Top White House officials such as Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Jill Biden have crisscrossed the African continent this year to implement what President Joe Biden has described as partnerships between the United States and African countries. And a range of U.S. government officials — including lawmakers — have also traversed the continent, doing lower-profile work.
VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell sat down with Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a longtime and frequent visitor to Africa.
“This is a continent of incredible potential and opportunity,” Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its Africa subcommittee, told VOA. “If we can work in close partnership with young African nations to address climate change, food insecurity, human rights, sustainable development, urbanization — some of the key challenges of this century — we can solve those problems for the world.”
Coons also spoke about his upcoming participation in a classified Senate briefing over the recent leak of more than 100 classified documents by a member of the U.S. Air National Guard.
Those documents covered matters with global impacts, like U.S. spying efforts around the world, assessments of the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces, and of China’s aerial capabilities and access around Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: You recently accompanied the vice president on a multicountry Africa tour. What were the measurable, demonstrable outcomes of that and other high-profile U.S. visits to Africa this year?
Senator Chris Coons: The key goal here is to show up, is to engage, is to demonstrate that the United States is a trusted, valuable partner in public health, in economic development, in the transformation of the energy sector, in helping agriculture transform to combat food insecurity. The vice president, in the country that I traveled with her to — Ghana — focused on youth opportunity and entrepreneurship and creative enterprises, and the implementation of the Global Fragility Act.
She announced $100 million in investments to help stabilize Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, and Togo — countries in that I’ve also been actively engaged.
VOA: Let’s talk about Sudan. Yesterday, VOA talked to [former U.S. and U.N. diplomat] Jeffrey Feltman, who told us that the U.S. “got played” by both of the combatant leaders in Sudan. Is it time for Congress to break ties with the ruling military leadership in Sudan? Are you planning to author something on that?
Coons: This is something that had been feared for a number of weeks as relations between them got tenser and tenser. I have not given up hope that there is still a path toward an end to the violence, but we need to prepare for the very real possibility that Sudan is about to descend into all-out civil war. My concern is that this may quickly become a proxy war. I am talking with leadership here this week about our options for the path forward.
VOA: Kenyan media is reporting that you played a big role in bringing about an accord between President William Ruto and his nemesis, opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Can you take us into the room? What you did do, what you promised? And is the U.S. seen as a capable negotiator, facilitator, and guarantor in these sorts of disputes?
Coons: I had the opportunity to have, I hope, some positive and productive personal conversations with the deputy president, with the former prime minister, and with the former president, to just help them hear each other and to act as an intermediary. I think central is the path forward for the [electoral commission]. That is critical to there being in the future free and fair elections in Kenya.
My core message, frankly, to everyone I met with was: The United States is not trying to push any specific outcome or alignment of this government. We’re simply trying to help you hear each other and recognize that democracy is fragile, is difficult, and requires there being space for a legitimate opposition to be heard, for complaints and concerns about the economy about the election to be heard, and for the duly elected president of the country to be able to lead the country forward.
VOA: What are your intentions and hopes for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief [PEPFAR] and the African Growth and Opportunity Act [AGOA]? Is there bipartisan support for continuing both of them?
Coons: I had a chance a number of weeks ago to visit Botswana, South Africa, and Zambia to look at their PEPFAR programming, to look at the history and the future of PEPFAR. I think it can and should be reauthorized. And it will get a strong bipartisan vote to do so.
It is expensive, but it has a significant positive and sustained impact. I think it shows the world — but in particular, the countries that principally benefit in Africa — that the United States is capable of being a great partner over many years to persist in what is a really critical fight that helps the whole world, but that particularly helps those at the margins — the poorest women, children, those who are immunocompromised — to live good and full lives.
I was closely involved in the last reauthorization of AGOA. I’ve seen the positive impacts it has on the ground in a few countries, principally South Africa, Kenya, and Ethiopia. It’s possible for many more countries to benefit from AGOA, to use it to export apparel or produce or manufacture products in the United States.
VOA: This intelligence leak has triggered a review of security protocols. You’re going into this classified briefing. What concerns and questions do you have?
Coons: This is a significant breach of American intelligence. And there’s clearly going to be accountability at the unit level, as well as for this individual who I expect will end up spending a significant amount of time in jail for these actions. If someone with this relatively junior rank and youth in our military can expose such significant secrets for such a callow and simple reason, it has to raise larger questions about the control that we’re exercising over the flow of intelligence products both within our military and across our government.
I’m expecting to hear what else has been learned about how this happened, what response there’s been, and how we’re going to better manage intelligence information.
VOA: And are you concerned about tightening information and the implications of that as the U.S. continues to fund expensive and sensitive efforts like the war in Ukraine?
Coons: I am optimistic that we can show that the oversight that’s happening both remotely and now in person on the ground in Ukraine gives us confidence that the money we are sending is being well spent.
In my visit to Kyiv last fall with Senator [Rob] Portman, we spoke to our ambassador there, some of the accountability teams, and the outside contractors that are providing insight into how our funds are being spent. And I’m so far optimistic that we’re going to be able to meet that mark of showing the American people that the money we’re investing in Ukraine’s defense in Ukraine, fighting the Russian occupiers, is money well spent.