The first visit

Ambassador Susan Rice is President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor. She has her own extensive personal experience in dealing with policy in Africa, and she will be accompanying the President on his trip to Kenya and Ethiopia for bilateral meetings and for additional meetings at the African Union. He will also attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit which will be held in Nairobi, Kenya. This will be the President’s fourth trip to Africa – the most of any sitting American President. It will also be the first time that a sitting American President travels to Kenya, the first time a sitting American President travels to Ethiopia, and the first time a sitting American President addresses the African Union. Ambassador Rice briefed journalists inside the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing of the White House on July 22 about Obama's trip. Excerpts:

Question: As you know, when the President was elected, there was a lot of high expectations raised about what the President could do for the African continent and Kenya, in particular. And there are a lot of people and much has been written about the fact that he has not realized those expectations. And I wonder how you would respond to that. They say they often refer to what President Bush did in terms of AIDS being transformative that this President has not yet done anything transformative. How would you respond to that? And what’s the goal of this trip in terms of the overall picture of him and the final legacy he will have in terms of his relationship with the African continent?

Ambassador Susan Rice: Well, first of all, let me say that President Obama is building on what has been a strong bipartisan tradition of US support for Africa. I recall back to the Clinton administration when President [Bill] Clinton was the first President to take a trip that was broad-ranging and covered the African continent. We have been steadily building including through the Bush administration with President Bush’s obvious strong commitment to Africa a foundation that is growing. And each brick is layered on the last one.

President Obama, obviously, has been unique. First of all, this will be his fourth trip to Africa, more than any other sitting President. Never before had we had an African Leaders Summit with the leadership from across the entirety of the continent here in Washington for several days, engaging in the most important issues of concern between us.

The trade and investment relationship between the United States and Africa has never been stronger. Never have we had USD 33 billion in US commitments driven by public-private partnerships, which this administration has galvanized. The food security initiative, Feed the Future, and the new Alliance for Food Security are Obama administration initiatives that we launched at the G7 and have pursued in partnership with our G7 at that time G8 partners, which have brought unprecedented new agricultural opportunities and growth to the African continent.

We have built on PEPFAR, President Bush’s initiative in the AIDS space, to launch and sustain a global health initiative both in Africa and then broadly a global health security initiative, which was something we started before the Ebola epidemic, but now we're pursuing both in Africa and around the world, which will bring increased ability to detect and prevent epidemics and bring health to the people of Africa.

Across the spectrum, we are building and deepening our relationship with Africa. Power Africa, which like PEPFAR, is building up in strength and capacity, will double the amount of power to the African continent. This is going to take time, as PEPFAR did. But it will be itself a very transformative initiative. And when combined with the programs I’ve described in the health sector and the agriculture sector and trade and investment, I think President Obama’s record on Africa will not only match that of his predecessors, but I predict with confidence we’ll exceed it.

For Kenya and Ethiopia, particularly on issues of human rights, there are concerns about human rights issues when it comes to peaceful assembly in Ethiopia as well as silencing journalists and bloggers. And then when we talk about Kenya, Kenya in particular with the issue of same-sex couples, how is the President approaching these human rights issues as he travels and makes this historic visit? And also, on a personal note, you’ve known this President since he was Senator Barack Obama and you know personally his story. Does this trip for him bring him full circle? And I speak of traveling to Kenya and thinking of the book “Dreams of My Father”, thinking about his real-life story and going home to well, going to his father’s home of Kenya. And basically, does he make peace with his life story with his father? I mean, I’m asking you because you know him.

You’re trying to get me to psychoanalyze the President? I’m not going to do that. (Laughter.) How dumb do I look? (Laughter.)

Not at all, you’re a good friend.

Let me address your first question first. I think as you all know well, we go to many places in Asia and Africa and the Middle East where we engage with countries and leaders with whom we have some questions and concerns about their human rights record, their respect for democracy and the rule of law. So there is nothing unique about this in the African context, but what is consistent is that wherever we go, whether it’s in Africa or elsewhere in the world where we have such concerns, we raise them directly and clearly, both in public and in private. And we will do that as we always do when we visit Kenya and Ethiopia.

