US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Nairobi on Tuesday night. This is his first trip to sub-Sahara Africa since he took over the office from Mike Pompeo.
He arrives at a time the Horn of Africa region is facing turmoil; from civil war in Ethiopia to insecurity in Uganda and the coup aftermath in Sudan. He will be accompanied by Molly Phee, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.
Here are the questions that face him:
What does the US share with Africa?
Ahead of the trip, the State Department said Blinken would help further collaboration on “shared global priorities, including ending the Covid-19 pandemic and building back to a more inclusive global economy, combatting the climate crisis, revitalising our democracies, and advancing peace and security”.
However, Blinken is coming to a continent of 54 countries whose battle against Covid-19 and these other issues has sorely lagged. The US has been the biggest donor of vaccines to Africa, either directly or through Covax, giving out more than 56 million doses by end of October. The lingering question has, however, been whether Africa can access a sustainable flow of doses through purchase. Most of the doses the US donated had initially been bought and hoarded as the world began vaccination against Covid-19.
Besides the Covid-19 crisis, it would be interesting to hear Blinken’s views on future cooperation with Africa. His predecessor Pompeo’s trips to Africa were all about China and the danger posed by its influence on the continent, which sort of defined Donald Trump’s aloof policy on Africa. President Joe Biden had promised to return the US to the world, but has only hosted one African leader so far – President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya.
Why does Washington speak of Africa yet seems to focus only on a handful of countries?
US Presidents do not travel often to Africa and Covid-19 has not helped. But all recent trips by Secretaries of State have been to Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana; with a few other inclusions such as DRC and Angola. Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry (who also made a surprise trip to Mogadishu), Rex Tillerson (whom Trump fired while on a visit to Nairobi) and Mike Pompeo visited the same capitals. Blinken is repeating the pattern, even though the US says it has a common view for all African countries.
On Monday night, Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, told journalists Blinken would only visit three capitals but would be addressing an entire continent.
“The Secretary will physically be on the soil of those three countries, but we are going to be speaking to issues – he will be speaking to issues, I should say – that are universal, are continental, in their applicability. “So these will be themes that are just as relevant to Kenya and Nigeria and Senegal as they are to the 51 other countries on the continent, including those of sub-Saharan Africa,” Mr Price told a briefing.
With 38 countries in sub-Sahara and 54 in the entire continent, there is a variety of cultures, political situations and even different security and economic needs. The State Department said it acknowledges that Africa is not a country, but indicated speaking through Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal would reach all corners.
“He will deliver a speech on the administration’s policy towards Africa and our partnership with the countries of Africa during the course of this trip… I would reiterate that the messages he will deliver won’t be unique to Kenya, they won’t be unique to Senegal, they won’t be unique to Nigeria. They will speak to the opportunity, and they will speak to the challenges that the countries of the continent face,” Price said.
And what exactly will be Kenya’s role in… Ethiopia conflict?
Since President Joe Biden took over, he has engaged President Uhuru Kenyatta thrice to have him help in convincing parties to the Ethiopian conflict to lay down their arms. The conflict, which began in November 2020, pits Ethiopian National Defence Forces and allied militia against the Tigray Defence Forces, now allied with the Oromo Liberation Army.
On Sunday, President Kenyatta visited Addis Ababa, in the latest attempt to seek dialogue. With the African Union already deploying a special envoy (former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo), what will be Kenya’s role? Mr Price touched on the issue on Monday, but didn’t quite explain it further.
“We very much appreciate the leadership role that President Kenyatta has demonstrated in the context of the conflict in Ethiopia,” Mr Price said on Monday. “He has used the power of his voice, he has used the power of his office, to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and to reinforce the very messages that we’re hearing from former President Obasanjo, the AU envoy; the very messages that you have heard emanate from here and emanate from our senior officials.”
How impartial is the US on Ethiopia crisis?
Just how influential is the US in helping resolve the conflict in Ethiopia? To Addis Ababa, the US has been hypocritical. It announced sanctions on those against peace, those who refuse dialogue, but has refused to condemn the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
A statement issued by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry suggested the international community had refused to condemn the violence perpetrated by TPLF, which it argued posed a danger to the region. Some opposition groups formed an alliance in Washington, seeking to create a ‘transitional government’ after Ahmed Abiy’s. To be fair, the US government did not host them, although Addis was miffed that the ceremony was allowed to go on.
In fact, the US, which has called for dialogue, has also evacuated all its non-essential staff working at its missions in Addis Ababa.
“We are doing that not because we are pessimistic about the prospects for peace, but because we are practical, and these options are still available today,” Mr Price said of the evacuations.
“The security situation is tenuous. Of course, we are supporting the efforts of President Obasanjo and our partners to put the security situation back on a steadier and ultimately a better track. But we can’t be the guarantor, and we’re certainly not in a position to assure Americans that these options will continue to be available.
Does the US know what Ethiopians want?
Despite calls for dialogue, both sides of the war have promised to annihilate the other in what promises to be a longer conflict. TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said on Tuesday: “If there is gonna (sic) be a slim chance to avert Ethiopia’s irreversible disintegration, it certainly means Abiy’s departure and soon.” Earlier last week, Prime Minister Abiy’s office promised to “bury” the terrorists. President Kenyatta admitted earlier this month that no one can get peace for Ethiopians, until they want it.