across the region to economic integration, security, democracy, climate, health, and more.
And it’s great to be back in Abuja on, indeed, my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as U.S. Secretary of State.
The “Giant of Africa” is an apt nickname for Nigeria, because this country looms large.
Your strengths are undeniable – a dynamic democracy, a robust economy, and a very powerful civil society.
The challenges you face are undeniable as well – including the disruption and insecurity caused by terrorism and armed groups.
Then there’s Nigeria’s cultural influence.
People everywhere listen to afrobeats; they read Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; they watch Nollywood movies; they cheer for Nigerian athletes; they eat jollof rice. (Laughter.)
Now, I know there’s a fierce rivalry among West African countries about who makes the best jollof – well, I’m a diplomat, so I’m going to steer very clear of that one. (Laughter.)
But in short, what happens here in Nigeria is felt around the world.
And that – in a nutshell – is why I’ve come to Abuja.
The United States knows that, on most of the urgent challenges and opportunities we face, Africa will make the difference. We can’t achieve our goals around the world – whether that’s ending the COVID-19 pandemic, building a strong and inclusive global economy, combating the climate crisis, or revitalizing democracy and defending human rights – without the leadership of African governments, institutions, and citizens.
Countries like Nigeria are not just global leaders, they are increasingly prominent around the world beyond this region, and they’re deserving of a prominent seat wherever the most consequential issues are discussed.
Institutions like the African Union, ECOWAS, SADC, IGAD should play a larger role – and they should have a greater voice in global debates.
The United States firmly believes that it’s time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics – and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become.
The facts speak for themselves.
This is a continent of young people – energized, innovative, hungry for jobs and opportunity. By 2025, more than half the population of Africa will be under age 25. By the year 2050, one in four people on Earth will be African. And Nigeria will surpass the United States as the third most populous country in the world.
Africa is poised to become one of the world’s most important economic regions. When the 54-country African Continental Free Trade Area is fully implemented, it will comprise the fifth-largest economic bloc in the world, representing a huge source of jobs, consumers, innovation, and power to shape the global economy.
As we work to end the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen global health security, we must work closely with the countries of Africa to build public health systems here that can prevent, detect, and respond to future emergencies – because as these past two years have taught us, none of us are completely protected unless all of us are protected.
As the urgency of the climate crisis grows, our focus will increasingly be on Africa – to solve an emergency that threatens our collective security, our economies, and our health. Here, where the potential for renewable energy is greater than anywhere else on the planet, we see not only the stakes of this crisis but also – also its solutions.
At this moment of testing for democracy around the world, we see across Africa a microcosm of what democracies can achieve – as well as the challenges that they must overcome.
And as we debate how to govern the use of technologies to ensure they strengthen democracies – not undermine them – the choices that governments, industries, and innovators make here will affect people’s rights and freedoms everywhere for a long time to come.
For all these reasons and more, I believe Africa will shape the future – and not just the future of the African people but of the world.
That’s why I’m here this week, visiting three countries that are democracies, engines of economic growth, climate leaders, drivers of innovation.
We’ve just come from Kenya, where we announced a new initiative to help more people get vaccinated against COVID-19; committed for the first time to join negotiations on a global agreement to combat ocean plastic pollution; and launched a project with National Geographic to empower young people across Africa fighting against the climate crisis.
Here in Nigeria, we marked the signing of a $2.1 billion development assistance agreement that supports our collaboration in the fundamentals: in health, in education, agriculture, good governance. Later today, I’ll visit the “Innov8” start-up hub, to meet some of the inventors and founders who embody Nigeria’s entrepreneurial drive.
And then in Senegal, I will join four U.S. companies signing agreements to collaborate with the Senegalese Government on infrastructure projects; visit the Institut Pasteur de Dakar, which is working toward COVID vaccine production with American support and investment; and meet with women tech and business leaders, because women are a powerful force for growth and innovation – in Senegal and everywhere.
My trip reflects the breadth and depth of our partnerships in Africa – how we’re working together to find innovative solutions to new challenges, and how we’re investing in long-term sources of strength, rather than short-term fixes.
Now, I know I’m hardly the first American secretary of state to come to Africa and promise different and better engagement. Too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners – or worse – rather than equal ones. Too often, we ask our partners to help uphold and defend an international system that they don’t feel fully reflects their needs and aspirations. And we’re sensitive to centuries of colonialism, slavery, exploitation that have left painful legacies that endure today.