Each of these are different countries with different contexts. Obviously, in Ethiopia in particular, we have consistently expressed concern about the treatment of journalists, among other issues. We noted that recently the Ethiopian government did release five journalists, which is a welcome step but they have a long way to go. And I think we have been very clear in our dialogue with them on this and other issues related to democracy and governance that we believe they can and should do more and better. And we look forward to engaging with them on this topic and similarly with the concerns that you raise that are specific to Kenya.

But both these countries are very important longstanding US partners with whom we have a broad range of issues, not just in the governance in the interests, not just issues. But in the governance space and the security space, in the economic space, we have a lot that we can do and are doing cooperatively and productively with these countries, and our aim is to be forthright about the concerns where we have them and strengthen and deepen cooperation in our mutual interests where we can. So that’s how we’ll approach it.

I won’t speak for the President. I think you’ll have an opportunity to hear from him during the course of the trip about his personal ties to Kenya. I do know that he is very much looking forward to both the stops on this trip. And obviously when you go to a country where you have familial ties and you’re a sitting President, it’s a different deal than when you’re going as a private citizen or even as a United States senator. So there are certain constraints not only of time but of logistics that limit what he might do in a different context. But I'm quite confident that he’s looking forward to the trip and the opportunity to spend some time in private with some of his relatives.

This is just going to follow up on that. You said he would be spending some time with relatives. Can you just expand on that? Will they come visit him? Will he go somewhere? Will he go to his family’s village? Will the bear be on the loose? (Laughter.)

I'm not going to get into details on the logistics except to say that I do believe he’ll have an opportunity to spend some time privately with members of his family. I think some members of his family will also be invited to some of the public events, or the larger state-sponsored events, including perhaps the dinner.

It is a fact that he is not going to be able to visit the village most closely associated with his family for a combination of time and logistical reasons, among others. But nonetheless, I know that he looks forward to having the opportunity to reach out to and have some time with family, as any of us would.

It’s come to light that Kenyan Airlines has actually published the President’s schedule in detail regarding the two major airports, both arrival and departure, not only among its staff but also it’s been published on Facebook. Is this a breach in security protocol? Is there any concern about security measures in light of this kind of widespread information that is now out to the public regarding very specifically his schedule?

My understanding, Suzanne, is that Secret Service is well aware of this. It has in no way affected our approach to or plans for the trip. And it’s also my understanding that oftentimes some of this information turns out to be not entirely accurate. But I don’t think it in any way is disturbing our plans.

A question on timing. Kenya obviously is a place of great personal significance for the President. For reasons that you’ve acknowledged already, there were reasons not to go prior to now. But I just wonder if you can talk a little bit about why he didn’t go before now, why he is going now. What’s the reason? Why is this a good time to go?

He’s going now because we are the co-chair of the 6th Annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit which Kenya is hosting. So every year there is such a summit; the President hasn’t been able to make every one of them but he’s gone to several. The Vice President has gone to some.

And so this is an opportunity not only to support the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which is something the President is deeply committed to as an initiative that has resonance around the world, but it's also an opportunity to strengthen and deepen our relationship to Africa which has been a centerpiece of the President’s foreign policy.

Was he waiting for the ICC charges against President Uhuru Kenyatta to be resolved before he took his trip?

I think the real hook for the timing was the entrepreneurship summit.

Will he appear or meet with the deputy [William Ruto] who still is facing charges before the ICC?

I don’t think he has any plans for any separate engagements with him. He is a member of the government, so I imagine that he may be present at some of the events.

Can you speak a little bit more broadly to the security concerns on this trip? Are they higher than normal for a presidential trip, given the countries that he’s visiting and the situation like this? And does the President consider the President of Kenya and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia democratically-elected leaders?

The short answer is, on the security side, I think I should refer you to Secret Service for any detailed questions. But obviously we wouldn’t be taking this trip if we thought that security conditions precluded us doing so. But it is important to note that Kenya in particular Ethiopia less recently has been the victim of terrorism, primarily perpetrated by Al-Shabaab.

We are very concerned for the people of Kenya and for the region, that this threat remains a real one. And that’s why we’ve cooperated so actively not only with the African Union force in Somalia, which is countering Al-Shabaab, but also in a bilateral way with the government of Kenya, the government of Ethiopia, and Uganda and others in the region that have experienced the threat from Al-Shabaab.

