Press round table with Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto

Official Transcript
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto
Press Roundtable – U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa
December 8, 2017

A/S Yamamoto: It’s great to be back in Ethiopia, and of course especially with the press. One of the things that we’ve always emphasized was on training and capacity building in the press area. It’s something that we kind of focused on during my career. Recently I was in Afghanistan for a year working on capacity building and also in Somalia.

But I wanted to say why are we here, and I have my colleague from the National Security Council and our Chief of Staff, is that Secretary of State Tillerson hosted a ministerial on Africa for 37 countries, but basically, it’s to work with all 54 countries of Africa on a looking at what Africa’s going to look like in the year 2100 and 2050. Africa will be the most populous continent at 2.4 billion. Seventy percent will be under 30. And unemployment rates could be very high. So we need to start working now with our African partners and countries on really addressing the needs of a growing youth bulge.

Here in Ethiopia, Ethiopia is one of our cornerstone countries and also at the forefront in development, and also looking at how do you address these challenges that we’re going to face not only in Ethiopia but in the entire continent.

We just came back from Kenya. We’re going up to London to meet with our British and French colleagues to do a coordinated policy approach. We’re also going to work with the European Union, Japan, and other donor communities, but also mainly to work with our Africa partners from north to south, east to west, to central areas…

So with that, we can open up to Q&A.

Yonas Abiy, the Reporter newspaper: Mr. Ambassador, former Ambassador to Ethiopia, while you were here in Ethiopia as an Ambassador, you have had a very tough time in Ethiopia because you have been engaged in very serious negotiation and diplomatic pressure with the Ethiopian government regarding detained officials. But at that time Ethiopia was relatively peaceful but these days the political turmoil has become a bit aggressive in Ethiopia. So you know the area very much, when did Ethiopia go down the wrong path in these days in your observation?

The second question is that still during your Ambassadorial time here in Ethiopia you have been engaged in serious discussion with Ethiopian government specially on the issue of the anti-terrorism law, the media law and the civil society law but still there is no improvement on these laws. But you were expecting that Ethiopian government will try to ease this law sometimes near future. I remembered that you have said once you were in Addis Ababa. Are you still have confidence Ethiopian government will make the political atmosphere or space available for [these groups]?

A/S Yamamoto: Thank you very much for your question. So my role right now is, I’m the Acting Assistant Secretary for Africa, so in our bureau we have oversight of 44 embassies, 6 consulates and offices throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, but also close cooperation with the Maghreb and Middle East and other parts of the world.

We’re also headed into bilateral discussions with key allies — China, Japan and other countries — just on their role in Africa.

So Ethiopia, as you know, is an important country for the United States. Why? Because of the role it plays in supporting assistance.

As you know, Ethiopia is one of our largest investment and assistance recipient countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. We’re committed to Africa because it’s an area where we see a lot of development and progress. It’s also an area that we are working — and it’s mainly working with the people of Ethiopia to ensure that the people of Ethiopia have a brighter, more developed future.

And one of the outcomes of our ministerial meeting is that as we look at development throughout the Sub-Saharan Africa region, that development and economic progress cannot come without integration and coordination with three really fundamental critical areas. The security sector is one; political reform and economic reform; and of course respect for human rights. Because if you don’t have a population where there’s enough freedom, you don’t have creativity. If you don’t have creativity, you don’t have the economic development that you need to have. And looking at Africa in the year 2050 or 2100, you’re going to need a lot of creativity and dynamism, and you can’t limit those aspirations. Given all the challenges that Africa is going to be facing, and not only Africa, but I think the entire world, but Africa’s going to be hit really heavily by the generation and also the population dynamics in the future.

So going back to your specific questions, is that we work with each country, but also each country in the context of the continent, because that’s what we do, is we’re looking at it continent wide.

Our stress is on protection of human rights, and also in the governments working cooperatively with civil society organizations. We believe that community-based growth is important.

I’ll just give you my own background. I was the Human Rights Officer in China during Tiananmen Square and we learned from that the importance of human rights not only to that government but also to the people, that it’s important to really stress and protect human rights and the freedom of movement and the freedom of expression. So towards that end, the United States will remain committed to that. We never wavered, and those are enduring principles that we will always be committed to. That’s something that we advocate not only with this government, but all governments.

We just came back from Kenya, an area that we also work very closely with the government and also with opposition groups, and we’ll do the same here in Ethiopia because Ethiopia is a very important country not only to the United States but also to the continent of Africa, and what we we want Africa to be headed towards.

