This is how Ethiopia’s civil war began.
Speaking from neighboring Kenya, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pressed for an end to a violent civil war in Ethiopia that has threatened to destabilize the region. He also urged Americans in Ethiopia to leave.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Andrew Harnik
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called on Wednesday for a halt to the violence in Ethiopia, where a civil war threatens to engulf the Horn of Africa nation and destabilize a volatile region where the United States has struggled to prevent a series of democratic reversals.
Speaking in neighboring Kenya, on the start of a three-country swing through Africa, Mr. Blinken declined to say whether the ethnically driven conflict in Ethiopia constitutes a genocide. But he said there would be consequences for what the United Nations and human rights groups have described as brutal attacks against civilians in the year-old conflict between Ethiopian government forces and fighters from the northern Tigray region.
“The fact is that we have seen, and continue to see, atrocities being committed, people suffering,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference with Kenya’s cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, Raychelle Omamo. “Regardless of what we call it, it needs to stop. There needs to be accountability, and we are determined there will be.”
Mr. Blinken arrived in Nairobi overnight Wednesday, making him the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit sub-Saharan Africa. Among his top priorities was to advance diplomacy to resolve the conflict in Ethiopia, part of wave of political upheaval that has fueled questions about the Biden administration’s approach to the continent.
Reiterating a State Department travel warning, Mr. Blinken urged Americans in Ethiopia to leave as soon as possible using commercial airlines. In a conversation days ago with Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister, Demeke Mekonnen, the secretary of state called on him to open up humanitarian access to northern Ethiopia.
The expanding conflict was a danger not just to Ethiopia but to the wider region, Mr. Blinken said, and a source “of deep concern to us and to our partners, including here in Kenya.”
On a stop in Nigeria this week, Mr. Blinken will outline a vision for U.S. policy toward Africa, one that is expected to focus on the value of democracy to the continent’s future. Counterterrorism is also expected to be a key topic: Hours before Mr. Blinken’s arrival in Nairobi, suicide bombers detonated two bombs in the heart of Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda, killing at least three people and injuring at least 33 others. The Islamic State, which has been active in East Africa for years, took responsibility for the attack.
Some critics say the Biden administration has been inattentive to Africa, a common complaint about U.S. foreign policy but one that has gained more currency as China, America’s top strategic competitor, plants deeper political and economic roots on the continent and anti-American jihadist groups continue to thrive there.
American officials are concerned about democratic backsliding across the continent, which has seen a wave of military coups in recent months — including in Sudan, where a coup last month quashed a democratic transition that followed the 2019 ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic ruler, Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Mr. Blinken said the transition to democracy in Sudan needed to be “put back on its tracks,” beginning with the reinstatement of the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok.
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.
Kenya has played a key role in diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve a conflict between the Ethiopia’s central government and Tigray rebels.
“This is Rwanda-esque,” added Patricia Haslach, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 2013 to 2016. Ms. Haslach stopped short of saying that a genocide might be occurring, but other experts have called that a realistic possibility in a conflict increasingly defined by ethnic identity.
The Clinton administration’s failure to intervene and potentially prevent the massacre of as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 has haunted former U.S. officials for decades.
Mr. Blinken plans to conclude his trip with a visit to the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
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 a crowd of demonstrators in Khartoum, the capital, killing two people and wounding several others, according to a statement by the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, an independent group of medics. At least 26 people have reportedly been killed in protests since the army took power Oct. 25.
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 reverse.
“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.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with civil society leaders in Nairobi, Kenya, about efforts to defend against threats facing democracies worldwide, such as misinformation and voter intimidation. The meeting was his first stop on a three-nation visit to Africa.CreditCredit…Daniel Irungu/EPA, via Shutterstock
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.”
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.
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, Tigrayans 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.