I also know that many countries across the region are wary of the strings that come with more engagement, and fear that in a world of sharper rivalries among major powers, countries will be forced to choose. So I want to be clear – the United States doesn’t want to limit your partnerships with other countries. We want to make your partnerships with us even stronger. We don’t want to make you choose. We want to give you choices.
Together, we can deliver real benefits to our people, on the issues that matter most to them.
To start, here today I want to address five areas of common interest: global health, the climate crisis, inclusive economic growth, democracy, and peace and security.
First, we must end the COVID-19 pandemic and “build back better” before the next global health emergency.
The United States is making good on our commitment to provide COVID vaccines to the world.
This week, we hit a new milestone: 250 million doses delivered worldwide. By next spring, that number will be well over 1 billion donated doses. We’ve also announced that we’ll significantly ramp up our vaccine manufacturing capacity, to meet global need.
We’ve provided more than 50 million doses to 43 African countries, and more are on the way – all of this – all of this with no political strings attached.
We’ve given more than $1.9 billion in COVID-related assistance, for urgent needs like emergency food and other humanitarian support.
And the new public-private partnership, the Global COVID Corps, will connect American businesses with countries that need logistical help with the so-called “last mile” – turning vaccine doses into actual shots in arms.
Kenya will be the first country to partner with the Global COVID Corps, and we plan for it to be the first of many.
We’re following the lead of the African Union. When the numbers of vaccines coming to Africa didn’t come close to meeting the need, the African Union stepped forward. It made a plan to buy and distribute doses – and the United States supported it.
We’re also supporting countries like South Africa and Senegal in their work to manufacture vaccines themselves, and we want to invest more in efforts like these, because increasing vaccine production in Africa makes it easier to distribute them, which saves lives.
Likewise, the Africa CDC has been a vital partner throughout the pandemic. And we hope other regions will see the success of the Africa CDC and create their own centers for disease control, because a global network of regional CDCs would put the world on stronger footing for the future.
This pandemic has revealed how vulnerable all of us are. We have to seize the opportunity to strengthen global health security. On this, the United States and the countries of Africa are uniquely well-positioned to lead, because we’ve spent decades working together to improve health across the continent.
PEPFAR, for example, has saved millions of lives, brought the world to the edge of the first AIDS-free generation – and transformed public health infrastructure, including here in Nigeria, where the investments we made years ago in labs and clinics formed the backbone of this nation’s COVID response.
We know how to do this work together. Let’s take on the challenge of global health security – for the sake of our countries and countries around the world that will be safer if we act and we lead.
Second, we have to step up our response to the climate crisis.
Its catastrophic impacts are evident across the continent – in drought, deforestation, failing crops, floods, advancing deserts, food insecurity, competition for resources, economic losses, migration. Lake Chad was a vital source of water, food, livelihoods for people for centuries. Now it’s almost gone – shrunk to one-twentieth the size that it was 60 years ago. If you look at the satellite photographs, they’re dramatic.
And the fact that Africa is bearing this burden despite being responsible for only a small fraction of the emissions that caused the crisis in the first place makes it critical that developed countries – including the United States – do much more to support Africa against this threat.
Now, a few weeks ago, President Biden launched the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience. He’ll work with our Congress to allocate $3 billion every year by 2024 to finance climate adaptation projects around the world. It’s the largest commitment ever made by the United States to reduce the impact of climate change on those most endangered by it.
As part of this plan, we will support the Africa Adaptation Initiative – launched by heads of state across Africa six years ago – and especially their accelerator program, which aims to plan and finance infrastructure that’s energy-efficient and resilient to climate change.
We’ll continue our work with the African Union and other regional partners on climate-smart investments in agriculture, protecting forests, and improving climate education.
And to reduce emissions – while also creating jobs and increasing access to affordable energy – the United States and our partners across Africa are making major strides in clean energy.
Through our Power Africa program, we’ve connected more than 25 million homes and businesses across the continent to electricity, 80 percent of which is based on renewables. We’re helping advance the Mega Solar partnership to develop Africa’s largest solar farm – a joint project by Botswana and Namibia, along with international finance institutions. Our own Development Finance Corporation supports renewable energy across Africa, including a solar project here in Nigeria, wind farms in Senegal and Kenya.
