Secretary Antony J. Blinken And Nigerien Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou At a Joint Press Availability – United States Department of State

Secretary Antony J. Blinken And Nigerien Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massoudou At a Joint Press Availability – United States Department of State

MODERATOR:  (In French.)

FOREIGN MINISTER MASSOUDOU:  (In French.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  (In French.)

Hello.  Greetings.  Assalamu alaikum.  It is wonderful for me to be back in Niger.  As the minister said, as it happens, I’m the first American Secretary of State to be here in that capacity, but I was here in my previous job as deputy of secretary of state in 2015, and I’m so appreciative of the incredibly warm welcome that we’ve had today.

We have – Niger and the United States – a deep but also growing bond.  We have a genuine and responsive partnership that allows us – and increasingly – to deliver for our people on our shared priorities.  I saw already back in 2015 the strength of that partnership, and I’m honored to return today to see it move forward in very significant ways.

As President Bazoum has said, Niger is a young democracy in a challenging part of the world, but it remains true to the democratic values that we share.  And Niger has been quick to defend democratic values under threat in neighboring countries.

Niger’s leaders have distinguished themselves in the face of other pressing challenges, from violent extremism to the climate crisis.  In each case, Niger has prioritized inclusion, community engagement, pragmatic solutions.  The United States is committed to the close partnership we’ve forged together and to make it even closer.

We deeply appreciated the very thoughtful, the deeply experienced views that President Bazoum brought on questions of peace, security, and governance at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit last December.  And in many ways, that conversation was the starting point for the discussions that we’ve had here today in Niamey.

Today, I announced nearly $150 million in new humanitarian assistance to help meet needs in West and Central Africa and the Sahel created by regional instability.  That assistance will support the provision of shelter, essential healthcare, emergency food, safe drinking water, sanitation, hygiene services, and will also support vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers evacuated to Niger.  And I have to say, the generosity of Niger – of its people – to so many refugees, so many displaced persons, is remarkable.

We are also supporting investments in the long-term security of Niger, investments that, you’ve heard the minister refer to, help make Niger’s law enforcement more effective in combating terrorism, strengthening border security, enhancing counternarcotics capacity, stemming trafficking, helping to investigate, prosecute, and ultimately reduce terrorism, violent extremism.

We’re committed to continuing to invest in the resilience of democracies to a wide range of threats and challenges, from corruption to disinformation.  And we continue to support a free and independent press, as we have done in Niger for decades.  In the coming months, we’re going to actually welcome another cohort of Nigerien media professionals to the United States, an opportunity to meet fellow journalists and practitioners, to exchange lessons learned and participate in training and other professional development opportunities.

We’re also supporting President Bazoum’s remarkable disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and reconciliation program.  I saw this for myself firsthand earlier today.  Over the past couple of decades, what we’ve learned is that to effectively counter violent extremism we have to find ways to pave alternative pathways that give former combatants an opportunity to build a real future for themselves.  When I had a chance to meet earlier today with young people who’ve completed this program, I heard about their experiences, their ideas for preventing the spread of violent extremism.  And again, I think this program can and should be a model for many others.

Today, the president, foreign minister, and I also talked about another threat to peace and prosperity, and that is the global food crisis.  Now, this has been something that has been long in the making.  A combination of climate change, of COVID, of various conflicts has created an almost perfect storm.

Now over the past year, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has just added fuel to an already burning fire, driving up food and fertilizer prices for Nigeriens, for many others, putting millions at risk of going hungry.  We’ve been supporting immediate interventions to help those facing acute food insecurity.  Just since the aggression by Russia against Ukraine a year ago, we’ve contributed an additional $13.5 billion to address food insecurity around the world, but most of that has gone to Africa.  We’re by far the largest donor to the World Food Program as well, and other international mechanisms that are helping to deal with food insecurity.

We’re also supporting something called the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has brought Ukrainian grain to countries across Africa and lowered the prices worldwide.  Now keep in mind, this initiative never should have been necessary in the first place, but one of the results of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was to block Ukrainian ports and prevent Ukraine from exporting grain and other food products to the world, which it’s done for years.  Thanks to very good work done by the United Nations, by Türkiye, an agreement was reached to create this corridor to allow Ukraine’s grain to reach world markets.  Over 4 million metric tons of wheat have gone directly to developing countries as a result of this initiative.  That’s the equivalent of 8 billion loaves of bread.  And so millions of people around the world – and especially here in Africa – rely on this initiative to help deal with food insecurity.  It’s imperative that it continue and it’s imperative that Russia allow it to continue.

