A visit to Africa by President Biden’s top diplomat was vexed on Wednesday by a deadly new crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Sudan, and a message of defiance from Ethiopia’s embattled leader.
Despite the grand gesture of American support for the continent signaled by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s trip, the developments illustrated the frustrating limits of U.S. diplomacy in a tumultuous region.
On the first full day of his trip, which began in Kenya, Mr. Blinken spotlighted U.S. efforts to reverse the military coup that upended Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy last month, and to de-escalate Ethiopia’s burgeoning civil war, which analysts fear could tear apart Africa’s second most populous nation.
But even as Mr. Blinken spoke at a news conference about intensive American efforts to resolve those political and security crises along Kenya’s borders, they flared anew.
In Sudan, security forces opened fire on protesters demonstrating against the Oct. 25 military takeover, who had massed in the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and elsewhere. At least 15 people were killed and many more were wounded, medics said.
Many had been shot “in the head, neck or torso,” the main doctor’s association said in a statement about the violence, the highest toll since the coup. Sudan’s deposed prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, remained under house arrest as did about 100 other senior civilian officials.
Addressing reporters alongside his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, Mr. Blinken reiterated his call for the reinstatement of Mr. Hamdok, the prime minister. And he pointed to his diplomatic efforts to pressure Sudan’s military rulers. “I’ve been working the phones,” Mr. Blinken said.
On Ethiopia, Mr. Blinken said that the fighting “needs to stop.” He repeated his past calls for all parties to the brutal conflict between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s forces and rebels to enter negotiations without preconditions.
But Mr. Abiy launched a thinly-veiled broadside on Wednesday against Western efforts to resolve the war on Twitter with a message that blamed woes on a “sophisticated narrative war” led by unnamed enemies. These forces were “using disinformation as a pathway for their sinister move,” Mr. Abiy said.
Even as some call for a more aggressive approach, Mr. Blinken did not detail what further steps the United States might take to influence events in either country. But he did warn that there would be consequences for what he called “atrocities” in Ethiopia, although he did not endorse the use of the word “genocide.” “There needs to be accountability, and we are determined there will be,” Mr. Blinken said.
And in Sudan, he stressed that the reinstatement of Mr. Hamdok, who has been leading a transitional government since 2019 when popular protests ousted longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, would be rewarded with aid and support from the U.S. and other nations.
For now, however, Mr. Blinken has little to show for his efforts in a region that is sliding deeper into crisis.
Not long ago, the East African region known as the Horn was seen as among the most dynamic on the continent, a place of fast-growing economies, dictator-toppling revolutions and intense jockeying between rival foreign powers seeking influence. It even had a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ethiopia’s youthful prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.
Now, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken begins a visit to neighboring Kenya, the Horn of Africa is a crucible of chaos, plagued by spreading war and famine in Ethiopia and a recent military coup in Sudan that threatens to derail its transition to democracy.
Those crises have made the Horn by far the greatest focus of American policy in Africa this year. Yet Washington has little to show for its efforts.
In Ethiopia, the Biden administration dispatched senior envoys to reason with Mr. Abiy, imposed visa restrictions on Ethiopian officials linked to alleged atrocities and threatened sanctions against leaders on both sides of the conflict.
At the United Nations, American officials have issued impassioned appeals for international unity. “Do African lives not matter?” a visibly exasperated Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in July.
Those efforts have failed to halt Ethiopia’s slide. Two million people have been forced from their homes; seven million urgently need humanitarian assistance; and human rights abuses continue unabated.
Mr. Abiy, who is facing off against ethnic Tigrayan rebels pressing toward the capital, has spurned repeated American appeals to negotiate — a priority item for Mr. Blinken, whose arrival in Kenya is part of a diplomatic scramble to avert what he has called the risk that Ethiopia could implode.
In some ways, it’s a similar story in Sudan. The United States bet heavily on the success of the 2019 revolution that ousted the dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, lifting decades-old sanctions and welcoming Sudan back into the international fold.
Now that progress is also in danger since Sudan’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power on Oct. 25 — only hours after Washington’s senior regional envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, flew out of the country.
Some critics have blamed the Biden administration for reacting too slowly, in particular for not taking firm action sooner against Mr. Abiy.
