Washington, DC — Trip to Ethiopia and Niger is latest top-level administration Africa foray, with VP Harris expected to be next
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will visit Addis Ababa on March 14 and 15 to hold talks with the Ethiopian government and leaders of the Tigrayan forces to discuss the fragile peace process. The two-year conflict has claimed thousands of lives.
The trip includes a stopover in Niger and is one of a series of Africa journeys this year by top-level administration officials. Vice President Kamala Harris will likely be next. Her visit is expected to focus on women and technology in Tanzania, Zambia and Ghana.
While in Addis, Blinken plans to see African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat "to discuss shared global and regional priorities," the State Department said in a statement adding: "Their meeting will follow up on commitments from the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, held in Washington D.C. in December, in the areas of food security, climate and a just energy transition, the African diaspora, and global health."
Blinken's March 16 visit to Niger will be the first by a U.S. Secretary of State. While in the capitol Niamey, he will discuss security cooperation with President Mohamed Bazoum and Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou.
Administration visits to Africa this year have included First Lady Jill Biden to Namibia and Kenya, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Senegal, Zambia and South Africa, and United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, and Somalia.
In the lead up to Blinken's discussions in Addis, administration officials have been debating whether to ease restrictions imposed after the war in Tigray began in late 2021. These include sanctions on selected Ethiopian and Eritean officials, trade limits and suspension of Ethiopia from benefits provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
The proposed easing "has drawn backlash from human rights advocates and some factions within the administration", Robbie Gramer reports in a March 9 story for Foreign Policy. Those advocating "to begin re-normalizing ties" include Mollie Phee, the assistant secretary for African Affairs, and Victoria Nuland, undersecretary for political affairs, Gramer says. Those arguing "that the administration needs to extract more commitments from the Ethiopian government on human rights and accountability for war crimes and other atrocities before agreeing to fully open access to economic and trade lifelines" include USAID Administrator Samantha Power, he writes.
Blinken may use the talks, which are expected to include Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other top officers, to extract concessions in exchange for improved ties. "What Addis is looking for is whether Washington is willing to say, enough has been done and we can normalize the bilateral relationship -- and that means turning on the financial spigot by restarting international lending assistance and assisting with the country's increasing debt crisis," Cameron Hudson, Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told VOA.
The focus of Blinken's talks in Niamey will be escalating conflict across the Sahel region. Along with top-level discussions, the Secretary will "engage youths from Niger's conflict zones, who have completed the Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration, and Reconciliation (DDRR) program, to learn about their contributions to peace in Niger," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
The situation in the Sahel "is presently more dangerous" and has grown "larger in scale" as it spreads across boarder and becomes "increasingly regional, according to Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, a veteran Mauritanian-born diplomat who served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the Sahel."
In an analysis published by the Centre for Strategies and Security for the Sahel Sahara, which he founded in Nouakchott, he writes despairingly of the international community as "scalded by disappointing results" and "above all largely absorbed by the very priority war in Ukraine."
Earlier this month, Niamey was host for a two-day meeting the Africa Focus Group, a 38-member coalition convened to coordinate and strengthen "counterterrorism capabilities" in coastal west Africa, the Sahel region, and east. central and southern Africa, according to a State Department release. The meeting endorsed an Action Plan "to strengthen border security, collect biometrics of known and suspected terrorists, protect and utilize battlefield evidence, counter Daesh/ISIS propaganda and recruitment, and counter terrorist financing."
Vice President Harris is expected to visit Zambia in late March as part of a three-nation Africa tour scheduled for 25 March to 3 April, according to the Lusaka Times. As a young child, Harris spent time in Lusaka visiting her maternal grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, who was an Indian civil servant on assignment "to help Zambia manage an influx of refugees from Rhodesia — the former name of Zimbabwe — which had just declared independence from Britain," according to a 2019 profile of the then Vice Presidential nominee by Shashank Bengali and Melanie Mason in the Los Angeles Times.