NAIROBI, Kenya — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa was intended as a grand gesture of American support for the continent. But his first day also illustrated the frustrating limits of American influence in a region experiencing deep turmoil.
During a meeting with officials in Nairobi, Kenya, security forces in the capital of neighboring Sudan shot dead at least 15 pro-democracy protesters and injured many others in the deadliest violence since a military coup on October 25. the country.
At the same time, a civil war was raging in Ethiopia, with beleaguered Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, once a darling of the West, lashing out at international critics even as Mr Blinken renewed his call for an end to the fighting – another shocking juxtaposition which raised new doubts about Washington’s persuasiveness in a turbulent region.
It’s an unfortunate context for Mr. Blinken’s visit to Africa, where he plans to deliver a speech in Nigeria on Friday outlining the Biden administration’s vision for a continent that President Donald J. Trump often treated with a mixture of indifference and contempt.
The team of mr. Blinken has poured considerable diplomatic energy into East Africa over the past year, hoping to end the atrocity-laden war in Ethiopia and protect Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy. But when he landed in Nairobi, those efforts seemed to have yielded little.
Speaking to reporters along with his Kenyan counterpart, Foreign Minister Raychelle Omamo, Mr Blinken said the war in Ethiopia “must end”, and he calls on both sides to enter into negotiations without preconditions. For more than a year, Mr Abiy has been battling rebels from Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray in an expanding war that many fear could tear apart Africa’s second most populous country.
The events in both Ethiopia and Sudan on Wednesday appeared to defy Mr Blinken’s admonitions. The Ethiopian Prime Minister launched a thinly veiled broad side against Western attempts to solve the war with a Twitter post that blamed the woes on an “advanced narrative war” led by unnamed enemies, a reference to more than just its Tigrayan antagonists. These forces, he said, “used disinformation as an avenue for their sinister move.”
On Sudan, Mr Blinken reiterated his call for the reinstatement of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was overthrown and kept under house arrest during last month’s coup, and noted his diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the Sudanese military leaders who have deposed Mr Hamdok.
“I’ve worked with the telephones,” Mr. Blinken said.
But in the Sudanese capital Khartoum and other areas, security forces opened fire during the last day of mass protests against the coup, which killed at least 15 people and injured many more, medics said. It was the highest daily toll since the protests began.
Many had been “shot in the head, neck or torso,” the chief physicians’ association said in a statement. It brought the number of reported deaths during recent protests to at least 39.
There was even unrest in neighboring Uganda, where residents of the capital Kampala were still reeling from suicide bombings by militants belonging to a group claiming links to the Islamic State. Four people were killed in Tuesday’s attacks.
Mr Blinken mentioned that attack, but he focused mainly on the crises in Sudan and Ethiopia. While some argue for a more aggressive approach to the US, Mr Blinken did not specify what further steps the United States could take to influence events in both countries. But he warned there would be consequences for what he called “atrocities” in Ethiopia.
“There must be accountability, and we are determined that there will be,” he said.
Mr Blinken’s visit to East Africa came after months of intense engagement from his regional envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, who has shuttled between capitals in recent weeks in a frantic battle for diplomatic solutions.
In Sudan, US officials are pushing for the immediate reinstatement of a transitional government that came to power in 2019, following a wave of popular protests that ousted the country’s longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. If Sudan’s generals reverse their coup, the country would be rewarded with renewed financial aid from the United States and other countries, Blinken said.
For now, however, his offers seem to fall on deaf ears.
In Ethiopia, the Biden administration has increasingly used coercive measures to pressure both sides to stop fighting, including visa restrictions on Ethiopian officials over alleged atrocities and threats of sanctions against leaders on both sides.
At the United Nations, US officials have made impassioned calls for international unity. “Don’t African Lives Matter?” said a visibly annoyed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, in July.
Those efforts have failed to stop Ethiopia’s slide. Two million people have been displaced from their homes; seven million are in urgent need of humanitarian aid; and human rights violations continue unabated, according to aid organizations and international observers.
Abiy, who faces off against ethnic Tigrayan rebels pushing into the capital, has rejected repeated US calls to negotiate.
Some critics have criticized the Biden administration for being too slow in responding to the various crises in East Africa, and in particular for not taking harsh measures against Mr Abiy earlier.
The United States also faces a growing number of foreign countries with competing interests in the Horn of Africa — including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar and Russia — that have at times frustrated US diplomacy.
China’s influence in Africa is also a growing concern for US officials who see competition with Beijing as their top priority. On Wednesday there was also a meeting of a China-Kenya business group at the hotel where Mr. Blinken was staying.
Defending democracy has become a defining feature of President Biden’s foreign policy, especially as the United States competes for influence with authoritarian China in Africa and around the world.
Mr Blinken also had words of caution about Kenya’s political system, which human rights groups say has shown authoritarian tendencies in recent years. He started his day with a meeting with Kenyan civil society leaders, who warned of threats to the country’s democratic progress as Kenya heads for national elections in August.
“Not just in Kenya, but all over the world in the last decade you have seen what some are calling a democratic recession,” said Mr. shine. “Even vibrant democracies like Kenya experience this pressure, especially around election time.”
Such a conversation could not stop Mr Blinken from welcoming an exuberant audience by his counterpart, Ms Omamo. She said Mr Blinken’s visit showed that “the US is indeed back and interested in the progress of our continent,” a seemingly implicit contrast to President Donald J. Trump, who has never visited the continent and some of its nations. with a vulgar epithet.
Ms. Omamo even echoed one of President Biden’s signature slogans, saying that Kenya and the United States “would build better” together.