Interview with Ambassador Bisa Williams to the Republic of Niger

Niger ambassadorBisa Williams assumed the post of Ambassador from the United States of America to Niger on October 29, 2010. She joined the Foreign Service in 1984 and has been posted to Mauritius, France, and Panama. Williams oversaw the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum to improve trade relations between the United States and Africa. In the United States, she has also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Coordinator for Cuban Affairs, Director for International Organizations at the National Security Council, and Special Assistant to the Secretary of State. A cum laude graduate of Yale College, Williams received master’s degrees from the National War College and from the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

The truth is that this is not something I had been thinking about — I think it was a question of timing. My husband brought home a Black Enterprise Magazine one day that had in it the Career Marketplace “jobs wanted” sort of thing. There was a very nice ad from the State

Department in it. We were living in Houston, which was going through a very difficult economic time, and he suggested, “Work with me on this!” He said, “You know all this stuff about international cultures — find out if this is something we might be interested in as a couple.” So I started reading about the Foreign Service as a young married woman; I was actually also teaching at the time. And the more I read about it, the more seduced I became by the composition of Foreign Service. So I applied. And one thing led to another — I passed one test, passed another test, and each tiny success became the hope of an exciting future. So I joined by accident.

The Politic:  Do you look back fondly on your years at Yale University?

I’m from the cohort of the 1970s, the group that has been most alienated from the university. A couple years ago, in fact, the Yale Alumni Association made a special effort to reach out to women who had graduated from the early to the mid-70s because we seemed to be the least involved in the university. So, do I look back fondly on my years at the university? Not exactly, but I certainly did have a rich experience and appreciate having gone to Yale.

The Politic: In what ways do you think your time at Yale prepared you for a career in the Foreign Service?

Well, I got an excellent education from Yale. I concentrated on languages and literature and cultures, and the quality of learning that was going on there prepared me to be a good critical thinker. It also prepared me to know how to deal with different kinds of people — we had a very nice international community. So, I think that no matter what you study at an institution like Yale, as long as you study seriously, you’ll be prepared for whatever part of the field you choose.

The Politic: Now in terms of applying for the Foreign Service, or even thinking about a career in Foreign Service, do you have any advice for students or young professionals?

I do. This is really a very stimulating career — it’s an exciting and important career, and I don’t think we Foreign Service Officers talk enough about the benefits and importance of the work we are doing. But it can also be a very challenging career — the world is a lot more dangerous, for one, than it used to be, and it can be, particularly for the professional women, a rather lonely career. Some of that loneliness is balanced out by the awards that you get from your work, but it is still a real consideration.

I will say, however, that I get a great deal of satisfaction even working on small problems here in Niger that have to do with the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Niger and which shape the way the relationship might evolve. There’s also satisfaction in finding creative ways of really investing in these individuals who may never, ever come to the United States but who — through our educational programs, some of our economic stimulation programs, or through our humanitarian assistance — have been able to improve their condition and have been able to advance in some way. Those kinds of experiences, for me, have been a very rewarding, and I think they have been underplayed. The Foreign Service can be an extremely rewarding career — not in a financial sense but in an experiential one and in making a difference in somebody’s life.

The Politic: You mentioned professional woman and the career in the Foreign Service. When we interviewed Ambassador John Negroponte, we asked him what one of the biggest changes in the Foreign Service career had been over his forty-year career, and he spoke about the representation of women. Could talk about the representation of women in the Foreign Service today and if you think there is an equal playing field?

I think there is a much more equal playing field now than when I first started in the Foreign Service, which was in 1984. Up until 1972, women actually had to leave the Foreign Service when they got married, so clearly a lot of things have changed. There are more women ambassadors and far more policymaking women throughout the department. There are also more programs, more concerns about assignments — we try to be a family-friendly organization. In the federal system, our State Department has ranked pretty high as being a good place to work, and they arrived at that A-rating through a lot of trial and error. There are real, new nursery support programs for employees. In D.C., it was originally really hard to find employment for your spouse if your spouse did not work for the State Department, and we have come vey far in trying to address things to help families stay together. We are providing the real, substantive work that women are supposed to be doing and we are trying to make an experience that will be beneficial to everybody. That has helped, especially in terms of people staying in that career. As an example, in one of our embassies in Libya, in Benghazi, one of our officers talking about the security decisions there was a woman, and that might not have happened, say, ten years ago.

