Blinken arrives in Kenya to begin Africa visit: Live updates

Credit…Pool photo by Andrew Harnik

Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken visits Kenya and begins a journey through Africa amid political upheavals and questions about the Biden administration’s approach to the continent.

Mr. Blinken arrived in Nairobi overnight on Wednesday, making him the highest-ranking Biden administration official visiting sub-Saharan Africa. He will try to promote diplomacy to pull Kenya’s neighbor, Ethiopia, back from the brink of what experts say could be an extension of the devastating civil war that has raged in the north of the country, with the potential for genocide.

At a stop in Nigeria this week, Mr Blinken will outline a vision for US policy towards Africa, a vision that is expected to focus on the value of democracy for the future of the continent.

Some critics say the Biden administration has been inattentive to Africa, a common complaint about U.S. foreign policy, but a complaint that has gained more currency as China, the United States’ biggest strategic competitor, plants deeper political and economic roots on the continent and anti American jihadist groups continue to thrive there.

U.S. officials are concerned about the democratic decline across the continent, which has seen a wave of military coups in recent months – including in Sudan, where a coup last month halted a democratic transition that followed the ouster of the country’s long-standing autocratic ruler, Omar Hassan in 2019. al-Bashir. Experts say the four successful military coups in Africa this year – including in Guinea, Chad and Mali – are the highest in more than 40 years.

Nigeria’s democracy is also concerned: As a candidate, Mr. Bite the country’s government for endemic corruption and for cracking down on protesters seeking more freedom for civil society.

Kenya has played a key role in diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve a conflict between Ethiopia’s central government and rebels in the northern Tigray region.

“This is Rwanda-like,” added Patricia Haslach, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 2013 to 2016. Ms. Haslach stopped saying a genocide could take place, but other experts have called it a realistic option in a conflict increasingly defined by ethnic identity.

The Clinton administration’s failure to intervene and potentially prevent the massacre of as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 has haunted former U.S. officials for decades.

Mr. Blinken plans to end his journey with a visit to the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

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Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken opened his visit to Kenya on Wednesday by meeting with civil society leaders in the capital Nairobi and urging them to continue the fight to defend democracy.

“Not only in Kenya, but around the world, have you seen over the last decade or so what some have called a democratic recession,” he said. Blinken. “Even vibrant democracies like Kenya are experiencing this pressure, especially around election time.”

The Biden administration’s top diplomat spoke on the first day of a four-day turn through Africa, his first visit to the continent apart from a brief stop in Cairo in May.

With Kenya heading for national elections in August, Mr. Blinken that the country’s journalists and other civil society leaders are facing increasing threats.

“We have seen the same challenges here that we have seen in many parts of the world,” he said, including misinformation, voter harassment and corruption.

Defending democracy on a continent that has seen four military coups in the past year will be a central theme of Mr Blinken’s visit, which will also focus on the distribution of coronavirus vaccines and political unrest in two of Kenya’s neighbors, Ethiopia and Sudan. .

Mr. Blinken acknowledged the imperfections of the United States’ own divided political system.

“The United States is hardly immune to this challenge,” he said. “We have seen how fragile our own democracy can be.”

Later Wednesday, the foreign minister was scheduled to meet with Kenyan leaders, including President Uhuru Kenyatta and Foreign Minister Raychelle Omamo.

Counter-terrorism is likely to be a key issue. Hours before Mr Blinken’s arrival in Nairobi, suicide bombers detonated two bombs in the heart of Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda, killing at least three people and injuring at least 33 others. Islamic State, which has been active in East Africa for years, took responsibility for the attack.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Not so long ago, the East African region known as the Hornet was seen as among the most dynamic on the continent, a place of fast-growing economies, dictator-overthrown revolutions, and intense jockeying between rival foreign powers seeking influence. It even had a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ethiopia’s youthful prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Now that Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken is beginning a visit to neighboring Kenya, the Horn of Africa is a crucible of chaos, plagued by the spread of war and famine in Ethiopia and a recent military coup in Sudan that threatens to derail the country’s transition to democracy. .