So it’s something that obviously, given their history and given the strong counterterrorism cooperation we have with the countries in the region, that we take seriously.

The democrat role first of all, yes, I think we would say that the President of Kenya was democratically elected. That was a competitive process. I think the Prime Minister of Ethiopia was just elected with 100 percent of the vote, which I think suggests, as we have stated in our public statements, some concern for the integrity of the electoral process at least if not in the outcomes then in some of the mechanisms that supported the process, the freedom for the opposition to campaign.

But does he think that that was a democratic election?

Absolutely 100 percent.

Could you say what lawmakers will be traveling?

I can’t give you a list. I can tell you that there are a good number, House and Senate, bipartisan. And one of the most gratifying things about working on Africa policy is that, for many decades now, US-Africa policy has been something that has been executed on a bipartisan basis. So there is a broad cross-section of members that are excited about coming on this trip, and we look forward to hosting them.

Could you say why the First Lady and the First Daughters aren’t going on this trip?

For no other reason, I think, in that they all have things they’re doing for their summer, especially the girls.

What are the administration’s concerns about Islamic State’s presence in Africa? And will this be a focus of any of the bilats and multilats?

Counterterrorism will certainly be a focus of both the bilats and the multilateral discussions that we have. We’re going to East Africa where, thus far, the Islamic State has had less of a footprint and a presence than some of al Qaeda-related affiliates.

In West and North Africa, obviously we have seen ISIL become an increasing presence, particularly in the Maghreb, but also in Nigeria.  So yes, we’ll be talking about counterterrorism. Not to exclude ISIL from that discussion, but in East Africa the focus is principally on other groups.

Do you expect to announce any new trade initiatives or business partnerships while you’re there?

I think we’ll announce them when we announce them. But trade and investment has been and will remain, as you could tell from my opening comments, a centerpiece of our engagement with Africa. And we’ll have the opportunity both through the Entrepreneurship Summit, through bilateral events in Ethiopia, as well as through discussions with business executives to point to the opportunities in Africa and the support that’s available particularly with the 10-year renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act for increased trade and investment between the United States and Africa.

With regards to the kidnapped Nigerian girls, there is a concern every Wednesday on Capitol Hill, the leaders still wear red to bring back the girls. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson believes that the girls are still alive and still in a large group together being held for leverage. Boko Haram wants to use them as leverage. Is that your feeling? And what are the efforts still to work on bringing the girls back?

Well, I wish I could give you a definitive answer to the question of what our best information is about the disposition of the girls. The fact of the matter is, none of us are able to say with certainty what the circumstances of the Chibok girls are today.

We’ve been working intently with the government of Nigeria and with other partners both in the region and from outside the region, including the British and the French, to provide whatever support we could to help locate the girls.

And our cooperation in terms of information-sharing and helping to provide the Nigerians with additional capacity to counter Boko Haram has been a critical thrust of our relationship with Nigeria, and one that expect will intensify now that President [Muhammadu] Buhari is in office and we are better able to address some of our concerns about human rights and command and control, and support for the Nigerian military, which we are keen to step up.

And as we do so, the search for the girls will continue to be for the Nigerian people and for the American people a very heartfelt priority. But I don’t have any good information on leads as to their whereabouts and their disposition.

The US has invested a lot of money over the last decade in the peace process between Sudan and South Sudan. What’s your reaction to sort of seeing things fall so far into disrepair there? And what can the President do specifically during this trip to address that?

Well, obviously all of us who celebrated the independence of South Sudan after a very long-fought struggle are deeply disappointed. And I have personally said I’m heartbroken by the horrific violence and civil conflict and human rights abuses that have characterized South Sudan in the last 18 months.

We have worked long and hard in partnership with the countries in the region to try to broker a lasting peace agreement in South Sudan. Thus far, the sides have put their own personal power and wealth ahead of the interests of their people and have refused to accept numerous rational proposals for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. It’s for that reason that when the President has the opportunity to meet with a handful of leaders in Addis, in a summit format, that South Sudan will be among the important topics that they take up, including what more we can do at this critical moment as the circumstances on the ground continue to deteriorate to galvanize a peaceful outcome and to hold the leaders accountable on both sides. And should it prove impossible to get them to come to an agreement, we will be talking about what other steps we might take collectively to impose consequences.