The Politic: Could you walk us through what a day in the life of an ambassador is like?

Ambassador Bisa Williams pays a courtesy call on the Sultan of Gobir in Maradi, the economic capital of Niger (June 2011)
Ambassador Bisa Williams pays a courtesy call on the Sultan of Gobir in Maradi, the economic capital of Niger (June 2011)

I’ll try, but every country is different. One of the things that Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton actually emphasized was that in our whole approach to an embassy, we are not only managing the relationship between two countries, but also managing within our own government system various other regions that fall under the umbrella of the United States operation. Part of my day really deals with communicating with all of the different parts — the FBI, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and the various military commands that have interests here; I deal with the management of a big operation with a big budget. Then, there has to be the focus on the question of what is there on the domestic scene with direct import to the U.S. government or to the American population that actually lives here? We have private Americans that live in Niger, and part of my responsibility here is to make sure that they stay safe. The security concerns are very important here in Niger. I spend a lot of time talking to the Nigerian government, as well as to my military and security official colleagues, about the security situation and what we’re doing about it.

Fortunately, we have a very healthy development and humanitarian assistance program in Niger. But, I feel it is one thing to say, “Okay, we’re doing educational assistance, we’re doing humanitarian assistance” and wholly another to go out in the country and see what that means. When we say we are helping their schools and opening up opportunities for real progress, I like to see that in action. So, I’ve spent a lot of time going around to various provinces and scheduling visits any given day. Now, our projects are to talk to the actual beneficiaries. When we were doing nutrition work, for example, we were hearing that women weren’t breastfeeding their children, which was really surprising to me. After we had some programs talking about the benefits of breastfeeding, I wanted to go out and actually talk to the women, see how much people were actually learning.

Another part of my day as ambassador just deals with how I talk to my own officers and subordinates here about whether they’re asking the right questions. Once I get that from my own officers, what else can I do here? What, in their view, is the best use of my time and the best protection of the American image here?

The Politic: Throughout your career in the Foreign Service, has there perhaps been an event or person that has been most influential for either your career or style of diplomacy?

Ah, that is a great question. All of my assignments have been very, very interesting and important — I’ll say that — and they all shake you, regardless of what happens to them. But in particular, my second assignment as a junior political officer in Panama was significant. I was in the Office of Politics when a funny thing happened in Panama: the civil society said that they were tired of that government. We all know what happened to Panama, but I learned a lot in this experience about how to go out and talk to everybody and also about power triggers. We went almost overnight from being very close to [General Manuel] Noriega to having protests, and eggs, paint, bricks and mortar thrown at our embassy because we switched sides. I had been tasked right away with trying to relay to Washington what really was going on here — how they were doing, what they were doing, and what should be the U.S. response to all this. Basically, I was their on-the-ground view. It was quite informative.

After our military intervention, I was brought back to Panama because I was considered a person who knew that government best. I had to work alongside Ambassador Deanne Hinton, who was another career ambassador — famous or infamous depending on where you sit — and I found out what it meant to support a government as it was coming into its own. There were lots of challenges. There were security challenges. I have used elements from that experience in all of my subsequent assignments. Now, in Niger, the situation is not quite the same — there was a small coup, a transition and elections — but we are still at the point where a government is feeling its way through how it is going to manifest itself. They did not have to pick up the pieces completely like the Panamanians had to, but I have been reminded that if there has been one person that has had a really big influence on shaping my outlook on foreign affairs — though, granted, there have been many people — it has been Deane Hinton.

Right now, in Northern Africa with the Arab Spring, we are seeing how difficult it is for civilians to deal with entrenched authoritarian rule that outguns them and that controls the leaders. I feel like I understand that because I’ve seen it in play and I’ve seen the sacrifices that people have had to make.

The Politic: In terms of Niger’s security, the country is surrounded on nearly every side by countries rife with political instability. There is Mali in the west, Nigeria in the south, Algeria and Libya in the north and Chad in the east. Starting with the situation in Mali, in what ways has Niger felt the ripple effects of violence and instability coming from within Mali?