Beyond emergency aid though – and this is maybe just as important, if not more important –  we are working together to make long-term investments in African food production capacity and resilience, because ultimately the goal that we all share is for African countries to be able to produce on their own the food that their people need, and for that matter be able to export it not just in the region that they happen to be in on the continent, but even to other places in the world.

One way that we’re doing that here in Niger is through the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s compacts that you’ve heard the minister discuss.  They simultaneously address a couple of the really big constraints to economic growth: lack of access to water and institutional barriers to trade.

One of the compacts for $442 million is strengthening irrigation infrastructure, climate-resilient production, and market access for agricultural products.  And it’s having a major impact in a country where four out of five people are employed in the agriculture sector.

By the end of April, we will have established 300 kilometers of roads, built vast irrigation networks, improved more than 1,000 kilometers of livestock corridors, provided literacy training to more than 5,000 people.  In 2021, just a couple of years ago, a project that was funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation using satellite technology discovered five aquifers containing over 600 billion cubic meters of accessible water.  That has the potential to benefit millions of people here in Niger.

We’re also supporting Niger’s regional integration and its broader economic development.  At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit last year, I joined President Bazoum and the president of Benin, President Talon, in signing another MCC compact that will bring the two countries together to have a regional transportation program that will facilitate trade between the two of them and facilitate the export beyond those countries of food products.  It will make it faster and safer to transport and export goods from Niger along rehabilitated roads and across borders. Ultimately, it will connect Niger to bigger markets and even greater opportunities.

In all of our meetings, President Bazoum raised the importance of education, because he knows that the single most important contributor to the future of any country is its human resources and giving them the ability to reach their full potential.  And that starts with education.

Under President Bazoum, Niger has prioritized building and improving girls’ schools to ensure that they can get a good education and acquire the skills they need to participate fully in the economy.  USAID is assisting this mission, including with programs to increase girls’ primary school enrollment, provide career training opportunities, deliver distance education for girls who can’t go to school because they live in a high insecurity area.  We’re a major contributor, the United States, to the Global Partnership for Education, which has identified Niger as a priority country and is providing nearly $200 million to strengthen the formal education system here.

There are so many other ways in which we are working together to deepen this partnership.  And we began a discussion, a long discussion with our – between our teams.  We’re going to continue it shortly over dinner, because there’s so much to talk about.  But in all of this, I come back to the fact that Niger is really an extraordinary model at a time of great challenge – a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.  It’s one that we deeply value and deeply respect.

MODERATOR:  (In French.)

Michael Crowley, New York Times.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary and Mr. Minister.  Mr. Secretary, we’ve seen growing activity in the region by the Russian Wagner Group as countries turn to Russia to address their security concerns, given that the U.S. and also French efforts in recent years have not succeeded in quelling terrorist and extremist threats to these countries.  I understand that you believe that working with the Wagner Group is bound to end badly for these countries, but I just wonder if you can talk about what specifically the U.S. and its allies can offer these countries that Russia cannot.

And Mr. Minister, related to that, why do you think so many countries in this region have been turning to the Wagner Group for assistance?  And what lessons do you draw from their experiences so far?

If I may just add a brief question for you, Mr. Secretary, on Ukraine.  Poland’s government said today that Poland will be sending fighter jets to Ukraine.  Can we have your reaction to that, please?  And does that change at all the Biden administration’s thinking about potentially providing fighter jets of our own?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, Michael.  I’m happy to start.  And actually, I’ll just take the last question first, and then go to the broader question.

With regard to the decision by Poland to provide jets to Ukraine – look, these are sovereign decisions for countries to make, what they will provide to Ukraine to help it defend itself against the Russian aggression.  And we, of course, are working closely with dozens of countries on these questions, but different countries are doing different things in response to what they have and what the perceived needs are.  Our focus has been on doing everything we can to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs, what it can use, and what it particularly needs in this moment, dealing both with the offensive that we’re seeing from Russia across the eastern front, but also in preparation for its own actions in the weeks and months to come as it seeks to take back more of the territory that Russia has seized from it.