These crises have made Horn by far the biggest focus of American politics in Africa this year. Yet Washington does not have much to show for his efforts.

In Ethiopia, the Biden administration sent high-ranking envoys to reason with Mr. Abiy, imposed visa restrictions on Ethiopian officials in connection with alleged atrocities and threatened sanctions against leaders on both sides of the conflict.

At the UN, US officials have issued passionate appeals for international unity. “Does African life mean nothing?” said a visibly annoyed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, in July.

These efforts have failed to stop Ethiopia’s landslides. Two million people have been forced from their homes; seven million are in urgent need of humanitarian aid; and human rights violations continue unabated.

Abiy, facing ethnic Tigrayan rebels pushing for the capital, has rejected repeated US calls for negotiations – a priority for Mr Blinken, whose arrival in Kenya is part of a diplomatic struggle to avert what he has called risks Ethiopia may implode.

In some ways, it is a similar story in Sudan. The United States relied heavily on the success of the 2019 revolution, which ousted dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, lifted decades-old sanctions, and welcomed Sudan back into the international fold.

Now progress is also in jeopardy since Sudan’s army chief, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power on October 25 – just hours after Washington’s senior regional envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, flew out of the country.

Some critics have blamed the Biden administration for reacting too slowly, especially for not taking firm action against Mr Abiy in the past.

Others say the growing field of foreign countries with interests in the Horn of Africa – including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar and Russia – has frustrated US diplomacy.

And the growing crisis may simply have gone too far out of control.

“The Americans could have handled their relationship with Ethiopia a little better, but overall, they have been engaged,” said Murithi Mutiga, senior analyst at International Crisis Group. “I think this crisis is mostly due to the cold logic of the conflict in a country with a long history of dominance over accommodation.”

Credit…Pool photo by Tom Brenner

It did not take long before President Biden struck a different tone in Africa.

His predecessor, Donald J. Trump, referred to some African nations as “shithole countries,” prevented citizens of six of them from traveling to the United States, and failed to visit the continent once while in office.

Mr. Trump’s main political focus was to curb Chinese influence throughout Africa, with limited success. His wife, Melania Trump, visited four countries but raised eyebrows in Kenya by wearing a colonial-style helmet, associated with a violent and racist past.

The Biden administration immediately struck a more respectful, committed tone on the continent. It lifted the entry ban. It deployed senior diplomats to fight the conflict in Ethiopia, and it sent teams of military advisers to counter the growing influence of Islamist militants in many countries. Instead of paying homage to autocrats, it spoke out against them.

But for many Africans, US engagement in Africa is still focused on threats rather than opportunities. And they say they are waiting for the Biden administration to formulate a policy that suggests a new direction.

“Historically, the perception on the continent has been that US policy makers see Africa as a problem to be solved,” said Murithi Mutiga, senior analyst at International Crisis Group. “Their support has come primarily in the form of humanitarian aid – and still does today.”

The problem-solving approach was again a sub-topic on Wednesday, when Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken landed in Kenya, his first trip to Africa in that role, hoping to gather diplomatic support for an urgent effort to bring peace to Ethiopia.

It was Mr Blinken’s second attempt to visit the continent – a trip scheduled for August was canceled due to the crisis in Afghanistan – and Mr Biden, who visited Kenya and South Africa as vice-president, has not yet announced a trip.

Also for many ordinary Americans, Africa is a continent that usually only catches their attention when a huge crisis unfolds: famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur in the 2000s; the HIV / AIDS epidemic and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

But increasingly, economists, analysts, and ordinary Africans say they want the United States to engage with Africa as a place of opportunity. It is the world’s youngest continent, with the highest population growth and many of its fastest growing economies (albeit often in countries starting from a very low base).

They also want to redefine the concept of Western responsibility. Following the recent COP26 summit on climate change, some activists are urging major polluters, such as the United States, to acknowledge their commitment to African nations with relatively small CO2 footprints, which already bear the brunt of climate change.

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