Others say the growing field of foreign countries with interests in the Horn of Africa — including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar and Russia — has frustrated American diplomacy.
And the growing crisis may simply have spun too far out of control.
“The Americans might have handled their relations with Ethiopia a bit better, but on the whole they have been committed,” said Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “I think this crisis mostly stems from the cold logic of conflict in a country with a long history of domination rather than accommodation.”
As if the war in Ethiopia were not enough, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s Africa visit is also shadowed by a military coup in Sudan, which has prompted weeks of protests drawing hundreds of thousands of people.
On Wednesday, Sudanese security forces fired into crowds of demonstrators in Khartoum, the capital, killing 15 people and wounding many others, according to a statement by the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, an independent group of medics. That is the highest toll since the army took power on Oct. 25.
Many had been shot “in the head, neck or torso,” the main doctor’s association said in a statement. The 15 deaths brought the number of those reported killed in protests so far to at least 39.
The coup in Sudan is an unexpected crisis that blew up only a few weeks ago — in the face of one of Mr. Blinken’s most seasoned envoys.
For days in October, that envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, had navigated between Sudan’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, striving to avert the collapse of a democratic transition that had been underway for two years.
At a final meeting late on Oct. 24, General al-Burhan argued that Sudan’s cabinet should be dismissed and replaced, but he gave no indication that he was preparing to seize power. With that reassurance, Mr. Feltman caught a flight to Qatar where, on landing, his phone lit up: A coup was underway in Sudan.
Protests erupted, Mr. Hamdok was placed under house arrest and other civilian officials were also detained. General al-Burhan has taken steps that suggest he wants to retain power, despite his assurances otherwise. For Mr. Feltman, the military coup was a nasty surprise that has proved difficult to navigate.
“They lied to him,” said Nureldin Satti, Sudan’s ambassador to the United States, referring to his country’s military leadership. “This is very serious because when you lie to the U.S., you have to pay the consequences.”
As Mr. Blinken flew to Africa on Tuesday, there were some possible signs of progress in Sudan. Another of his top aides, Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee, was in Khartoum, and met with both General al-Burhan and the detained prime minister. Ms. Phee said on Twitter that she was “grateful for the opportunity to meet with @SudanPMHamdok today to discuss ways forward to restore Sudan’s democratic transition.”
According to the official Sudan News Agency’s account of Ms. Phee’s meeting with General al-Burhan, he said that, regarding political detainees, “steps for their release have already begun, and that any detainee who is not proven guilty of a criminal offense will be released.”
Twin suicide bombings in the Ugandan capital this week, hours before a high-profile visit to the region by America’s top diplomat, underscored the growing strength of extremist militants in East Africa, including some with links to the Islamic State.
Suicide bombers on motorcycles struck within minutes of each other in the heart of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on Tuesday, setting off blasts that killed four people and wounded many more, the Ugandan police said.
The blasts, near Parliament and the central police station, were claimed by the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist militant group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The group, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2019, also claimed two much smaller attacks in Uganda last month.
In neighboring Kenya on Wednesday, the visiting U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, called the attacks “a painful reminder” of the need to cooperate closely with African allies on counterterrorism. Last March, the State Department designated the Allied Democratic Forces as a terrorist group, although some experts dispute the strength of the group’s ties to the Islamic State.
“We mustn’t sit on our laurels,” said Kenya’s cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, Raychelle Omamo, standing alongside Mr. Blinken.
Mr. Blinken traveled through Nairobi under heavy security, accompanied by Kenyan security forces wearing full combat gear and armed with assault weapons. The main security concern in Nairobi, however, came from a different direction.
For more than a year now, Kenyan and American officials have been bracing for a possible new attack by Al Shabab, the Somali militant group affiliated with Al Qaeda, which has struck Nairobi several times in the past decade.
The deadliest attack occurred in 2013 when masked attackers killed at least 67 people during a four-day siege at the Westgate shopping complex. Al Shabab struck again in 2019 with an assault on the Dusit office complex, which killed 21 people.
Last year, militants killed three Americans, including one service member, during a pre-dawn raid on the Manda Bay military base, in northeastern Kenya near the border with Somalia.
President Biden is considering whether to send back to Somalia any of the 700 United States service personnel withdrawn last January, in the final days of the Trump administration.