Eskinder Ferew, VOA Amharic: Thank you very much. I know you touched on this, but let me take you back to those times where you were Ambassador here. Given your concerns and hopes vis-à-vis the political and economic situation is challenging. How do you compare those concerns you had then with the ones you have now? And can you tell me areas where there is back-sliding and progress.

A/S Yamamoto: Ethiopia is a very unique place for me personally, given my relationship with Ethiopia dating back to 1998 when we worked on the Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary commission issues.

But the question comes in that the progress on the politics, the economy, the social are really all interrelated. And what we’re doing is we look at the people of the country, particularly in Ethiopia, it’s how is it we can help improve the betterment of the people for Ethiopia?

So if you look at all our assistance levels, et cetera, it’s directed not through government institutions, and Ethiopia is not unique there, it’s throughout Africa and throughout really the world, that we work with community-based groups, we work with NGO groups, international groups, to address areas that we can help improve the status of the people.

So when you say backsliding on politics, we work closely with the government and these are private discussions, about where we see improvements can be made. Where we have differences we try to resolve those issues. And we try to help governments and communities work together cooperatively. Because really, it’s not only in the interest of the nation, but it’s also of interest for the U.S. strategic interest. And so our, the U.S. national strategic interest is to ensure that we have open governments and countries that are responsive to the people. Accountable to the people. And that’s really something that we’ve stressed from Zimbabwe and the recent changes there to the elections coming up in Liberia. The post-elections in Kenya. But also the challenges we face in Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So it’s across the board. Not just Ethiopia, but across the continent. And we will remain vigilant. We’re going to raise those issues where we see differences. And we’ll be very aggressive in keeping up on those issues.

So going back to your question, yes, we will raise those questions and we’ll continue to raise them.

Colleta Wanjohi, Feature Story News: Sir, Your trip to Africa at a time when President Trump was just announcement on Israel, Jerusalem future issue. You know the African Union has always recognize Palestine as an independent state. Do you think this recent announcement is going too far and could create or trigger trust issues between the U.S. and Africa?

A/S Yamamoto: The pronouncement, or the announcement by the White House was based on a campaign promise made by the President during the campaign. These are issues that we’ll continue to work with. It does not detract or negate our commitment towards a resolution of peace in the Middle East. And many of these are issues we heard loud and clear from the Chairperson Moussa Faki yesterday. And also from our colleagues and friends here in the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya. We will continue to look at and hear the dialogue.

But it does not detract from the commitment we have towards peace in the Middle East.

Abrham Anteneh, EBC: Thank you very much.

The peace and security areas are the two areas that both the United States of America and Ethiopia have been working on for a very long time. And there is area of refugees, Ethiopia is working with refugees, and this is the kind of security shortage for their country and the region as a whole.

So what is the way forward for the two countries in these three areas, peace, security and refugees?

A/S Yamamoto: And also IDPs, correct?

We look at Ethiopia [in terms of] what global trend lines are, because you can’t look at it in isolation.

So you have 65 million refugees worldwide. You look at how we’re handling not only the refugee folks from not only conflict, man-made conflict, drought issues, humanitarian crisis situations.

So I’ll give the example. Right now we’re focused on Southern Sudan. We have 1.3 million refugees that flow into neighboring Uganda. We have the DRC because of the political uncertainty, has created 540,000 refugee flows into neighboring countries. But [at the same time], which may sound contradictory, you have refugee flows into the DRC given the crises and instability in neighboring countries.

So the refugee flows are one area at issue. And Ethiopia is no different because of the instability and continued crises in neighboring Somalia, and also the refugee flows coming in from Southern Sudan. So those are interrelated.

The other issue too is IDP issues. We’ve been looking at the 670,000 internally displaced people in the Oromia and Somali region. We also look at how did that [happen], working with not only international organizations but also local communities to resolve not only manmade, created problems, but also crises created by humanitarian issues. And they’re all, and you have to look at the entire comprehensive approach. So that’s what we’re looking at right now. We’ll continue to look at how to ease tensions, resolve problems, and also to address and improve the status of the people in these areas.

Do you have a follow-up specific question on that in Ethiopia?

Abrham,EBC: Not actually the refugee and the IDP peoples question, but I was actually talking about the peace and security issues and what is the way forward?

A/S Yamamoto: I think I know what you’re talking about, on peace keeping and military and security assistance.

The issue that comes in is that we have to look at all these issues in the context of a much more broad-based and comprehensive approach.