First, just starting with geography, it is true that Chad is in the east, but of all of those countries, Chad is probably the most stable. Yes, Niger has felt the impact of the crisis in Mali. First of all, Niger has some 60,000 Malian refugees. Nigeriens were very hospitable even though that part of the border has its own issues with water access and agricultural difficulties. However, UN organizations have provided food, so that was one major influence, and the refugee camps are still there.

Another impact has to do with the connection or the overlapping issues of the Tuareg ethnic group relationship to the internal struggle in Mali and how much that is going to influence Niger. The Tuaregs are related to those in Mali, but right away the issue of Tuareg integration or inclusion in Nigerien society and governance and life has been relatively happily handled. Some can say resolved and certainly well-addressed. What that has created, which I think is positive, is a discussion among the Nigeriens about the differences. The Prime Minister of Niger [Brigi Rafini], who happens to also be Tuareg, went around the country with peace and reconciliation movements — and that has had meaning. Townspeople themselves have been doing their own analysis of what is going on in Mali and how Nigerien Tuaregs did not want to be part of it. That was positive in terms of helping Nigeriens to assert their national and ethnic identities themselves without having outsiders do it for them.

There are other types of concerns with what is going on in Mali. The fact that the ungoverned state of northern Mali created an open incubator state for outsiders to come in — like AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] — certainly poses a threat to Niger. Those outsiders view northern Mali as nothing more than an incubation state or a resting place, but they target all over. There is clear evidence of that with the simultaneous bombing that we had in Niger for the very first time on May 23. Those things were not carried out by Nigerien locals; those were outside groups who came here from Libya and attacked Niger. Niger is still at risk from the fluidity of passage and the ease that outside terrorist groups have in establishing safe havens in ungoverned states.

The Politic: Was there a public reaction when the United States decided to station a drone base in Niger in February 2013 in response to tracking terrorist militants in Mali?

Ambassador Williams greets students in the northern region of Agadez (April 2013)
Ambassador Williams greets students in the northern region of Agadez (April 2013)

No, and I would reword your question — we do not have a drone base, though we do have drones. The Nigerien aspect to the surveillance aircraft is to help Niger with its own surveillance. When everything first started breaking out in Mali, the Nigeriens were happy to be used as a staging point for whatever was going to help the process in Mali. Nigeriens viewed it as Mali under siege by outside militants; they did not view it as a form of internal civil war. Nigeriens were very positive about France and the United States doing what they could to help Mali. Now that — it certainly hasn’t been resolved — it has been maintained, there still has not been an outcry about the fact that the United States does have these surveillance aircrafts here and that we are using them. I think that the reason that there hasn’t been an outcry is because we never made it secret. President [Mahamadou] Issoufou also got on the wire right away and said, “I want you guys here.”

Finally, we do everything in collaboration with the Nigeriens, so there hasn’t been subliminal messaging or anything like that. There is no double talk in what we are saying. We are assisting in fighting the same cause and I think it might also help that our drones are not armed. The short answer to your question is no, there has not been an outcry and yes, there is public awareness.

The Politic: Moving from Niger’s west to Niger’s south with Nigeria — are there any fears — particularly now that Boko Haram has been penetrating into more northern Nigeria — that this could spread into Niger? Have any efforts been taken within Niger to make sure that this does not become the case?

The Nigerien government wants to do everything that it can to try to prevent what’s going on in Nigeria from happening in Niger. What started out in Nigeria as what we thought was a Nigeria-specific issue has metathesized into something. However, the Nigeriens consider the threat of Boko Haram in many ways more serious than the threat of AQIM. The AQIM are much more recognizable than the Boko Haram are. The Hausa ethnic group spans the border between Nigeria and Niger, and they don’t make as many distinctions as the Tuaregs do between Mali and Niger.

Nigeriens’ major concern is, without even trying to proselytize or indoctrinate anyone, Nigerians may cross the border and start settling in villages and setting up their own enclaves. Within that enclave, you can cultivate a radical un-Nigerien culture and way of life. Nigeriens are concerned about that. They have made efforts to address this — they have broken up what they think are safe houses and they have arrested people. Through this they have found groups carrying arms. It is a real concern. The most Nigeriens are doing about it are putting a whole lot more surveillance on their southern border and really reinforcing, with local representatives from the town councils, the importance of vigilance and local people sharing information with authorities.