So we’ve done this throughout in close consultation with the Ukrainians and with our partners.  And as I’ve said many times before, I think it’s a mistake to get focused on any particular weapon system at any given time.  We know that there are basic things that Ukraine needs, whether it’s air defenses, whether it’s artillery, whether it’s ammunition, whether it’s armored vehicles and the like.  Secretary Austin, as you know, led a very, very successful process in bringing together dozens of countries to help find and coordinate that assistance.  And at the same time, as I’ve, again, said before, what’s very important to us and our focus is not only making sure that the Ukrainians have the right weapon system, but again, they can use it – so depending on the system, that might require significant training – that they have the ability to maintain it – again, depending on the system, that can be more or less complicated – and that it fits into a comprehensive plan.

So it’s a long way of saying that’s been our approach all along, it remains our approach, and individual partner countries will, again, make their own decisions about what they can provide, when they can provide it, and how they provide it.

When it comes to Wagner and the security question more broadly, first, what is I think the most effective way – and this is something where, again, Niger has really been in the lead – we know that dealing with insecurity, yes, requires taking steps on the security side of the equation, military side of the equation.  That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.  And the focus that we’re bringing to bear, that Niger is bringing to bear, that other countries are bringing to bear that care about insecurity here because of the potential that it has to spread even well beyond the region and beyond the continent, is a comprehensive approach – one that’s focused not just on the security steps that we’re taking, but on good governance, on development, on creating opportunity, on being responsive to the needs of the people.  And I think that is exactly the difference-maker – not at all what Wagner or any other groups of its like have to offer.

And I think what we’ve seen already, it’s not just we know this is going to end badly; we’ve already seen it end badly in a number of places.  Where Wagner has been present, bad things have inevitably followed.  The – it has not proven to be an effective response to insecurity, and at the same time we’ve seen countries that find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure, less independent as a result of an association with Wagner.  And we’ve also seen Wagner engage in the exploitation of a country’s resources, bring corruption with it, bring violence with it – overall worsening security, not improving it – and engaging in human rights abuses at the same time.

So this is not a recipe for success that I think anyone should be looking to.  But yes, it is incumbent upon us to demonstrate through this much more comprehensive approach that we’re taking to insecurity that we can actually deliver results.  That was a big part of our conversation with President Bazoum earlier today, which, again, I’m sure we’ll continue over dinner.  But I think you’re going to see very, very concrete results.

Last thing I’ll say is this:  I mentioned the disarmament and demobilization and reintegration program here.  That, too, should be a model that’s integrated in what we’re doing regionally, because you can see the results.

FOREIGN MINISTER MASSOUDOU:  (In French.)

MODERATOR:  (In French.)

QUESTION:  (In French.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  (In French.)

FOREIGN MINISTER MASSOUDOU:  (In French.)

MODERATOR:  (In French.)

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  I wanted to follow up first of all on the RFE question, Mr. Foreign Minister, specifically about Burkina Faso, if you could help some of those – some of us who aren’t from the region understand what’s going on there in terms of that country and the Wagner Group.  And do you think the U.S. should remain active in Burkina Faso despite the military coups?  Maybe Mr. Secretary wants to answer that too.

But specifically for you, Secretary Blinken, I wanted to ask a little bit if you could – I mean, you were here, if I understand, as deputy secretary of state before.  And I’m sure there were efforts for humanitarian aid and other types of assistance back then in the economic and humanitarian space.  What types of programs are working, or paint us a picture?  Some of the programs you mentioned today with the Millennium Corporation, how, specifically, do you see that helping this country avoiding – falling into some of the pitfalls of extremism, hunger, and migrant crises that we’ve seen before?  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER MASSOUDOU:  (In French.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, just to come back to something I said – and forgive me for repeating myself, but it does go directly to your question, and I think it’s important.  So we have these big projects, including Millennium Challenge Corporation projects that people hear about, and we talk about the very large sums of money that are involved in these projects.  But what I’ve seen, and the difference that I’ve seen between when I was last here in 2015 and now, is the concrete results that this – these projects that we’re doing together are actually delivering and concrete results that are having a direct impact on improving people’s lives, creating opportunity, and creating a strong future.

I mentioned this just a few minutes ago in my opening statement: by the end of April, we will have rehabilitated through the Millennium Challenge Corporation projects and other things that we’re doing 300 kilometers of Nigerien roads.  We will have built a vast irrigation network, which for, again, a country that is 70 or 80 percent in the agricultural sector, may be the most important foundational thing.  We will have improved more than 1,000 kilometers of livestock corridors, just to cite a few things.  But what does that translate into?  It translates into people having much greater opportunity to actually cultivate the land that they enjoy, to bring their products to market in ways that they couldn’t before, and as a – in the same time, create many new jobs.