These ventures could be just the start of our partnerships in so-called “green tech” – the industries and infrastructure of a low-carbon, climate-resilient future – everything from solar panels to electric bikes and cars to sustainable shipping.
It’s a huge opportunity to boost economic competitiveness, to strengthen supply-chain resilience, to create jobs, to drive innovation.
Just look at what Nigeria has done in “financial tech” – with electronic payments, cryptocurrency, digital banking. And imagine what we could achieve together in building our green economic future.
Vanessa Nakate, the Ugandan climate activist, gave an urgent plea in Glasgow last week to world leaders, when she said that young people don’t believe our climate promises anymore.
“Prove us wrong,” she urged. Well, let’s meet that challenge together.
Third, we must build a more stable and inclusive global economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis; it’s an economic crisis as well. We must rebuild – and we must build back better.
The United States has supported Africa’s economic resilience throughout the pandemic – for example, by backing the suspension of debt for 32 African countries to date and getting more capital flowing to your economies.
Looking ahead, we want to help create the kind of opportunity that doesn’t benefit only the well-off but creates good jobs for people at every income level and lays the foundation for more inclusive and environmentally sustainable growth for years to come.
That’s why we admire the African Union’s Green Recovery Action Plan, particularly its emphasis on climate finance.
The Prosper Africa initiative aims to increase two-way trade and investment. Our Africa Growth and Opportunity Act – known as AGOA – provides duty-free access to American markets, and we’re working to make sure African countries take full advantage of it.
We welcome the African Continental Free Trade Area, because we want to see Africa’s economic power in the world grow. More consumers should gain access to African goods and services. More jobs must be created for Africa’s young people – the global workforce of the future.
And together, we can help shape the rules of the world economy – to ensure that the benefits of trade are widely shared and do a better job of protecting our workers, our innovation, and our planet. The Global Minimum Tax, which 130 countries have agreed to, is a strong step in the right direction; it will raise billions in revenues for countries and end the global race to the bottom that had corporations moving from one place to another to pay as little in taxes as they could.
Finally, our commitment to inclusive growth is behind our Build Back Better World initiative, which aims to help close the global infrastructure gap.
The need is staggering – it’ll cost trillions of dollars a year to close that gap. But we have to act, because infrastructure needs are holding back growth and opportunity in too many places. By meeting those needs, we can improve people’s lives, strengthen economies, and protect the planet at the same time.
Now, just as important as the “what” is the “how.”
Our approach will be sustainable, it will be transparent, it will be values-driven.
We want to create local jobs and benefit local communities. We support anti-corruption and transparency measures, so leaders and citizens can evaluate whether deals made on their behalf really are worth it. And we want to protect workers and the environment.
Too often, international infrastructure deals are opaque, coercive; they burden countries with unmanageable debt; they’re environmentally destructive; they don’t always benefit the people who actually live there.
We will do things differently.
Now, anyone who spends time in Lagos, the Western Cape, Nairobi, knows that optimism, innovation, and the sheer drive of people across Africa, especially young people, is plain to see.
Americans know something about that kind of ambition and that kind of ingenuity.
That’s why I think we’re natural economic partners – and why we should take our engagement much further.
Fourth, we must strengthen democracy.
This is a critical moment.
Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. Technology is being used to silence dissent and prosecute citizens – and democracies must answer the call to fight back against disinformation, stand up for internet freedom, reduce the misuse of surveillance technology, establish standards of responsible conduct in cyberspace.
Meanwhile, governments are becoming less transparent. Corruption is growing. In many places, elections are flashpoints for violence. And the pandemic has accelerated many of these trends.
We see this happening across Africa – leaders ignoring term limits, rigging or postponing elections, exploiting social grievances to gain and maintain power, arresting opposition figures, cracking down on the media, and allowing security services to enforce pandemic restrictions with brutality.
Many Africans are now living under at least partially authoritarian governments.
And militaries have taken over civilian governments four times this year; that’s the highest number in four decades.
There are good news stories about democracy in Africa, too.
Niger, which had its first-ever peaceful transfer of power this year. Or Zambia, where the opposition party won elections, something few believed would be allowed to happen. Citizens there woke up long before dawn, some sleeping all night at polling stations, to make sure that they could vote. And even in places where democracy is under duress, it’s inspiring to see people courageously raising their voices and calling for change – like the citizens marching in the streets in cities across Sudan to restore the civilian-led transition.
