NAIROBI — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened his first official visit to Africa in Kenya with an appeal Wednesday for the preservation of democracy and inclusion in politically and ethnically fractured societies. His message was delivered amid worsening crises in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan.
With insecurity wracking both of those countries, Blinken began his Africa tour in a nation with its own turbulent history of democracy. Kenya will face another test of stability in presidential elections next year, yet has emerged as a player in attempting to ease the Ethiopia conflict.
Before meeting President Uhuru Kenyatta and other senior Kenyan officials, Blinken spoke with civic leaders about the importance of combatting what he termed “democratic recession” around the world, including challenges in the United States that show “just how fragile our democracy can be.”
“This is an important time,” he told a small group of human rights, labor and anti-corruption advocates at a Nairobi hotel. “Around the world we’ve seen we’ve seen over the last decade or so what some have called 'democratic recession'.”
“Even vibrant democracies like Kenya are experiencing these pressures, especially around election time," Blinken said, alluding to the presidential election set for August 2022. Combatting misinformation, political violence, voter intimidation and corruption is critical to halting the backsliding, he said.
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. His visit to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal follows months of Biden administration attempts to ease both situations that have yet to bear fruit despite frequent lower-level interventions.
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.”
North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis told the same event that Abiy has “obviously weaponized food and water,” referring to Tigray, where more than a month has now passed since any humanitarian aid has entered.
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.
“Leave now,” a senior State Department official warned Americans still in Ethiopia on Tuesday, adding there should be no expectation that the U.S. will be able to organize an evacuation.
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.
Now, 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 even 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.
Associated Press writers Cara Anna in Nairobi and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.