An interesting development that happened here was that some of the people that were coming over from Nigeria — the more radical ones — were making the Nigeriens angry because they were preaching in ways that Nigeriens didn’t like. It was initially through the religious leaders in villages that we first started to appeal to local and regional governments to address this issue. These local Nigeriens were speaking out and saying that the radicals don’t belong here and they are at odds with our way of life. This really is an everyday concern of the Nigerien government.

The Politic: Since Niger’s independence in 1960, Nigeriens have lived under seven constitutions and three periods of military rule. The 2010 military coup established a democratic, multi-party state. How optimistic are you for the long-term stability of a democratic, political system in Niger?

I am optimistic. A Nigerien politician said something recently that was interesting to me. He said that this nation has had numerous coups, but only one of them was launched by a military man that was trying to put the military on top. All of the other coups were launched by politicians to stop the military up until this last one. He tried to emphasize that they were all to get the country back on a democratic track. This country is comfortable looking at the military as an answer to a problem as opposed to a direction of the problem. The military now is really appreciated for the defense that it is trying to give the country.

The government has also taken massive strides to address corruption and transparency. There is a special anti-corruption high commission that can actually investigate cases and bring them to the court. They have a money-laundering division to look at banking infractions. They have a green line, which is like a 911 or 411 line, for the public to report instances of corruption in government. The government has made real efforts to tell its public, “We understand that you need to have institutions that you can have confidence in.” The public responded very positively to that.

Of course, not everything is working 100 percent, but the institutions have been formed. This is a young democracy and the culture is very conservative. It is going to take another generation or two of young Africans who have been exposed to other kinds of practices and that have experience and education to uphold this new tradition. I am pretty optimistic; I think President Issoufou has a good long-term vision for this country. However, the devil is always in the details and at the end of the day, it will come down to execution of policy. The biggest threat to Niger and its ability to solidify its democracy really comes from the chaos in the countries around it.

The Politic: In 2012, Niger ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index. What role does the United States play in trying to ameliorate this situation? 

It wasn’t just last year. It was last year, the year before that, and every year ad nauseam. Our role is to try to work with the Nigerien people. You don’t see direct funds in the form of budget support necessarily here at all. We have been focusing on humanitarian assistance and development assistance. We are merging the two to support what we consider to be the successful coping strategy that Nigeriens have used. When the next food crisis here happens, you will not find quite the same threat. We are working in agriculture with farming communities on agricultural techniques and draught resistant crops as well as water conservation, water access and irrigation techniques. We have people in the field who are actually teaching these skills.

We also do much work in health programming in introducing certain kinds of crops that are super foods like the moringa plants that are chock full of nutrients and that can grow in this region. These crops can be farmed and sold and can also help communities that are suffering the most from nutrition issues. And we do a lot of work with education. We are building schools and working with educators on building curriculum and providing support in that way.

When you talk about development, you have to talk about capacity-building. What are people understanding? What is their ability to sustain themselves? I work in pushing small farmers and rural growers to have small lines of credit. It doesn’t take a lot of money to have your own business, but it does take an incredible amount of credibility to get a loan. We have worked with programs through USAID to encourage more lending and to encourage private sector development in remote parts of the country so that people can have income generation.

We do job training. When the crisis in Libya broke out, a lot of able-bodied men who had been part of the labor force in Libya came back to Niger with nothing to do. So, we developed a program specifically for that returnee group because we know that they could be a productive contributor in society.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is both represented and perceived in Niger? Similarly, are there any misconceptions that you believe that the average citizen of Niger has of America or vice versa?

Fortunately, I think Nigeriens have a very high opinion of the United States and of our representation currently in their country. The real reason for that has to do with the Peace Corps. Niger was one of the first countries to have a Peace Corps contingent, and it has had an uninterrupted presence in Niger for 49 years. Everybody across the country — from the president down to your average villager — has something positive to say about the Peace Corps. Americans living side-by-side Nigeriens went a long way to giving Nigeriens a good impression of the United States.

More recently, I think what we are doing here in the Embassy has made a big difference. Nigeriens have seen us active in many fields and they appreciate that. They are also very appreciative of the work that we have been doing in Mali. Before the coup there, when the former president was subverting the constitution, our former ambassador here and our government here were very outspoken critics against the power-grabbing that that administration was doing. I think they see us as a very powerful country that has been by their side through thick and through thin.


Embassy of the United States to Niger:

Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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