NAIROBI — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appealed Wednesday for the preservation of democracy in politically and ethnically fractured societies as he opened his first official visit to Africa in Kenya amid worsening crises in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan.
In a lengthy, private meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and other top officials, Blinken hailed Kenya’s role in seeking to ease the conflict in Ethiopia and as an example of a vibrant, inclusive democracy despite challenges it has faced in its own recent elections.
Kenyatta visited Addis Ababa over the weekend in a bid to bolster an African Union-led mediation initiative to end the violence in Ethiopia that has engulfed the northern Tigray region and spread, prompting widespread fears of a spillover in the conflict.
Blinken spent an hour-and-a-half alone with Kenyatta in a one-on-one session that had been scheduled for only 10 minutes, the State Department said, although the exact topics of the discussion and any potential developments were not immediately clear.
“We have to do this hand-in-hand and beyond that, as two strong, vibrant democracies at a time when democracies are under some challenge I think the example we set is more important than ever,” Blinken told Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo immediately after seeing Kenyatta.
In earlier comments to Kenyan civic leaders, he spoke about the importance of combatting “democratic recession” around the world, including challenges in the United States that show “just how fragile our democracy can be.” Kenya faces its own test of stability in a presidential election next year, yet has emerged as a player in the Ethiopian peace efforts.
Blinken is looking to boost thus-far unsuccessful U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve the deepening conflicts in Ethiopia and in Sudan and to counter growing insurgencies elsewhere, like Somalia.
Months of engagement by the administration, including an August visit to Ethiopia by U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power and several trips to Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Khartoum by Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeff Feltman, have produced little progress.
Instead, conflict in Ethiopia has escalated between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and leaders in the northern Tigray region who once dominated the government.
The tensions, which some fear could escalate into mass inter-ethnic killings in Africa’s second-most populated country, exploded into war last year, with thousands killed, many thousands more detained and millions displaced.
The situation “could easily slip over into genocide,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a confidante of President Joe Biden who traveled to Ethiopia earlier this year to meet with Abiy. In an online event Tuesday, Coons urged progress in talks “before this becomes another Yugoslavia.”
Rebel Tigray forces are advancing on Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, amid increasingly dire warnings from the U.S. and others for foreigners to leave.
While holding out hope that a window of opportunity for a resolution still exists, the Biden administration has moved toward sanctions, announcing the expulsion of Ethiopia from a U.S.-Africa trade pact and hitting leaders and the military of neighboring Eritrea with penalties for intervening in the conflict on Ethiopia’s behalf. Sanctions against Ethiopian officials, including Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, are possible.
Ethiopia has condemned the sanctions and in Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union, and elsewhere, there is skepticism and hostility to U.S. pressure despite America being the country’s largest aid donor.
As Feltman has shuttled between capitals, he and the administration have also been confounded by developments in Sudan, where a military coup last month toppled a civilian-led government that was making significant strides in restoring long-strained ties with the U.S.
Coup leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan tightened his grip on power last week, reappointing himself as the chairman of a new Sovereign Council. The U.S. and other Western governments criticized the move because it did away with a joint military-civilian council already in place. The Sudanese generals responded by saying they would appoint a civilian government in the coming days.
Burhan moved against civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok just hours after Feltman had left Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, on a mission intended to resolve escalating tensions between them. The U.S. has retaliated for the coup by suspending $700 million in direct financial assistance. Further moves, including a slowdown or reversal of a multiyear rapprochement with the government, could also be in the works.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Molly Phee, met Tuesday with Hamdok and Burhan. Burhan said the leaders of Sudan were willing to engage in dialogue with all political forces without conditions, according to a statement from the newly appointed Sovereign Council.
In addition to trying to cool tensions in the region, Blinken’s trip is also aimed at raising Washington’s profile as a player in regional and international initiatives to restore peace and promote democracy and human rights as it competes with China for influence in developing countries.
That push didn’t get off to a great start in Africa. The coronavirus pandemic canceled a planned early summer visit by Blinken to the continent. The trip was rescheduled for August, only to be postponed again due to the turmoil in Afghanistan that preoccupied Washington.
Three months later, Blinken hopes to deliver the administration’s “America is back” message to Africa. Despite its importance in the U.S.-China rivalry, Africa has often been overshadowed by more pressing issues in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America despite massive U.S. contributions of money and vaccines to fight the pandemic and other infectious diseases.
All the while, China has pumped billions into African energy, infrastructure and other projects that Washington sees as rip-offs designed to take advantage of developing nations.
U.S. Cabinet Secretary Omamo said Blinken’s visit, along with American contributions to African development are “important signposts to erect so that the whole world knows that the U.S. is indeed back, is indeed back and interested in the advancement of our continent, in the advancement of our peace and our prosperity, and in the investment of the U.S. in our people.”
All the while, China has pumped billions into African energy, infrastructure and other projects that Washington sees as rip-offs designed to take advantage of developing nations. Blinken and Omamo met in a Nairobi hotel in a conference room with an expansive view of an as-yet incomplete, Chinese-financed elevated expressway.