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Blinken is the highest-level Biden administration official to visit Africa


Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Nairobi today. This is the Biden administration's highest-level trip to Africa thus far. Much of the Horn of Africa is in disarray. Ethiopia is in the middle of a civil war. Sudan just had a military coup. Blinken wants to show that the U.S. is engaged in Africa and can help the continent. Earlier today, I talked to NPR's Michele Kelemen, who traveled to Nairobi with Secretary Blinken.

Let's start, Michele, with the most urgent situation, the war and accompanying humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. Rebels from the Tigray region are threatening the capital. Both sides but especially forces on the government's side are being blamed for massacres, including of civilians. What is Blinken hoping to do in Kenya about what's going on in Ethiopia?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, in short, I mean, he's trying to keep Ethiopia from imploding and spilling over into a wider, regional conflict. He also wants to head off a famine in the Tigray region. So the stakes are really, really high in a country that just a few years ago was dubbed the hope of Africa. The U.S. wants to partner with countries in the region on this, that includes Kenya, which is worried about a spillover of this war. And that also includes the African Union's envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who's trying to mediate. The U.S. is kind of playing a supporting role in his diplomacy. It's in part because Ethiopia has really reacted angrily to U.S. pressure, accusing it of siding with Tigrayan rebels. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has been pushing hard back on that, pointing out that all sides have carried out atrocities. She says there are no good guys in this conflict, only victims. And that's a message we expect to hear from Blinken as well.

KING: OK. Another country for which there were very high hopes - Sudan was on its way to becoming a democracy. The U.S. backed the transitional government that was a few weeks ago pushed out during a military coup. What is the U.S. planning to do about Sudan?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, again, it's trying to get countries that have some influence with the Sudanese military to use that influence and roll back this military takeover. But it's not at all clear that this is working. The military has violently crackdown on protesters. There are internet blackouts that make it hard for activists to organize. So it's really no easy task to get that transition to democracy back on track in a country that you know well.

KING: Yes, I do. And in the meantime, amid all of this, there is China. So this week, President Biden used his summit with Xi Jinping to talk about what he calls competition with China. We know that China's been really bullish in East Africa in terms of investment. What is at stake there for the U.S. if China continues to invest in the way it has done?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, the Biden administration kind of paints this as a competition between autocracy and democracy. Blinken says he wants to show that democracies deliver to people, while China's aid often saddles countries with debt. But even today, as he met with activists in Kenya, he warned about a democratic recession in many places. He talked about misinformation, political violence, voter intimidation. And he said the U.S. is hardly immune to those challenges. You know, the Biden administration is planning a democracy summit early next month. And all the countries he's visiting here are going to be invited to that.

KING: NPR's Michele Kelemen in Nairobi. Thanks, Michele. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.