A top U.S. envoy is calling for the preservation of democracy in Africa

Kenyatta visited the Ethiopian capital over the weekend to bolster an African Union-led mediation initiative to end the violence that engulfed the northern Tigray region and spread, provoking widespread fears of overflow into the conflict.

The State Department said Blinken spent 90 minutes with Kenyatta in a session scheduled for just 10 minutes and that the talks were extensive. The exact issues and possible developments were not immediately clear.

“We continue to see atrocities committed, people suffering, and regardless of what we call it, it has to stop and it has to be a responsibility,” Blinken later told reporters. He said he will make a decision on whether the situation in Ethiopia is genocide “after we get all the analysis that goes into looking at the facts.”

Kenya’s cabinet secretary Raychelle Omamo told reporters that “we believe a ceasefire is possible” but “ultimately, these solutions” will come from the Ethiopian people.

In comments to Kenyan civic leaders, Blinken spoke of the importance of fighting a “democratic recession” across the world, including challenges in the United States that show “how delicate our democracy can be.” Kenya faces its own stability in next year’s presidential election.

Blinken aims to accelerate hitherto unsuccessful U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve the deepening conflicts in Ethiopia and Sudan and counter growing uprisings elsewhere, including Somalia.

Months of Biden administration involvement have made little progress and, instead, the conflict in Ethiopia has escalated between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and leaders in the northern Tigray region who once ruled the government.

Tensions that some fear could escalate to mass inter-ethnic killings in Africa’s second most populous country erupted into war last year, with thousands killed, many thousands more detained and millions displaced.

“We need to see people arrested released,” Blinken said.

Shortly after he spoke, the government-created Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights estimated that thousands had been arrested in Addis Ababa, the capital, since the government declared a state of emergency over the escalating war.

The estimate is the largest to date of the arrests taking place as teams of volunteers roam the streets of the capital in search of Tigrayans suspected of supporting the Tigray forces.

Rival Tigray forces are advancing on Addis Ababa amid increasingly dreadful warnings from the United States and others for foreigners to leave.

Hoping that there is still a window of opportunity for a resolution, the United States has moved to sanctions, announcing Ethiopia’s expulsion from a U.S.-African trade pact and imposing punishments on leaders and militants of neighboring Eritrea for intervening in the conflict on Ethiopia’s behalf. Sanctions against Ethiopian officials, including Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, are possible.

Ethiopia has condemned the sanctions and in Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union, and elsewhere, there is skepticism and hostility to US pressure despite America being the country’s largest aid donor.

As the United States has put pressure on Ethiopia, it has also been confused by developments in Sudan, where a military coup last month toppled a civilian-led government that has taken significant steps to restore long-standing ties with the United States.

Coup leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan tightened his power last week, reappointing himself as the chairman of a new Sovereign Council. The United States and other Western governments have criticized the move because it removed a joint military-civilian council already in place. The Sudanese generals responded by saying they would appoint a civilian government in the coming days.

The United States countered the coup by suspending $ 700 million in direct financial assistance. Further moves, including a slowdown or reversal of a multi-year rapprochement with the government, could also be in the works.

The highest-ranking U.S. diplomat for Africa, Molly Phee, met on Tuesday with ousted Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok and Burhan. Burhan said Sudan’s leaders were ready to engage in dialogue with all political forces unconditionally, according to a statement from the newly appointed Sovereign Council.

Blinken said the most important move Sudan could make to begin restoring international confidence would be for Burhan to restore the civilian-led government and Hamdok to his post. “He is a source of legitimacy and it is essential that the transition regains the legitimacy it had before the civilian-led effort was derailed,” he said.

In addition to trying to cool tensions in the region, Blinken’s trip also aims to raise Washington’s profile as a player in regional and international initiatives to restore peace and promote democracy and human rights while competing with China for influence.

That push did not start in Africa. The coronavirus pandemic canceled a scheduled summer visit from Blinken to the mainland. The trip was rescheduled for August, only to be postponed again due to the unrest in Afghanistan that worried Washington.

Despite its importance in the rivalry between the United States and China, Africa has often been overshadowed by more pressing issues in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America despite massive U.S. contributions of money and vaccines to fight the pandemic and other infectious diseases.

All the while, China has pumped billions into African energy, infrastructure and other projects that Washington believes are destined to take advantage of developing nations. Blinken and Omamo met at a Nairobi hotel in a conference room with a vast view of a still incomplete, China-funded elevated expressway.

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Associate journalists Cara Anna in Nairobi and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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