WASHINGTON – The Biden government’s competition with China for influence did not get off to a good start in Africa.
In August, the leading US diplomat planned a visit only to postpone it because of the unrest in Afghanistan that preoccupied Washington. Now, three months later, and with two major African crises worsening, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will try again this week to get the government’s message “America is back” to the continent.
Despite its prominence in the US-China rivalry, Africa has often been overshadowed by more pressing problems in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and even Latin America. One of the aims of Blinken’s journey is to profile Washington as an actor in regional and international initiatives to restore peace and promote democracy in competition with China.
That was a tough sell despite massive US funding and vaccines to fight the coronavirus pandemic and other infectious diseases. Meanwhile, China is pumping billions into African energy, infrastructure and other projects that Washington sees as rip-offs that developing countries are supposed to take advantage of.
Blinken wants to immediately intensify the so far unsuccessful diplomatic efforts of the USA to solve the worsening conflicts in Ethiopia and Sudan and counteract the growing uprisings elsewhere. His three-nation tour – to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal – follows months of government attempts to alleviate both situations, which, despite frequent lower-level interventions, have not yet borne fruit.
“Our intensive diplomacy there will continue and through the trip we would like to show that our commitment to African partnerships and African solutions to African challenges is lasting and will continue as we continue our intensive efforts with our African partners and like-minded people to resolve the problems address difficult challenges in Ethiopia and certainly Sudan, ”said Ervin Massinga, a senior US diplomat for Africa.
Blinken begins its tour in Kenya, a major player in both neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan and currently a member of the UN Security Council. Kenya also has a deep interest in Somalia, which it borders, and which has been marked by violence and instability for decades.
Nonetheless, months of government involvement, including a visit to the US agency for international development Samantha Power in Ethiopia in August, several trips to Addis Ababa and Nairobi by Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeff Feltman, and a recent visit to Sudan by the top diplomat for Africa, have made little progress.
Instead, the conflict in Ethiopia between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the leaders of the northern Tigray region who once dominated the government has escalated, with rebels now advancing on the capital while the US and others issue ever worse warnings against foreigners.
These tensions, some feared escalating to inter-ethnic mass murders in Africa’s second largest country, exploded into a war with thousands of dead, many thousands more detained and millions of displaced persons last year. Blinken will underscore those concerns when he meets Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price said.
While the Biden government hopes there is still an opportunity for a solution, it has moved towards sanctions, announced the exclusion of Ethiopia from a U.S.-Africa trade pact and, at least initially, hit the leaders and military of neighboring Eritrea with penalties for that Intervene in the conflict on behalf of Ethiopia. Sanctions against Ethiopian officials, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy, are possible.
Ethiopia has condemned the sanctions and intensified its criticism of “meddling” in its internal affairs. And in Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union, and elsewhere, there is skepticism and hostility towards US pressures for an immediate ceasefire and talks despite America being the country’s greatest aid donor.
As Feltman shuttled back and forth between Nairobi and Addis Ababa to ease tension in Ethiopia, he and the government were also puzzled by developments in Sudan, where a military coup last month overthrew a civilian-led government that made significant progress in the The restoration made long-strained relations with the United States
Just last week, coup leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan consolidated his seizure of power and appointed himself chairman of a new sovereign council. The move was criticized by the US and other Western governments, despite having announced that they would appoint a civilian government in the coming days.
In particular, Burhan took action against civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok just hours after Feltman left Khartoum to resolve escalating tensions between them. In retaliation against the coup, the US suspended direct financial aid to Sudan of US $ 700 million. Further steps, including slowing or reversing a multi-year rapprochement with the government, could also be in the works with no changes.
Leading US diplomat for Africa, Molly Phee, is currently in Khartoum and will speak to Blinken in Nairobi about her efforts in Sudan.
Mediation efforts have stalled so far, however, as Burhan and his supporters insist on the formation of a technocratic government and pro-democracy advocates demand a return to the pre-coup power-sharing arrangements, Hamdok and other officials from house arrest and negotiations over to free comprehensive reform.
From Kenya, Blinken will travel to Nigeria to meet Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to discuss West African security arrangements amid an increase in Islamist extremist violence. In addition, Blinken talks about climate change, clean energy, sustainable development and pandemic as well as a speech about the Africa strategy of the Biden administration.
Blinken will conclude the trip in Dakar, where he will discuss similar issues with Senegalese President Macky Sall, who will soon take over the presidency of the African Union.
Associated press writers Cara Anna in Nairobi and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.