Antony Blinken starts a three-country tour in Africa

The head of the American diplomacy will try, during his visits to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal from Wednesday, to show his country’s commitment to the African continent. 

The head of the American diplomacy arrived Wednesday at dawn in Kenya. He has the ambition to distinguish the Biden administration from that of his predecessor Donald Trump, who made no secret of his disinterest in Africa and was the only president in several decades not to visit the continent.

The head of the American diplomacy arrived Wednesday at dawn in Kenya. He has the ambition to distinguish the Biden administration from that of his predecessor Donald Trump, who made no secret of his disinterest in Africa and was the only president in several decades not to visit the continent.

Antony Blinken will visit until Saturday three countries considered key in the African strategy of President Joe Biden: first Kenya, one of the oldest allies of Washington, where China is gaining ground, then Nigeria, the most populous country of the continent and, finally, Senegal, a model of democratic stability.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the last region of the world to be visited by Antony Blinken, whose travel during his first months in office has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Virtual «democracy» summit

His visit comes less than a month before a Virtual Democracy Summit hosted by Joe Biden and on the heels of the COP26 climate summit, where Washington joined calls to move away from fossil fuels.

As far as Africa is concerned, «the current approach emphasises the goal of revitalising democracies as well as climate change and sustainable development,» says Ervin Massinga, a senior State Department official.

According to him, Antony Blinken will also discuss the development of production capacities in Africa for Covid-19 vaccines, an initiative through which Joe Biden hopes to distinguish himself from China, which is aggressively promoting its own vaccines.

Ethiopian disappointment

In the background, however, will be the crises in which Washington is diplomatically active, affecting two countries in which the United States once had high hopes: Ethiopia and Sudan.

Addis Ababa has long been a close ally of Washington, which is now dismayed by the impediments to the delivery of food aid in the northern region of Tigray, the scene of a conflict between the federal army and rebels, where famine threatens hundreds of thousands of people.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), against which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government launched the federal army just over a year ago, has recaptured Tigray, advanced into neighbouring regions and now threatens to march on Addis Ababa.

«This is not the Ethiopia we thought we would see two years ago, when we were applauding it as the most dynamic economy in Africa,» the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said recently.

Joe Biden recently said he was prepared to deny Ethiopia the benefits of the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which exempts many African countries from tariffs. He has so far ruled out sanctions on the Ethiopian government or the rebels in the hope of encouraging a political settlement.

Risk of regional collapse

At the same time, the United States has suspended some $700 million in aid to Sudan, the scene of a military coup at the end of October that put a stop to the democratic transition that began with the overthrow in 2019 of the autocrat Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power.

Johnnie Carson, the former top diplomat in charge of Africa under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believes that Antony Blinken’s visit to Kenya should not be «a missed opportunity» to invite the leaders of surrounding countries to seek a regional solution to the Sudanese and Ethiopian crises. «The Horn of Africa is extremely fragile and the democratic transitions that we thought were going forward in Ethiopia and Sudan have been derailed,» says Johnnie Carson, now at the US Institute of Peace (Usip). «The reality is that if these countries collapse over the next year, we will see a wider regional collapse,» he warns.

Blinken is expected to hold sensitive talks in Nigeria, to which the US has suspended helicopter deliveries due to human rights concerns.

Another issue that is expected to be discussed during his trip is trade. The Agoa expires in 2025 and, like Donald Trump, Joe Biden does not seem to be in a hurry to replace it, in the face of an American opinion that is less and less in favour of trade agreements, at the risk of favouring trade relations between Africa and China.