Beyond that, through AID and other partners, we’re doing things like providing literacy training to thousands of people.  That, again, enables them to participate much more effectively in the economy.  I mentioned, too, this remarkable discovery – again, an MCC-funded project – of the five aquifers: 600 billion cubic meters of accessible water.  The impact that that’s going to have as that water is actually brought to use on the agricultural system here on productivity and on sustainability I think will be dramatic.  And again, that translates into livelihoods for people.  It translates into opportunity.  It translates for everyone into lower food prices, reducing food insecurity, and that’s (inaudible).  The bottom line is this:  Through everything that we’re doing as partners here, it’s less about the program, whatever it’s called; the amount of money, as great as it is.  It’s about the fact that it is actually producing concrete results, concrete opportunities, concrete development which is foundational to Niger’s strength and resilience as a democracy.

MODERATOR:  (In French.)

QUESTION:  (In French.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So with regard to Ukraine and to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, let me just say a couple of things.  First of all, no one wanted this war.  No one wanted this aggression.  Maybe the only person who wanted it was Vladimir Putin.  We worked very hard when we saw the storm clouds rising.  We had information about what the Russians were planning to do.  We tried to prevent it with diplomacy.  And I spent months, as did my colleagues, engaging with Russia to see if we could head off its aggression.

I think what we learned in the process is that the reason for this aggression is because Vladimir Putin believes that Ukraine shouldn’t exist as an independent country.  In his mind, it’s part of Russia, and so he tried to seize it back.  I know that there are dozens of countries in Africa in particular who, having been on the receiving end of imperialism, can appreciate why it was so important to stand against it and to make sure that a country, a big country like Russia, couldn’t simply try to erase another country by force – change its borders, eliminate its independence.

The minister said it very eloquently at the very start of this press conference.  This is bigger than Ukraine.  It really is about the principles that are at the heart of the international system that, after two world wars, countries came together and said we need, if we’re not going to have another world war, territorial integrity, independence, sovereignty.  And if we allow those principles to be violated anywhere, they’re in danger everywhere, because the message to a would-be aggressor – if Russia can get away with what it did, what it’s doing in Ukraine, the message to another would-be aggressor, maybe in Africa, maybe in the Middle East, maybe somewhere else is if they can get away with it, so can I.  And that leads to a world of conflict.  It leads to a world of violence.  It leads to a world where countries that have imperial designs on others will carry the day.

So that’s why it’s been so important, I think, why so many countries around the world have stood against the Russian aggression.  Just a few weeks ago, 143 countries at the United Nations – three-quarters of the countries in the world – stood up and voted in opposition to Russia’s aggression.  At the same time, as we’ve already talked about, we’ve seen the terrible consequences that this aggression has had not just for people in Ukraine, but for people around the world because of the impact it’s had, for example, on food insecurity.  And we talked about this earlier.  Ukraine was one of the biggest exporters of wheat and grain to the world, including to Africa.  Russia’s invasion stopped that and was blocking Ukraine from exporting its wheat and grain, including to Africa.  Fortunately, we were able to get an agreement to allow Ukrainian grain and wheat to get out of Ukraine.  And when I was in Ethiopia just yesterday, I saw the large bags of wheat and grain from Ukraine in Ethiopia.

Now, the people who, more than anyone else, want this war to be over as soon as possible, are the Ukrainian people who are on the receiving end every day of bombs, of violence, of destruction.  And like many other countries around the world, we would like to see the same thing, but there has to be a just and durable peace – just in the sense that it reflects the principles of the United Nations Charter, because if it’s a peace that allows Russia to keep all the territory it seized by force, that’s not justice; and durable in the sense that no one wants to see Russia repeat this a year or two or three years later.

So with those principles in mind, every day we are looking for ways to see if we can bring the war to an end.  I see no evidence that right now Russia is interested in a diplomatic resolution, a negotiation that would end this war.  And so the quickest way to end it is to continue to support Ukraine so that it is strong on the battlefield – and the battlefield is its own country – so that hopefully, at some point, Mr. Putin recognizes the reality that this has to stop, that he’s not going to succeed, and he’s prepared for diplomacy and for negotiation.  When that day comes, we’ll be the first to engage to try to end things.  But as I said, in this moment, at least, I don’t see any evidence of that.

MODERATOR:  (In French.)

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