Antony Blinken on Wednesday began his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa as US secretary of State, in Kenya, with calls for Africans to be on guard against rising threats to democracy. Before a scheduled meeting with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Blinken held talks with civil society leaders and asked for ideas on how to stop what he termed as “bad actors” that test democratic institutions. The Biden administration has embraced Kenya which has been one of the most longstanding allies of the United States in Africa.
“We have seen over the last decade or so what some call a democratic recession,” he said in a meeting that included rights advocates, an election observer and a union leader.
“Even vibrant democracies like Kenya experience pressure, especially around election time,” Blinken said.
“We have seen the same challenges here than we see in many parts of the world — misinformation, political violence, voter intimidation, voter bribery.”
Blinken is focusing his trip on promoting democracy and action on climate change and supporting African efforts to fight COVID-19. But the three-nation tour is also expected to focus on efforts to resolve crises on the continent, especially a spiralling war in Ethiopia.
Echoing frequent themes of President Joe Biden’s administration, Blinken warned of threats against the free press and of corruption, which he said “chips away” at democracy. He also acknowledged that threats to democracy also existed in the United States, where a mob loyal to former president Donald Trump attacked the US Capitol on January 6 in a bid to overturn the election result.
“The United States is hardly immune from this challenge,” Blinken said. “We’ve seen how fragile our own democracy can be.”
The senior US diplomat, after his Kenya engagements, is expected to later travel to Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, which has faced US criticism on human rights including in the police response to mass demonstrations a year ago. He will thereafter travel to Senegal, considered to be a shining example of democratic stability.
Blinken’s visit comes weeks before Biden convenes a summit of democracies in Washington and on the heels of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, where the Biden administration joined calls to move away from polluting fossil fuels.
The US secretary of State is also due to meet with leaders of the regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Nairobi as part of his efforts to press for peace in the Horn of Africa. The bloc is currently led by Ethiopian diplomat Workneh Gebeyehu, a former Foreign Minister. Other members of IGAD include Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti. Senior State Department official Ervin Massinga said during his visit, Blinken is also expected to discuss boosting African capacities to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, a critical push in which he is hoping to draw a distinction with China, which has assertively promoted its own vaccines.
Blinken’s sub-Saharan Africa visit comes as the United States steps up diplomacy over two nations where it earlier saw hope, in this case Ethiopia and Sudan. Ethiopia has been a close US ally but the United States has been dismayed by restrictions on food delivery into the northern Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands of people are facing famine-like conditions. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been locked in a year-long war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which has pushed south in recent months and has not ruled out a possible march on the capital Addis Ababa.
“This is not the Ethiopia that we thought we would see two years earlier, when we were applauding this country as the fastest-growing economy in Africa,” the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said recently.
Biden has moved to remove Ethiopia from the landmark African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which grants duty-free access for most exports, but has held off on sanctions on the Ethiopian government and rebels in hopes of encouraging a settlement.
The United States has separately suspended some $700 million in assistance to Sudan, where the military ousted the civilian leadership last month, halting a democratic transition that followed the toppling in 2019 of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Johnnie Carson, who was the top diplomat on Africa under former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, said it would be a “missed opportunity” if Blinken visited Kenya without inviting leaders from nearby countries to seek a regional solution.
“The Horn of Africa is enormously fragile and the democratic transitions that we thought were going to move forward in Ethiopia and Sudan have been derailed,” said Carson, now at the US Institute of Peace.
“If in fact those countries fail over the next year, we will see a broader regional collapse,” he warned.
Another issue Blinken is likely to hear around the continent, is that of trade. AGOA expires in 2025 and neither Biden nor Trump has been rushing for a replacement amid a souring in US public opinion on trade deals. The act’s lapse would likely only fuel relationships with China, which has been seen to be eager to secure resources.
“It is important to start thinking now and talking now with African leaders about what kind of trade agreement is going to be possible,” Carson said.
Blinken could also face delicate discussions in Nigeria, where the United States has halted delivery of helicopters due to human rights concerns.
His travels in the early months of this year were rattled by COVID-19 precautions and the US exit from Afghanistan, although he has been in virtual contact, and President Joe Biden also last month welcomed his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta to the White House.