Blinken travels to Africa while the US tries to avert disaster in Ethiopia
WASHINGTON – Foreign Secretary Antony J. Blinken left early Tuesday on a five-day tour of Africa where he will support democratic principles and advance diplomacy to prevent Ethiopia from sinking into a catastrophic civil war.
Blinken plans to begin its trip with a stop in Kenya, which borders Ethiopia and has played a key role in diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to a conflict between the country’s central government and the rebels in the northern region of Tigray.
The conflict in the second most populous country in Africa has already revealed numerous alleged atrocities such as rape, executions and looting. The fighting threatens not only the stability of an important US partner on the continent, but also all of East Africa, say experts.
“I hate scaremongering, but all warning signs are flashing red in Ethiopia right now and we’re not using all the resources we have at our disposal,” said Cameron Hudson, director of African affairs for the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
“It’s similar to Rwanda,” added Patricia Haslach, who was US Ambassador to Ethiopia from 2013 to 2016 in a conflict that is increasingly determined by ethnic identity. The Clinton administration’s failure to intervene and possibly prevent the 1994 massacre of up to 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda has haunted former US officials for decades.
Ms. Haslach said her immediate concern is the prospect of mass starvation in Tigray, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has provided food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies to millions of people.
Some critics say the Biden administration has been inattentive to Africa, a common complaint about US foreign policy but it has grown in importance as China, America’s greatest strategic competitor, has deeper political and economic roots on the continent and anti-American jihadist Groups continue to thrive there. Mr Blinken had planned to visit Africa in late summer, but postponed the trip after the Taliban suddenly took over Afghanistan in mid-August.
The Biden government failed to articulate its vision for the continent, which Mr Blinken was supposed to address during a stopover in the Nigerian capital Abuja, where he was going to give a speech on the United States’ Africa policy. He wants to end his trip with a visit to the Senegalese capital Dakar.
American officials are concerned about the democratic relapse in Africa, which has seen a wave of military coups in recent months – particularly in Sudan, where a coup last month destroyed a democratic transition that began in 2019 after the overthrow of the longtime autocratic ruler of the Landes, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Experts say the four successful military coups in Africa this year – including in Guinea, Chad and Mali – are the highest number in more than 40 years.
Democracy will be a central theme of Mr Blinken’s visit to Nigeria, whose government condemned Mr Biden for endemic corruption and the use of violence against protesters demanding more civil society freedoms.
The coup in Sudan also exposed the limits of American diplomacy on the continent. It came hours after a visit to the country by Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who left the country believing a brokered political settlement was within reach.
Mr Hudson said the Biden administration had struggled to respond to the crises in Sudan and Ethiopia and called for more aggressive US action.
“They are a little on my tail, I think,” he said, adding that Ethiopia’s descent into chaos would be “a huge strategic setback for this government.”
Fighting in Ethiopia began a year ago after Mr Abiy launched a military campaign in the insurgent Tigray region. Tigrayan fighters soon took advantage and advanced towards the capital Addis Ababa, a city of five million people. The State Department has repeatedly urged Americans in the country to leave immediately.
“I am very concerned about the potential for Ethiopia to implode, given what we are seeing both in Tigray and as we have diverse forces and different ethnic groups that are increasingly at odds,” Blinken told reporters last week and said of this result “would be catastrophic for the Ethiopian people and also for the countries of the region.”
Mr Blinken called for a ceasefire, the free movement of humanitarian aid and a negotiated political solution.
At the forefront of the Foreign Ministry’s efforts so far has been Mr Feltman, who visited the Ethiopian capital and the Kenyan capital Nairobi last week.
Ms. Haslach described Mr. Blinken’s trip to the region as important, but warned that “it is not possible on your own”. She said a diplomatic solution would require the help of Ethiopia’s neighbors and the African Union based in Addis Ababa.
Mr. Hudson was skeptical that the African Union, which often sided with the rulers of the continent, would be able to force Mr. Abiy to make real concessions. He said the United States must consider additional unilateral steps, including a possible embargo on arms allegedly supplied to the government by the United Arab Emirates.
To make matters worse, some members of Mr Abiy’s administration have accused the United States of trying to overthrow him and set up a government led by Tigrayan officials, Mr Feltman said in a statement to the US earlier this month Peace Institute. He called these claims false.
Mr. Feltman also cautioned against studies showing that “the average modern civil war now lasts 20 years. I repeat: 20 years. “
Others called for even more dramatic American measures to prevent such an outcome. In an opinion paper published by Bloomberg last week, James G. Stavridis, a retired four-star naval admiral, recommended that the United States consider sending troops to Ethiopia as part of a United Nations-led peacekeeping force.
He also cited the genocide in Rwanda and added that Ethiopia was “much larger and geopolitically more important than Rwanda”.
A spokesman for the National Security Council said the United States is seeking a diplomatic solution and is not considering sending forces to Ethiopia.