Just as they said on the ministerial, the three areas that we raised at the ministerial was economic development, security, and conflict resolution. And really, in that context, also good governance and human rights. So everything is interrelated.

You can’t have security without addressing governance, human rights, and the causes of conflict and tensions. We can’t have that. You can’t have it and say well, we’re going to go against terrorist organizations here and neglect what’s the result going to be in the context of a much more comprehensive approach, and the reason why is because if you’re looking at peace and during peace and during security, you need to address all of these issues simultaneously and not individually or in isolation.

So therefore, we were in Mogadishu for the security reform issue, and of course even though the focal point was on how to enhance security within the federal government of Mogadishu, it has to be in the context of what we do with the high rates of refugee flows out of Somalia, and the high rates of IDPs. But more important is how do you address giving hope and development [opportunities] for the people, and those are issues that you have to address in addition to guaranteeing security and peace for the people to develop.

The same thing in Ethiopia. How do you guarantee border security? How do you guarantee security within the country without also addressing governance, human rights, economic development and also humanitarian? For instance, right now Ethiopia is in its third year of drought. How do you mitigate drought-related issues? But then also in the context of the overall comprehensive approach. So that’s what we’re looking at.

So going back to your question on security, it has to be based on a whole very broad-based comprehensive approach.

Samson Berhane, Addis Fortune: Other countries like China, UAE and Saudi have already opened military bases in Horn of Africa. So what’s the take of your government if Russia starts negotiations to open a base in Eritriea?

A/S Yamamoto: You need to ask the Russians what their intentions are.

Our issue is that, so in Djibouti, we were in Djibouti, we looked at the new, we saw the Chinese military presence there. We followed that. But we also have followed the base the Japanese have created there. We look at CTF-151, which is coalition of the willing of countries, which has included at one time, you know, countries from Indonesia all the way out to Spain, the UK, the United States.

So we look at security based on what is the impact going to be on overall security in the region. Can they contribute to the peaceful coexistence and enhancement of security for the region?

So the issue comes in, I’ll give you an example right now in Somalia. We have Turkey, the UAE, we have the European Union doing a lot of security sector reform issues.

So these aren’t in isolation. We maintain very close contact with all of these countries. We also look at Qatar, which also has influence. We’ve had robust discussions with Chinese. In fact we’re going to go into our annual discussions with the Chinese on Africa.

So you’ve got to look at the situation. There are areas that we have differences, and those differences we’re going to raise. But we also have areas of cooperation because we have mutual interests that intersect and coordinate.

So those are issues that we need to look at. I’ll give you an example. When we were in Ethiopia the last time, we had 13 Chinese oil workers who were killed in the Ogaden area. That doesn’t mean because we have differences on China areas that we’re not going to help support. Because we’re the United States. We support and help everyone. So we helped support the Chinese in addressing their security concerns in the Ogaden, Because we have shared mutual interests.

More important is that we had to work with the Chinese on a large number of coordinated issues on investment development. The same thing with the Russians.

I’m not sure what the intensions of the Russians are in Eritrea. That I think you probably need to talk to the Eritreans about and the Russians. But we will continue to talk to the Russians with whom we also have regular discussions.

And based on your question, I’ll raise it with them.

Eyuel Solomon, Afro FM: We recently see reports of African migrants being sold like commodities in Libya. What is the U.S. action as the biggest and largest country on human rights? Is the U.S. going to take action against those people?

A/S Yamamoto: You heard what Secretary Tillerson said about the heinous actions, and also just the issue in general.

Our core values and our core interests is to, when we see wrong, is to call it out and to address it head on, and the issue of slavery and human trafficking remains a fundamental core strategic policy for the United States to oppose and to resolve and to find ways to mitigate any problems that gives rise to those flows.

And so the reports they were receiving, not just out of Libya, but other areas of the world remains very [concerning] and as we approach those situations, we’re going to look at it very closely, as it remains a tremendous amount of concern to us.

Paul Schemm, Washington Post: So you mentioned about Ethiopia being a cornerstone country and a massive investment for the U.S. And you also mentioned the 670,000 internally displaced people. I’d just like to circle back to that and say, just to get a little more specific on some of your comments. Is there a great deal of concern currently in the U.S. about the situation of the clashes that have resulted in the internally displaced? And have there been discussions with the government about their approach and recommendations about what they may or may not be doing? I was wondering if you could sort of elaborate on that.

And on Kenya, the U.S. Embassy told Odinga that it was probably not a great idea to hold his inauguration. Odinga replied saying that the U.S. should butt out.

