NAIROBI, Kenya — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa was intended to be a grand gesture of American support for the continent. His first day was a reminder of the frustrations American influence can cause. In a region in deep turmoil
While Mr. Blinken was meeting with Kenyan officials, security forces in Nairobi, Sudan killed at least 15 protesters for democracy and injured many more in the worst violence since an Oct. 25 military coup that shattered hopes for the country.
At the same time, a civil war continued to rage in Ethiopia, where the beleaguered prime minister Abiy Ahmed, once a darling of the West, lashed out at international critics, even as Mr. Blinken renewed his appeal for an end to the fighting — another jarring juxtaposition that raised new doubts about Washington’s Powers of persuasion in turbulent regions
It is an unhappy context for Mr. Blinken’s visit to Africa, where he plans to give a speech on Friday in Nigeria outlining the Biden administration’s vision for a continent that President Donald J. Trump often treated with a mixture of indifference and contempt.
Mr. Blinken’s team has poured much diplomatic energy into East Africa over the past year, hoping to stop the atrocity-laden war in Ethiopia and protect Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy. As he arrived in Nairobi, it seemed that his efforts had not been successful.
Speaking to reporters alongside his Kenyan counterpart, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Raychelle Omamo, Mr. Blinken said the war in Ethiopia “needs to stop,” calling on both sides to enter talks without preconditions. For more than a year Mr. Abiy has been battling rebels from Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray in an expanding war that many fear could tear apart Africa’s second most populous nation.
Events in both Ethiopia and Sudan on Wednesday seemed to defy Mr. Blinken’s admonitions. The Ethiopian prime minister launched an a thinly-veiled broadside against Western efforts to resolve the war with a Twitter message that blamed woes on a “sophisticated narrative war” led by unnamed enemies, a reference to more than just his Tigrayan antagonists. These forces, he said, were “using disinformation as a pathway for their sinister move.”
On Sudan, Mr. Blinken renewed his call for the reinstatement of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was deposed in last month’s coup and held under house arrest, and pointed to his diplomatic efforts to pressure the Sudanese military leaders who ousted Mr. Hamdok.
“I’ve been working the phones,” Mr. Blinken said.
However, in Khartoum, Sudan, and other areas, security forces opened fired during the latest day’s mass protest against the coup. At least 15 people were killed and many more were injured, medics stated. It was the deadliest day since protests began.
Many had been shot “in the head, neck or torso,” the main doctor’s association said in a statement. This brought the total number of deaths reported during protests to 39.
There was also turmoil in neighbouring Uganda where residents of Kampala were still reeling from suicide bombings perpetrated by militants who claim to be affiliated with Islamic State. The bombings claimed the lives of four people on Tuesday.
While Mr. Blinken spoke of the attack, his main focus was on the crises in Sudanese and Ethiopia. While some are calling for a more aggressive U.S. approach to the problem, Mr. Blinken did no detail on what additional steps the United States might be taking to influence events within either country. But he did warn that there would be consequences for what he called “atrocities” in Ethiopia.
“There needs to be accountability, and we are determined there will be,” he said.
Mr. Blinken’s visit to East Africa came after months of intensive engagement by his regional envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, who has been shuttling between capitals in recent weeks in a frantic scramble for diplomatic solutions.
In Sudan, American officials are pressing for the immediate reinstatement of a transitional government that took power in 2019, following a wave of popular protest that ousted the country’s longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. If Sudan’s generals rolled back their coup, the country would be rewarded with renewed financial aid from the United States and other nations, Mr. Blinken said.
His offers seem to be falling on deaf ears for now.
Biden’s administration has been increasingly coercive in Ethiopia to press both sides to end fighting. They have placed visa restrictions on Ethiopian officials as a result of alleged atrocities committed by the government.
American officials have made passionate appeals to international unity at United Nations. “Do African lives not matter?” a visibly exasperated Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in July.
Those efforts have failed to halt Ethiopia’s slide. Two million people have been displaced from their homes; sevenmillion need urgent humanitarian assistance; human rights abuses continue to be a problem, according to international observers and aid organizations.
American appeals to negotiate have been rejected by Mr. Abiy who is facing off against ethnic Tigrayan rebels pushing toward the capital.
Some critics accuse the Biden administration of reacting too slowly in the face of various crises in East Africa and for not taking swift action against Mr. Abiy.
The United States is also contending with a growing field of foreign countries with competing interests in the Horn of Africa — including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar and Russia — that have sometimes frustrated American diplomacy.
China’s influence in Africa is also a growing concern to U.S. officials who consider competition with Beijing as their top priority. On Wednesday, a meeting was held at the China-Kenya business association at the hotel where Mr. Blinken stayed.
The defense of democracy has become a defining feature of President Biden’s foreign policy, especially as the United States competes for influence with authoritarian China in Africa and around the globe.
Mr. Blinken also had cautionary words about Kenya’s political system, which human rights groups say has shown authoritarian tendencies in recent years. He began his day by meeting with Kenyan civil society leaders, who warned of threats to the country’s democratic progress as Kenya heads toward national elections in August.
“Not just in Kenya, but around the world, you’ve seen over the last decade or so what some have called a democratic recession,” Mr. Blinken said. “Even vibrant democracies like Kenya are experiencing these pressures, especially around election time.”
However, such talk did not stop Mr. Blinken receiving a warm public welcome from Ms. Omamo. She said that Mr. Blinken’s visit showed that “the U.S. is indeed back and interested in the advancement of our continent,” an apparent implicit contrast to President Donald J. Trump, who never visited the continent and disparaged some of its nations with a vulgar epithet.
Ms. Omamo even echoed one of President Biden’s signature slogans, saying that Kenya and the United States would be “building back better” together.
Source: NY Times