In Nairobi, Mr. Blinken praised Kenya’s support for the fight against Shabab and said the consideration of U.S. policy on Somalia, part of a wider “global posture review,” was still underway.
Kenya will be the pilot country for a new U.S. effort to accelerate Covid vaccinations in Africa, a program that enlists private company expertise to overcome “last mile” delivery delays, America’s top diplomat said Wednesday.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced the decision in Kenya, on the first full day of his three-day, three-country trip to East and West Africa.
While Mr. Blinken’s visit is aimed largely at efforts to solve crises threatening Ethiopia and Sudan, the Covid-19 pandemic’s ravaging of Africa, and what wealthy countries like the United States are doing about it, is a powerful sub-theme.
Speaking in Nairobi, Mr. Blinken reiterated American support for Africa’s struggle to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The continent lags global vaccination efforts, with just 6 percent of its population vaccinated, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Kenya, only 3 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated.
During a joint news conference with his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, Mr. Blinken announced that Kenya would become the first country to benefit from the new White House initiative aimed at overcoming the logistical hurdles that hinder Covid-19 vaccine delivery around the world.
Under the initiative, called the Global Covid Corps, private sector companies work pro bono to help countries streamline their vaccine distribution, such as managing supply chains and storage of the doses. Mr. Blinken first announced the initiative last week, during a virtual meeting of foreign ministers.
“What we found is the so-called last-mile challenges, including delivery and logistical hurdles, can make it difficult to turn vaccines into vaccinations, in other words actually getting shots into arms,” Mr. Blinken said.
Slow vaccination rates increase the risk of vaccine-resistant variants of the virus, experts say. Poor infrastructure to deliver doses of vaccines is a major challenge, further complicated by problems such as a shortage of syringes.
Mr. Blinken’s announcement was the latest in the White House’s vaccine diplomacy, in which the United States has tried to persuade other wealthy nations to balance domestic requirements with a global need. The Biden administration also has encouraged Moderna, one of the leading vaccine makers, to prioritize delivering 15 million doses to Africa ahead of its commitments to the United States.
These steps have followed criticism from activists around the world who accuse wealthy nations of hoarding vaccines, to the detriment of poorer nations. Many critics remain upset over what they call inadequate help for initiatives like Covax, the United Nations-backed vaccine program, and the African Union’s African Vaccine Acquisition Trust. Both are meant to deliver doses to countries that cannot afford to strike large-scale deals with vaccine manufacturers.
Emphasizing what the United States has done, Mr. Blinken pointed to the more than 50 million doses it donated to 43 African countries, as well as $1.9 billion in funding distributed to Africa for Covid-19 relief.
In a thinly veiled allusion to the Covid-19 vaccine aid offered by China, which has enormous economic interests in Africa, Mr. Blinken said the American generosity had been delivered “with no political strings attached.”
Mr. Blinken has previously criticized what he called the ties between China’s vaccine distribution and its geopolitical interests, a criticism that Chinese leaders have rejected.
Among the delegation accompanying Mr. Blinken is Gayle E. Smith, who was appointed as the State Department’s Global Covid Response and Health Security Coordinator. Ms. Smith, a former head of United States Agency for International Development and security aide to former President Barack Obama, was appointed in April.
It didn’t take much for President Biden to strike a different note in Africa.
His predecessor, Donald J. Trump, referred to some African nations as “shithole countries,” barred citizens in six of them from traveling to the United States, and failed to visit the continent once while in office.
Mr. Trump’s main policy focus was in slowing Chinese influence across Africa, with limited success. His wife, Melania Trump, visited four countries, but raised eyebrows in Kenya by wearing a colonial-style pith helmet, associated with a violent and racist past.
The Biden administration immediately struck a more respectful, engaged tone on the continent. It rescinded the travel ban. It dispatched senior diplomats to grapple with the conflict in Ethiopia, and it sent teams of military advisers to counter the growing influence of Islamist militants in many countries. Instead of praising autocrats, it spoke out against them.
But to many Africans, the U.S. engagement with Africa is still focused on threats rather than opportunities. And they say they are waiting for the Biden administration to articulate a policy that would suggest a new direction.
“Historically, the perception on the continent has been that American policymakers see Africa as a problem to be solved,” said Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Their support has come mainly in the form of humanitarian aid — and still does today.”
