WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is set to hold his first one-on-one, in-person talks as president with an African leader on Thursday, hosting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as war and a humanitarian crisis roil neighboring Ethiopia, according to the White House.
The Oval Office talks come just weeks after Biden signed an executive order threatening to levy sanctions against Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other leaders involved in a conflict gripping the Tigray region if steps aren't taken soon to wind down the 11-month-old war.
But the situation appears to have only worsened on the ground, with Tigray forces saying Ethiopia’s government has launched a long-threatened major military offensive against them in an attempt to end the war. A statement from the Tigray external affairs office earlier this week alleged that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian “regular and irregular fighters” launched a coordinated assault on several fronts.
Kenya, which shares a border with Ethiopia, has long had a strong relationship with the U.S., partnering with Washington in efforts to thwart Islamic terrorism.
Kenya currently holds the presidency of the U.N. Security Council, a post that rotates monthly, one reason why Kenyatta is in the United States. Kenya also has been relatively vocal among African nations on the war in Ethiopia.
Speaking to reporters at the U.N. on Tuesday, Kenyatta said the two sides need to come to “a political resolution because we do not believe that there is any military solution."
The Biden administration is conducting an interagency review as it considers targets that might be hit by sanctions. The review is, in part, to make certain all agencies are “fully on board” with proposed targets, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.
The Biden administration has said it would move forward with sanctions quickly if there is not a dramatic shift on the ground. The United Nations has warned that hundreds of thousands are living in human-made famine-like conditions as the conflict festers.
With Ethiopia’s government rejecting international “meddling” in its affairs, recent emphasis has been placed on trying to find an African solution to the crisis that has killed thousands, some now by starvation.
The U.S. and United Nations say Ethiopian troops have prevented passage of trucks carrying food and other aid. Scores of people have starved to death, The Associated Press has reported.
The meeting with Kenyatta comes as the Kenyan leader has faced scrutiny over his and his family’s offshore holdings uncovered in the Pandora Papers.
Kenyatta is one of more than 330 current and former politicians identified as beneficiaries of the secret accounts unveiled in recent reporting by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The ICIJ found that as Kenyatta publicly campaigned against corruption, his family stowed away about $30 million in offshore wealth.
The Pandora Papers revelations are expected to be brought up during the Oval Office meeting, the administration official said.
Anna reported from Nairobi. Associated Press writer Edith Lederer contributed reporting.