Ms. Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, USA: “Violent extremism, the solution lies in better access to government services”

The Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs of the United States of America, Ms. Molly Phee stayed in Abidjan from 28 to 3 September as part of a working visit. At the end of her visit, she agreed to give us this interview in which she talks about this mission and its politico-diplomatic contours.

What is the purpose of your visit to Côte d’Ivoire?

The main purpose of my visit is to listen and learn. The United States shares many interests with the Ivory Coast. This includes working together to address challenges such as tackling climate change, preventing global health threats and countering violent extremism. We also share the goal of increasing trade, investment and advancing our common desire for regional stability. Côte d’Ivoire’s growth and progress over the past decade has been impressive. I want to learn from our Ivorian partners how we can strengthen existing local initiatives that advance the country’s development. We want Côte d’Ivoire to succeed economically and socially and consolidate its leadership by contributing to peace and prosperity in the region.

As part of the partnership between the United States and Côte d’Ivoire, what projects are you working on together?

We have excellent partnerships with Côte d’Ivoire in several areas. For example, our two-way trade reached $1.5 billion in 2021. We would love to increase that number, and that’s part of the reason for my visit. We also collaborate a lot in the health sector. The United States has for several years been the largest bilateral health donor in Côte d’Ivoire. Additionally, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and Côte d’Ivoire signed a six-year, $536.7 million Compact to reduce poverty through economic growth. Another area of ​​partnership concerns the fight against violent extremism and instability. I shared details of the new US strategy for preventing conflict and promoting stability during my discussions with Ivorian government officials this week. President Biden launched this strategy in April as part of a ten-year partnership with Côte d’Ivoire and four other countries in the region – Guinea, Ghana, Togo and Benin. As part of Côte d’Ivoire’s National Development Plan, we have launched locally-led projects to build resilience in northern border areas, such as strengthening inter-community dialogue, improving relations between the forces of security and populations and increased radio messages in local languages.

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The U.S. government has been instrumental in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Côte d’Ivoire. Can you tell us about the nature and level of support from your government in the health sector?

We are proud of the support we have provided to Côte d’Ivoire and other countries to stem the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two weeks, the United States, through COVAX, has donated another million doses of vaccine to the Ivory Coast. The total U.S. donation to Côte d’Ivoire of COVID-19 vaccine doses has now exceeded 10 million. To date, 54% of the eligible Ivorian population has received at least one dose. A new vaccination campaign begins next week, so we encourage anyone who is not fully vaccinated to take advantage of this opportunity to protect themselves, their families and their communities. But our help doesn’t stop there. We also support education and awareness efforts to support the Ivorian goal of vaccinating 70% of its eligible population. In terms of HIV/AIDS, we have been Côte d’Ivoire’s leading partner for 18 years. Since 2004, the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has invested more than $1.7 billion in Côte d’Ivoire, including $111 million this year, to support the across the continuum of HIV prevention and treatment. In fact, the success that Côte d’Ivoire has achieved in preventing COVID-19 was certainly due in part to the knowledge and technical expertise acquired over the years through the partnership with PEPFAR. In addition, we have several other medical assistance programs. For example, through the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, we’ve provided $125 million in assistance since 2017.

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Respect for human rights and democracy is a top priority for the United States. How do you read the situation in Côte d’Ivoire?

We see Côte d’Ivoire as a partner in the region to advance human rights and democracy. In July, we began negotiations with the Ivorian government on a possible Child Protection Compact, which could include assistance to civil society organizations to combat child trafficking. We also have extensive programming in support of Ivorian efforts to train its security forces in respect for human rights. For example, US-funded community policing programs in Man, Bouaké, and Abidjan to support building relationships and trust between communities and law enforcement, thereby minimizing abuse. Through the US Strategy for Preventing Conflict and Promoting Stability, we explore opportunities to improve access to justice and the rule of law. On the democracy front, there are encouraging trends in Côte d’Ivoire. I commend President Ouattara and the opposition leaders for their efforts at reconciliation through dialogue. The peaceful legislative elections of 2021 were the most inclusive elections in Côte d’Ivoire for many years; this feat deserves recognition and congratulations.

The terrorist threat is real in the sub-region. What type of support does the United States provide to West African countries, particularly the Ivory Coast?

We believe that most solutions to violent extremism are not solely military. And after my discussions this week, I am convinced that the Ivorian authorities share the same appreciation. The long-term solution lies in better access to government services, education and economic opportunities. We support these efforts. In northern Côte d’Ivoire, USAID is funding Resilience for Peace, a five-year, $19.5 million initiative to build community resilience, learning, and economic empowerment. Of course, maintaining well-trained and professional troops to counter violent extremism remains essential. In February 2022, Côte d’Ivoire partnered with us to host the Special Operations Forces Regional Training Exercise FLINTLOCK at the International Counter-Terrorism Academy in Jacqueville. The event brought together hundreds of regional soldiers to train in the field and in classrooms. Additionally, in early September, we concluded a joint combined exchange training, which brought a team of US soldiers to Côte d’Ivoire to train alongside their Ivorian counterparts for seven weeks. During my meeting with the Minister of Defense, Téné Birahima Ouattara, we agreed that we have a common interest in having a stable sub-region.

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Last June, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Don Graves, took advantage of the Africa CEO Forum in Abidjan to discuss with the Ivorian authorities possible opportunities for economic partnerships, particularly between American and Ivorian companies. What are the different sectors of these partnerships?

Côte d’Ivoire is already home to dozens of American companies and a vibrant and growing American Chamber of Commerce. Our bilateral trade is at a healthy level. However, there are still many opportunities to develop. It wasn’t just Deputy Secretary Graves who met with government and business leaders from Côte d’Ivoire on the sidelines of the Africa CEO Forum. Several American companies – in data management, energy, infrastructure and much more – have also explored the Ivorian economic market. The key to attracting private sector investment, whether from the United States or elsewhere, lies in Côte d’Ivoire’s ability to remain politically stable over the long term. I heard this message clearly when I met with American companies this week. And private sector investment, a crucial factor enshrined in Côte d’Ivoire’s 2021-2025 National Development Plan, is a cornerstone of economic growth. In stable democracies, political parties play by the rules whether they are in power or not. For Côte d’Ivoire to maintain its growth trajectory, it must do the same. I’m optimistic.

Interview by O CHERIF