The problem-solving approach was an undercurrent theme again on Wednesday when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken landed in Kenya, his first trip to Africa in that role, hoping to rally diplomatic support for an urgent effort to broker peace in Ethiopia.
It was Mr. Blinken’s second attempt to visit the continent — a trip planned for August was canceled over the crisis in Afghanistan — and Mr. Biden, who visited Kenya and South Africa as vice president, has yet to announce a trip.
For many ordinary Americans, too, Africa is a continent that usually seizes their attention only when a huge crisis is unfolding: famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur in the 2000s; the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Increasingly, though, economists, analysts and ordinary Africans say they would like the United States to engage with Africa as a place of possibility. It is the world’s youngest continent, with the highest population growth rates, and many of its fastest growing economies (albeit often in countries starting from a very low base).
They also want to redefine the notion of Western responsibility. After the recent COP26 climate change summit, some activists are calling on large polluters like the United States to recognize their obligation to African nations with relatively small carbon footprints that are already bearing the brunt of climate change.
One reason American efforts to promote democracy in Africa are running into trouble is an increasingly crowded geopolitical playing field on the continent.
While the United States and former colonial powers like Britain once played a dominant role, Africa is now awash in foreign suitors looking to scoop up precious minerals, exert influence or make money. Besides China, the best known foreign investor, several midsize powers have also begun to flex their military, economic and diplomatic muscle.
In contrast, Washington has largely stuck to its traditional approach in Africa: distributing aid and offering diplomatic support to help end wars. The United States remains the pre-eminent foreign power in much of the continent, and American values of democracy and free speech still resonate with many young Africans. But analysts say that others are slowly catching up, largely by seeing African countries as sources of opportunity, not just problems.
Here are some of the players and what they are up to:
Beijing has pumped billions into infrastructure and mining projects. In 2009, China eclipsed the United States as Africa’s biggest trade partner; now, more than 10,000 Chinese-owned companies do business in Africa as part of a trade relationship estimated to be worth $200 billion a year.
United Arab Emirates
The U.A.E. had a military base in Eritrea until early this year and has jostled with other countries for control of ports along the Red Sea. The U.A.E. helped broker peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, but more recently has been accused of providing armed drones to Ethiopia’s military for its campaign in the Tigray region.
Turkey is a major player in Somalia, training elite military units and making substantial investments in roads, hospitals, ports and the country’s main airport. Many wealthy Somalis now have second homes in Turkey.
The oil-rich Persian Gulf nation is also a force in Somalia, where the opposition and many foreign officials say it has offered financial support to the country’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
Moscow is expanding across several countries, officially and unofficially. Since 2018, Kremlin-backed companies have sent mercenaries into the Central African Republic in exchange for diamond and gold mining concessions. Officials say Russia is also influencing events in Sudan, where it hopes to gain access for its warships to the port of Port Sudan.
When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrives on Thursday in Nigeria, where he is scheduled to meet with President Muhammadu Buhari and deliver a speech on U.S. policy in Africa, the conventions of modern diplomacy hold that he should send a tweet.
But Twitter is banned in Nigeria, a sign of the limits to freedom of speech in Africa’s most populous nation.
Nigeria, often described as Africa’s biggest democracy, and the second stop on Mr. Blinken’s three-nation swing through the continent, is not one of the three countries in West Africa to have experienced coups in the past year. Neither is its president trying to change the Constitution to allow him to run for a third term, as has happened recently in several other countries in the region.
But rising insecurity and clampdowns on basic freedoms put democracy in Nigeria under threat. President Biden, during his election campaign, condemned the country’s government for endemic corruption, and for violently cracking down on demonstrators seeking more freedom for civil society.
When young Nigerians rose up last year to protest police brutality, in a movement known as EndSARS after a particularly violent police unit, security forces fired live ammunition at dozens of peaceful demonstrators. Mr. Blinken will arrive days after a leaked report identified 48 casualties, 11 of them confirmed dead, in what is known as the Lekki tollgate shooting.
It is a delicate issue for Mr. Blinken because the United States is helping to arm Nigeria’s security forces to help combat extremist groups, including Islamic State West Africa Province, a group loosely affiliated with ISIS. This summer, the United States delivered 12 Super Tucano military aircraft to Nigeria, in a sale that lawmakers in Congress had delayed over human rights concerns. Another agreement, to sell U.S. attack helicopters, is on hold.
