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Secretary of State Antony Blinken making 1st trip to Africa amid growing crises in Ethiopia, Sudan

State Department photo by Ron Przysucha

(WASHINGTON) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is running headfirst into a number of fires as he makes his first trip to Africa as America’s top diplomat.

Nearly 10 months into his tenure, Blinken will bring U.S. President Joe Biden’s “America’s back” mantra to the world’s youngest continent. But for years now, the United States has been playing catch-up to China in many of Africa’s 54 countries. China has promoted deep business and diplomatic ties and invested in infrastructure, while the U.S. has said next to nothing about the region’s democratic backsliding.

Millions of donated U.S. vaccine doses have helped boost American influence, but Blinken’s visit to promote that generosity and increased U.S. engagement will also be sidetracked by growing crises that have consumed the State Department’s attention — the worsening conflict in Ethiopia and the derailed democratic transition in Sudan.

Notably, he will skip Ethiopia — once a staple of secretary of state visits because it was one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies and home to the African Union’s headquarters. But amid high concerns about the bloody war there, Ethiopia will still be a major topic, with Blinken expected to focus a fair amount of his time in Nairobi on the issue after warning on Friday the country could “implode.”

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Sunday, pushing again for a ceasefire after a year of fighting that has pitted Abiy’s federal government against the forces in the Tigray region who once dominated national politics. As Abiy’s troops, backed by the neighboring country Eritrea and the neighboring region Amhara, continue to blockade Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has been joined by other ethnic-based groups in a march toward the capital, Addis Ababa, possibly to overthrow Abiy’s government.

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“Certainly the Ethiopia matter is an important one and takes up a tremendous amount of time and attention by our leadership,” Ervin Massinga, a top U.S. diplomat for Africa, told reporters before the trip.

But while some have called for greater U.S. leadership, including sanctions against the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan leaders fighting on either side, Massinga said the U.S. is committed “to African partnerships and African solutions to African challenges.”

The African Union’s special envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, has been the leading mediator, shepherding quiet but intense diplomacy to achieve a ceasefire and start political negotiations. Obasanjo will return to Addis Ababa “in the coming days,” a senior State Department official said Tuesday, and while the administration may again deploy its special envoy for the region, Jeffrey Feltman, they will continue “supporting [Obasanjo’s] process as much as possible and looking for there to be progress,” they added.

The U.S. also remains engaged across the border in Sudan, where military leaders have derailed a historic transition to democracy that was celebrated around the world. The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Ambassador Molly Phee, arrived in Khartoum Sunday — the highest-level American official to visit since Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan and other military leaders detained their civilian counterparts in a transitional government that was meant to steer the country toward democratic elections next July.

So far, U.S. cuts to economic aid, the suspension of loans from the World Bank and others and mass demonstrations across Sudan have not convinced Burhan to reverse course. As time goes on, some analysts warn it will be more difficult to dislodge Burhan’s newly installed picks in a transitional government.

But Blinken will try to pivot attention to what the Biden administration casts as a reinvigorated U.S. relationship with countries across Africa, after four years of the Trump administration largely ignoring or insulting Africans.

In particular, Blinken will focus on addressing the coronavirus pandemic, combatting climate change, investing in infrastructure and boosting democracy and the rule of law, according to Massinga, who added he would “really talk to the entirety of the continent” through speeches and engagements in the three countries.

It’s that first issue in particular that many hope to hear more about from Blinken. Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal have each vaccinated fewer than 6% of their populations, per the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data, as Americans are increasingly being offered booster shots. In fact, wealthy countries are administering nearly six times more booster shots than low-income countries are offering first shots, according to the ONE Campaign, an advocacy group.

“As the days go without enough vaccines, Africa remains exposed to a virus that has had hard-hitting effects on our health systems, threatened our fragile economic growth and stifled the capacity to provide basic services such as sanitation and education,” said Edwin Ikhuoria, ONE’s Africa executive director, adding that without vaccines, Africa faces “a perpetual pandemic, which has set us back and is reversing the developmental gains of the last 25 years on the continent.”

In addition to vaccines, many countries have been looking to the U.S. for infrastructure investment after years of China’s One Belt, One Road projects. Last week, senior White House official Daleep Singh concluded a tour through Ghana and Senegal, after a similar swing through Latin America, beginning conversations about what developments the U.S. and other Western countries could back — part of Biden’s “Build Back Better World” initiative with G-7 countries meant to raise climate, anti-corruption and labor standards in competition with Beijing.

The U.S. is seeking a partnership “based on increasing democracy and cooperation and that builds on people-to-people connections, fosters new economic engagements and reinforces our shared values grounded in renewed commitment to democracy and human rights,” Massinga said.

But there is much work to do on those issues, especially after six coups — in Mali, Guinea and Chad — or attempted coups across the continent this year. In Nigeria, for example, Africa’s most populous country and a “partly free” democracy, according to the think tank Freedom House, Blinken will have to address a president that has banned Twitter and security forces that were just found responsible for killing protesters.

While renewed U.S. interest is welcome in many capitals, it’s also unclear whether the U.S. and its partners will sustain it, especially after hearing similar rhetoric from U.S. lawmakers of both parties and previous administrations.

As perhaps a telling sign of some critics’ doubts, Blinken was scheduled to make this trip in August, but it was canceled as Afghanistan’s collapse and the massive U.S. evacuation operations consumed he and his team’s attention.

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