So I was just wondering if you kind of had a further response to the situation.

A/S Yamamoto: Going back to the internally displaced, the 670,000 and many of them recently since September, and due to a number of factors from land tenureship, to ethnic tensions, to a lot of development issues in those areas.

So the conversations we conducted with the Ethiopian government, and I’d refer you to the Ethiopian government because those discussions were private. But let me tell you that on specifically, since my time here before, is that, and also in the kind of context on the African continent — we’re seeing kind of an influx of ethnic and travel problems and regional problems in Africa. That’s a worrying trend and it’s a concern and it’s an issue that we’re looking at very closely. It’s not just Ethiopia, it’s the DRC, the rise of these militias in the east that are transcending regional issues but also a lot of them are ethnic based and regionally based. We’re also looking at the tensions in southern Sudan.

So in Ethiopia with the Oromo and the Somali tensions, that’s a concern. And that’s an issue that we’re looking at very closely, and we will work not only with the people directly to resolve those tensions, but also to find areas where we can play a role to help support the easing of those tensions.

As you know, we’re committed to immediately address the humanitarian issues, and that means the drought, because there’s been a drought; the food insecurity. And then secondary is to look at long-term solutions so that these don’t happen again.

I’ll defer to our Ambassador, and Mike Raynor has been very aggressive in going to the camps and looking at areas where we can be helpful.

But one of our core values, too, is don’t make a situation worse. Don’t create more problems that don’t exist. But more important is when we do see a problem is to address it.

Going back to Kenya, we were in Kenya. Kenya is another country of importance to us. As you know, Kenya is our largest mission in Africa, in all of Africa. We have a very robust relationship with the government and the people of Kenya, and what we’re looking at is supporting and assisting all parties to abide by the constitution, and also to have a peaceful transition towards the post-election process.

As you know, we’ve already made public announcements congratulating Kenya and President Kenyatta on his reelection. We also have worked very closely with former Prime Minister Odinga who remains a symbol of a lot of the reform programs that we’re trying to work with him and the government, and also societies and organizations to work on it. There’s always room for a lot of reform issues.

Aaron Maasho, Reuters: On Somalia AMISOM currently to pull out troops at a time when the U.S. is expanding its operation and presence in Somalia. How much of concern is this? And also, is the U.S. government lobbying member states of AMISOM to extend their stays?

A/S Yamamoto: Ultimately the TCCs, in other words, the AMISOM countries.

First of all, number one is we commend and we support the participant countries, particularly the Ethiopians, the Kenyans the Djiboutians, the Ugandans, the Burundians and other countries who have supported the AMISOM. And also the sacrifices they’ve made. Let’s not forget the tremendous sacrifices that the Ethiopian troops have made in protecting, defending, and supporting the federal government of Somalia.

We are, this is going to be a long term challenge – how to address the security in Somalia? After Black Hawk Down, the United States, really we kind of stood back on that, on Somalia. And now we’ve returned. We’re not going to make any more mistakes or errors but we have to be and remain committed to not only stabilizing the nation of Somalia, but also looking towards how to support the people of Somalia. You cannot allow any areas of instability or areas where it can be utilized or taken advantage of by terrorist groups or groups that have ill will towards not just Somalia, but to units and bases of operations, to threaten the neighboring states such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.

So we remain committed to working with the AMISOM. We’re headed towards London after talks with our European French colleagues. We’re also in close contact with the European Union to look at what is the future role going to be for AMISOM?

It’s not just AMISOM. It’s really, how do you create a Somali National Army? How do you work with the federal government in coordination with the member states? How do you work with looking at how the other countries – how Turkey and also the donor community can play a much more coordinated and cooperative role in support of the Somali government? And that ultimately is going to bring stability and peace not only for Somalia but for the region, and that really is a core issue, is peace and stability.

Aaron: Specifically on AMISOM pulling out, have you lobbing member states?

A/S Yamamoto: We’re working very closely — as you know, the pull-out raised by President Museveni in Uganda calls for it by 2020. And let’s be very clear, AMISOM is not permanent, it’s always been a temporary. It is a transition. In fact the issue is how do we work within the timeframe that President Museveni has stated for his forces to leave? How do we support the Somali National Army? How do we really make it effective so we have a peaceful and coherent and logical transition from AMISOM to the Somalian National Army? That’s the challenge that we have right now. And we are talking.

Thank you very much. I look forward to working with you. If you come to Washington, please come visit.