Despite the military deals, what Africa needs more from the United States is investment in infrastructure, Mr. Buhari argued in a recent opinion essay. That would help create jobs for an exploding youth population that is otherwise a target for recruitment by extremist groups.
“The boots we need on the ground are those of constructors, not the military,” he wrote.
However, Mr. Blinken’s remarks on democracy will not be directed at any one country, his aides have said.
Africans overwhelmingly support presidential term limits, the survey group Afrobarometer has found, yet many of the continent’s presidents have circumvented or eliminated them.
In the meantime, if Mr. Blinken wants to tweet from Nigeria, he may have to resort to the workaround employed by millions of Nigerians — a virtual private network, or V.P.N.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken opened his visit to Kenya by meeting on Wednesday with civil society leaders in Nairobi, the capital, encouraging them to keep up the fight to defend democracy.
“Not just in Kenya, but around the world, you’ve seen over the last decade or so what some have called a democratic recession,” Mr. Blinken said. “Even vibrant democracies like Kenya are experiencing these pressures, especially around election time.”
The Biden administration’s top diplomat was speaking on the first day of a four-day swing through Africa, his first visit to the continent apart from a brief stop in Cairo in May.
With Kenya headed toward national elections in August, Mr. Blinken noted that its journalists and other civil society leaders face mounting threats.
“We’ve seen the same challenges here that we’ve seen in many parts of the world,” he said, including misinformation, voter intimidation and corruption.
Defending democracy on a continent that has seen four military coups in the past year is a central theme of Mr. Blinken’s visit, which also focuses on coronavirus vaccine distribution and political turmoil in two of Kenya’s neighbors, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Mr. Blinken acknowledged the imperfections of the United States’ own fractured political system.
“The United States is hardly immune from this challenge,” he said. “We’ve seen how fragile our own democracy can be.”
Later on Wednesday, after meeting Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and the cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, Raychelle Omamo, Mr. Blinken issued a warning to Kenyan leaders over next year’s elections, saying at a news conference that “the rule of law must be safeguarded.”
The conflict in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation after Nigeria, has its roots in 2018. That is when a young politician named Abiy Ahmed became prime minister, and quickly set about draining the influence of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a group that had dominated the government of Ethiopia for the previous 27 years.
The group retained control of the regional government in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, which shares a long border with Eritrea. But Mr. Abiy has sought to reduce the autonomy of regional governments and centralize power, irking many people in a country where regions are dominated by differing, often antagonistic ethnic groups.
Mr. Abiy also made peace with Eritrea, whose leader, Isaias Afwerki, had long seen the Tigrayan group as an enemy. In 2019, Mr. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Last year, Mr. Abiy postponed regional elections across the country because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the Tigray regional government defied his order and went ahead with the balloting. Weeks later, Ethiopian lawmakers cut funding to the region.
On the night of Nov. 3 last year, and into the following morning, the Tigrayan group’s forces attacked a federal military base in Tigray and tried to steal its weapons. The group has said that it had struck preemptively because national forces were preparing to assault Tigray.
Hours later, Mr. Abiy ordered a military offensive against Tigray. He predicted that the fighting would be over in a matter of weeks. But the Ethiopian military was dominated by Tigrayan officers, and fighting erupted between rival military units inside the region, according to American officials.
Mr. Abiy bolstered his forces by deploying militia fighters from the Amhara region to the south, who swept into western Tigray amid accusations of attacks on civilians. Then troops from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s former enemy, flooded across the border from the north to fight alongside Mr. Abiy’s forces.
Federal forces and their allies quickly seized control of Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, and other towns, but the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and its armed supporters fled to rural and mountainous areas and continued fighting. The government has set out to capture or kill T.P.L.F. figures who include some of Ethiopia’s former political and military leaders.
But the fighters regrouped.
The Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. Several thousand of its soldiers were taken captive.
In July, Tigrayan forces began advancing on the capital, Addis Ababa, joining forces with another rebel group that fights for the rights of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. Foreign officials monitoring the fighting said there were signs that several units of the Ethiopian Army had collapsed or retreated.
In early November, after the fighters had captured the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, the government of Ethiopia declared a state of emergency and called on its citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend the capital.