NAIROBI — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday appealed for the preservation of democracy in politically and ethnically fractured societies as he began his first official visit to Africa amid worsening crises in Ethiopia and Sudan.
In a lengthy private meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and other top officials, Blinken hailed Kenya’s role in seeking to ease the conflict in Ethiopia and cited Kenya as an example of a vibrant, inclusive democracy despite challenges it has faced in its own recent elections.
Kenyatta visited the Ethiopian capital over the weekend in a bid to bolster an African Union-led mediation initiative to end the violence that has engulfed the northern Tigray region and spread, prompting widespread fears of a spillover in the conflict.
The State Department said Blinken spent 90 minutes with Kenyatta in a session scheduled for only 10 minutes and that the talks were wide-ranging. The precise topics and any potential developments were not immediately clear.
“We continue to see atrocities being committed, people suffering, and regardless of what we call it, it needs to stop and there needs to be accountability,” Blinken later told reporters. He said he will make a determination on whether the situation in Ethiopia is genocide “once we get all the analysis that goes into looking at the facts.”
Kenyan Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo told reporters that “we believe that a cease-fire is possible” but “in the end, these solutions” will come from the Ethiopian people.
In comments to Kenyan civic leaders, Blinken spoke about the importance of combating “democratic recession” around the world, including challenges in the United States that show “just how fragile our democracy can be.” Kenya faces its own test of stability in a presidential election next year.
Blinken is looking to boost thus-far unsuccessful US diplomatic efforts to resolve the deepening conflicts in Ethiopia and in Sudan and to counter growing insurgencies elsewhere, including Somalia.
Months of engagement by the Biden administration have produced little progress and, instead, the conflict in Ethiopia has escalated between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and leaders in the northern Tigray region who once dominated the government.
The 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.
“We need to see people detained released," Blinken said.
Shortly after he spoke, the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission estimated that thousands had been detained in Addis Ababa, the capital, since the government declared a state of emergency over the intensifying war.
The estimate is the largest yet of the detentions occurring as teams of volunteers roam the capital's streets looking for Tigrayans suspected of supporting the Tigray forces.
Rival Tigray forces are advancing on Addis Ababa amid increasingly dire warnings from the US and others for foreigners to leave.
While holding out hope that a window of opportunity for a resolution still exists, the United States has moved toward sanctions, announcing the expulsion of Ethiopia from a US-Africa trade pact and imposing penalties on leaders and the military of neighboring Eritrea for intervening in the conflict on Ethiopia’s behalf. Sanctions against Ethiopian officials, including Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, are possible.
Ethiopia has condemned the sanctions and in Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union, and elsewhere, there is skepticism and hostility to US pressure despite America being the country’s largest aid donor.
As the US has exerted pressure in Ethiopia, it has 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 United States.
Coup leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan tightened his grip on power last week, reappointing himself as the chairman of a new Sovereign Council. The US and other Western governments criticized the move because it did away with a joint military-civilian council already in place. The Sudanese generals responded by saying they would appoint a civilian government in the coming days.
The US has retaliated for the coup by suspending $700 million in direct financial assistance. Further moves, including a slowdown or reversal of a multiyear rapprochement with the government, could also be in the works.
The top US diplomat for Africa, Molly Phee, met Tuesday with deposed Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok and 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.
Blinken said the most important move Sudan could make to begin to restore international confidence would be for Burhan to restore the civilian-led government and Hamdok to his post. “He is a source of legitimacy and it’s vital that the transition regain the legitimacy that it had before the civilian-led effort was derailed," he said.
In addition to trying to cool tensions in the region, Blinken’s trip is also aimed at raising Washington’s profile as a player in regional and international initiatives to restore peace and promote democracy and human rights as it competes with China for influence.
That push didn’t get off to a great start in Africa. The coronavirus pandemic canceled a planned early summer visit by Blinken to the continent. The trip was rescheduled for August, only to be postponed again due to the turmoil in Afghanistan that preoccupied Washington.
Despite its importance in the US-China rivalry, Africa has often been overshadowed by more pressing issues in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America despite massive US contributions of money and vaccines to fight the pandemic and other infectious diseases.
All the while, China has pumped billions into African energy, infrastructure, and other projects that Washington sees as designed to take advantage of developing nations. Blinken and Omamo met in a Nairobi hotel in a conference room with an expansive view of an as-yet incomplete, Chinese-financed elevated expressway.