Do you expect the President to interact with Robert Mugabe?

No. We’re not going to Zimbabwe and he’s not coming to the African Union.

You addressed already a little bit of the issue of human rights. Some aid groups have said that a presidential trip gives the White House a lot of leverage to press Ethiopia and Kenya on rights. Do you feel you’ve used that leverage? And do you expect any additional announcements of journalist release or other things along those lines from the Ethiopian government?

I can’t speak for the Ethiopian government. I can say that we always not just in Africa, but around the world when we are traveling to countries where we have concerns about the rule of law, human rights, corruption, whatever, democratic governance, we make those concerns known, publicly and privately. And we have done so continuously in the case of these two countries, and we’ll continue to do so. I think our interest is not in some gesture necessarily tied to the trip but in lasting change, which is sustained over time that benefits the people of these countries.

It’s kind of astounding that no American President has visited Kenya before now.

Sitting, yes.

Yes, sitting President. How do you...

Or Ethiopia, which is the largest one of the largest countries in East Africa and on the continent.

But you hear a lot about the historic relationship between the US and Kenya. So what can you say about why that is that no one...

I can’t answer that question.

Why didn’t Bill Clinton go?

I’m not sure why we didn’t go to Ethiopia or Kenya. I think one strong thing about Ethiopia that was less the case back then is the African Union, which back then was the Organization of African Unity, has come into its own and become a very strong force for unity and progress, frankly, on the continent. And so our partnership with the African Union has definitely strengthened and deepened. It’s been under this administration that we appointed an ambassador to the African Union. And in many ways, the strength and importance of that relationship has changed. We’ve always had an interest in Ethiopia’s progress, particularly after the end of the Derg. And we had Secretaries of State in the Clinton administration who went to Ethiopia and to Kenya, of course. But we did not have the opportunity for President Clinton to go. He took two trips to Africa, as you’ll recall. First one in 1998, where he went to I think six countries, and then a subsequent one where he it was a shorter trip where he just went to two.

I just want to come back to the lawmakers for a moment. Do you see these invitations to them as a way to advance your policy goals on Africa? And what specifically might you be asking Congress to do in the area of Africa legislation in the coming months?

Well, obviously we want to strengthen and sustain what I’ve referred to repeatedly as a strong bipartisan consensus around support for Africa, Africa’s development, peace and security there. The biggest piece of legislation that we were focused on related to Africa was, of course, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which was renewed last month in the context of other trade legislation.

But obviously we have many, many issues that are important that we need Congress’s support on legislation that will support and codify some of the most significant initiatives, including in the health and agriculture and power sectors, as well as we have a nominee on the Hill that very much needs to be confirmed for USAID administrator. So that is not something solely for Africa, it’s for the whole world, and for our leadership as the world’s biggest provider of humanitarian assistance at a time when the world is having many humanitarian crises. But there are many, many ways in which Congress’s role is necessary to, and contributes to, on a bipartisan basis our support for Africa and other developing parts of the world.

Kenya’s President said that gay rights was a non-issue in his country, and that it was definitely on the agenda with the President. It was two years ago in Senegal, President Obama was very forceful about protecting gay rights. There are already warnings from inside Kenya from politicians, media outlets, for the President not to address it as bluntly or as openly as he did before. Is it on the agenda? Is it something that he is thinking about in terms of the balance between recognizing the sovereignty of Kenya and also promoting gay rights?

Well, I think, as you know, this is not for us an issue of Africa or any country in Africa, this is an issue of universal human rights. And President Obama feels very strongly, as do all of us in the administration, that gay rights are human rights. And whether we're in Washington, D.C. or in somewhere in Asia or in Africa, that is something that we do not shy away from underscoring, as the President did during his last trip to Africa, and many other parts of the world. So this is not something that we think is a topic we reserve for certain parts of the world and not others. If appropriate, I have no doubt that the President will feel perfectly free to raise his concerns.