Still, the recession of democracy in many places in Africa cannot be denied. And it is not – it is not the will of the people. Survey after survey in countries across the continent show that the people of Africa – be they Ghanaian or Zambian or Ugandan or Tanzanian – support democracy.
When given the choice between multiparty elections or strong-man rule, one-party states, or military control, they choose multiparty elections.
That makes it all the more important that leaders show leadership and stop the democratic backsliding that is wiping away their citizens’ aspirations.
Now, I want to emphasize that democratic backsliding is not just an African problem. It’s a global problem. My own country is struggling with threats to our democracy. And the solutions to those threats will come as much from Africa as from anywhere.
We need countries from every part of the world to share best practices, to make public pledges, to hold each other accountable. And we need to show how democracies can deliver what citizens want, quickly and effectively. When we fail to do that, people lose their trust in the democratic model, and that fuels the arguments that authoritarian governments make – that their system is better.
Now, that’s exactly the idea behind the Summit for Democracy that President Biden will host next month, and we very much look forward to Nigeria’s participation.
Together, we must vow to fight what former President Obama called “the cancer of corruption,” which drains billions of dollars from economies while undermining people’s dignity and gutting their faith in the system.
We have to protect free and flourishing civil societies, which give citizens a peaceful means to express grievances and to push for change.
And we have to relentlessly defend human rights, which are the foundation of free, just, and stable societies.
Americans and Africans share a yearning to live in places where their rights are respected, their voices are heard, their governments answer to them and deliver for them. Working together, we can support democracy, in our countries and around the world.
Fifth, we must advance lasting security and peace.
We know that instability and insecurity are at the top of nearly every Nigerian’s mind. The same can be said for people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, and other countries across the continent. The threats posed by violent extremists, by criminals, internal armed conflict – these threats are very real, and so present in people’s lives. So is their potential to destabilize nations and regions, to undermine development, to ignite humanitarian disasters.
Part of the answer is effective and professional security forces and local law enforcement that can protect citizens while respecting human rights. And many of our partners across Africa want to build their capacities in these areas.
But tackling the root causes of conflict is just as important – maybe even more important. Not everything can be solved with more or better-equipped armed forces. And attempts to address violent extremism have at times had the perverse effect of violating people’s rights, contributing to grievances, and furthering cycles of violence.
We urge governments to contribute to and commit to criminal justice and security sector approaches that respect rights, as well as greater accountability for abuses, which is critical for earning the public’s trust.
We think we can achieve better results in confronting insecurity if we work together to expand economic opportunity, especially for young people and others who might be drawn into criminal activity out of desperation, out of a feeling that they have no other choice.
And to resolve conflicts, we stand ready to support swift and sustained diplomacy with national leaders; with regional organizations; with international allies and partners’ citizens – including women, who must always be at the table when peace is negotiated; and also with international institutions, including the United Nations.
That’s what’s happening right now with the crises and conflicts in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. African leaders and institutions have stepped up to steer the diplomatic response. African diplomats are leading engagement at the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the African Development Bank. The United States is using our diplomacy in all the ways we can to support these efforts.
So I’ve covered a little bit of ground. But everything I’ve said can be boiled down to this: the United States wants to strengthen our partnerships across Africa in ways that serve your interests, our interests, and the interests of people worldwide whose lives and futures depend in part on what we can achieve together.
And as a sign of our commitment to our partnerships across the continent, President Biden intends to host the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to drive the kind of high-level diplomacy and engagement that can transform relationships and make effective cooperation possible.
I said at the start that Africa is a continent of young people. I’ve met a few of them on this trip. Many of the issues I’ve mentioned today will help unleash their potential, by creating new opportunities for them to lead, to learn, to build careers, to serve their communities, to achieve their dreams.
One of my favorite examples of partnership between the United States and Africa is YALI – the Young African Leaders Initiative. It creates educational exchanges and networking opportunities for extraordinary young people across Africa. I’ve been lucky enough to meet with many YALI fellows and alumni – and I always walk away dazzled.
They’re starting social enterprises, helping people get vaccinated, studying agriculture and counseling at-risk teenagers, working in governments and writing for newspapers, creating art and using it to forge connections in Africa and around the world.
They are – quite simply – unstoppable.
Our charge now is to take a page from their book.
Let’s channel their optimism and their energy as we meet today’s challenges and opportunities together.
Let’s build the future that young people in all of our countries want and deserve.
Thank you so very much for listening. (Applause.)