WASHINGTON – The Biden administration’s competition with China for influence didn’t get off to a great start in Africa.
In August, the top U.S. diplomat planned a visit, only to postpone it because of the turmoil in Afghanistan that preoccupied Washington. Now, three months later and as two significant African crises worsen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will try again this week to signal the administration’s “America is back” message to the continent.
Despite its importance in the U.S.-China rivalry, Africa has often been overshadowed amid more pressing issues in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and even Latin America. Thus, Blinken’s trip is aimed in part at raising Washington’s profile as a player in regional and international initiatives to restore peace and promote democracy as it competes with China.
That’s been a hard sell despite massive U.S. contributions of money and vaccines to fight the coronavirus pandemic and other infectious diseases. All the while, China is pumping billions into African energy, infrastructure and other projects that Washington sees as rip-offs designed to take advantage of developing nations.
More immediately, Blinken is looking to boost thus-far unsuccessful U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve deepening conflicts in Ethiopia and in Sudan and counter growing insurgencies elsewhere. His three-nation tour — to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal — follows months of administration attempts to ease both situations that have yet to bear fruit despite frequent lower-level interventions.
“Our intensive diplomacy there is ongoing, and through the trip, we would like to demonstrate that our commitment to African partnerships and African solutions to African challenges is enduring and will continue while we continue our intensive efforts with our African partners and likemindeds to address the difficult challenges in Ethiopia and certainly Sudan,” said Ervin Massinga, a top U.S. diplomat for Africa.
Blinken begins his tour in Kenya, a key player in both neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan and currently a member of the U.N. Security Council. Kenya also has deep interests in Somalia, which it borders and which has been wracked by violence and instability for decades.
Yet months of engagement by the administration, including an August visit to Ethiopia by U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power, several trips to Addis Ababa and Nairobi by Biden's special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeff Feltman, and a current visit to Sudan by the top diplomat for Africa, have produced little progress.
Instead, conflict in Ethiopia has escalated between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the leaders in the northern Tigray region, who once dominated the government, with rebels now advancing on the capital amid increasingly dire warnings from the U.S. and others for foreigners to leave.
Those 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. Blinken will underscore those concerns when he meets Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
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, at least at first, 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 laureate, are possible.
Ethiopia has condemned the sanctions and stepped up 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 to U.S. pressure for an immediate cease-fire and talks despite America being the country's largest aid donor.
As Feltman has shuttled between Nairobi and Addis Ababa with an eye toward easing tensions in Ethiopia, 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.
Just last week, coup leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan tightened his grip on power, reappointing himself as the chairman of a new Sovereign Council. The move was criticized by the U.S. and other Western governments because it did away with the joint military-civilian council that had been in place before. The Sudanese generals responded by saying they would appoint a civilian government again in the coming days.
Burhan notably moved against civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok just hours after Feltman had left Khartoum on a mission intended to resolve escalating tensions between them. The U.S. has retaliated against the coup by suspending $700 million in direct financial assistance to Sudan. Further moves, including a slowdown or reversal of a multiyear rapprochement with the government, could also be in the works without changes.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Molly Phee, is in Khartoum and will be joining Blinken in Nairobi to discuss her efforts in Sudan.
Phee met on Tuesday with Hamdok and with 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.
Burhan was also quoted as saying that the military has already started releasing political prisoners who don’t face criminal charges.
Phee said she met with Hamdok, who is under house arrest at his residence in Khartoum, “to discuss ways forward to restore Sudan’s democratic transition.” She also met with Mariam al-Mahdi, foreign minister of the deposed government, to show “U.S. support for the civilian-led transitional government,” the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum said.
Mediation efforts, however, have stumbled, with Burhan and his supporters insisting on forming a technocratic government and pro-democracy advocates calling for a return to pre-coup power-sharing arrangements, freeing Hamdok and other officials from house arrest and negotiations on broad reform.
From Kenya, Blinken will travel to Nigeria to meet Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to discuss West African security arrangements amid a surge in Islamist extremist violence. Also on tap for Blinken are talks on climate change, clean energy, sustainable development and the pandemic, and a speech on the Biden administration’s Africa strategy.
Blinken will wrap up the trip in Dakar, where he’ll discuss similar issues with Senegalese President Macky Sall, who will soon take over the chairmanship of the African Union.
Associated Press writers Cara Anna in Nairobi and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.