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United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa in an official capacity next week, visiting Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, the State Department has said.
Blinken will meet with the presidents of all three countries and will broadly address “the COVID-19 pandemic and building back to a more inclusive global economy, combating the climate crisis, revitalising our democracies, and advancing peace and security,” the state department said late on Thursday.
Blinken is the highest-ranking official from the administration of President Joe Biden to visit sub-Saharan Africa. An earlier planned trip in August was reportedly cancelled as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated ahead of the US troop withdrawal. Biden met Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta in Washington, DC in October.
The top US diplomat will first visit Nairobi, where the unfolding crises in Ethiopia and Sudan, which, along with the ongoing conflict in Somalia, are set to top the agenda during his meeting with Kenyatta.
The visit comes as the US envoy for the Horn of Africa has been shuttling between the Kenyan capital and Addis Ababa, where he has been scrambling with African Union officials to hammer out a ceasefire agreement between Ethiopia’s government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The fighting, which erupted last November when the government deployed troops to the Tigray region, has escalated in recent weeks, with the TPLF joining a coalition of rebel groups threatening to march on the capital. Abiy’s government responded by declaring a state of emergency that has seen a wave of arrests.
Meanwhile, in Sudan, military leaders seized full control of the country’s fragile military-civilian transitional government last month. The move apparently caught Washington off-guard, coming just hours after US envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman met with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the seizure.
In Nairobi, Blinken will also “advance US-Kenyan cooperation on ending COVID-19, improving clean energy access, and protecting the environment”, the state department said.
He will then travel to Abuja, where he will meet with Nigerian Prime Minister Muhammadu Buhari and deliver a speech on US-Africa policy.
‘Slow out of the blocks’
Upon taking office in January, some observers hoped the Biden administration would put a new emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa in US foreign policy. Biden’s choice to make a virtual address at the 2021 African Union summit in February in his first speech to an international organisation as president further bolstered that hope.
That came after four years of former US President Donald Trump, who despite taking late actions in his administration to counter China’s vast economic influence on the continent, also repeatedly alienated many Africans, referring to African nations as “s***hole countries” and imposing a travel ban on Muslim-majority countries that disproportionately affected the continent.
Still, analysts say major shifts in Africa policy from the Biden administration have been slow in coming.
Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine in October, Jon Temin, the director of the Africa programme at the Washington, DC-based Freedom House, said the Biden administration has been “slow out of the blocks on Africa”.
He noted that “aside from its focused diplomatic response to the horrific civil war in Ethiopia and a few hints about other areas of emphasis, such as trade and investment, Biden has not articulated a strategy for the continent”.
Meanwhile, Foreign Policy magazine reported in early October that the administration plans to introduce in the coming months a rejuvenated strategy towards the continent.
That came after the White House hired Judd Devermont, the director of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and a former senior CIA official and national intelligence officer for Africa, to its national National Security Council to jumpstart the process.
The administration is working to “devise a fresh strategy for US engagement with Africa”, the magazine reported, that would attempt to weave together “Biden’s priorities on democracy and human rights, counterterrorism objectives, and countering Russia and China’s growing influence on the continent”.
Blinken will end the five-day trip in Dakar, where he will meet with Senegalese President Macky Sall, who will take over the chairmanship of the African Union in 2022.
“The secretary will engage in events that highlight America’s strong commercial relationship with Senegal, amplify the role of female Senegalese entrepreneurs, and showcase the US partnership to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” the state department said.