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Blinken to Make First Trip to Africa as Biden’s Top Diplomat

The secretary of state’s visit follows a spate of military coups in four African countries.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the United Nations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council during the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 23. John Minchillo-Pool/Getty Images

Antony Blinken is set to embark on his first trip to Africa as U.S. secretary of state next week, making stops in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal, as the Biden administration grapples with brewing political crises in East Africa and works to advance its agenda on strengthening democracy abroad.

Blinken’s trip marks the highest-profile visit yet by a Biden administration official to the continent. It comes as the international community is faced with what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has described as an “epidemic of coup d’etats” in Africa and amid a rapidly spiraling conflict in Ethiopia that has fueled a major humanitarian crisis.

Blinken, notably, is not visiting either Ethiopia or neighboring Sudan, where a military power grab sparked a political crisis and upended the country’s shaky transition to democracy. Both crises are still expected to be a major topic of conversation during his trip, a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.

Antony Blinken is set to embark on his first trip to Africa as U.S. secretary of state next week, making stops in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal, as the Biden administration grapples with brewing political crises in East Africa and works to advance its agenda on strengthening democracy abroad.

Blinken’s trip marks the highest-profile visit yet by a Biden administration official to the continent. It comes as the international community is faced with what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has described as an “epidemic of coup d’etats” in Africa and amid a rapidly spiraling conflict in Ethiopia that has fueled a major humanitarian crisis.

Blinken, notably, is not visiting either Ethiopia or neighboring Sudan, where a military power grab sparked a political crisis and upended the country’s shaky transition to democracy. Both crises are still expected to be a major topic of conversation during his trip, a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.

“We have more than adequate diplomatic engagement to address our foreign-policy objectives in those places, and Secretary Blinken is very, very focused on advancing our interests and the interests of the people of Sudan and the people of Ethiopia throughout his trip,” the senior official said. (U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, frequently visits both countries.)

Blinken’s first trip to Africa was initially scheduled for earlier this year, but it was postponed after he turned his attention to the rapid collapse of Afghanistan in August, according to three officials familiar with the matter.

Now, with the trip moving forward, a top agenda item for Blinken will be on “revitalizing democracies,” the senior official said. Strengthening democracy abroad has been a major foreign-policy priority for Biden since he took office, culminating in a virtual Summit for Democracy he is hosting next month.

That agenda is facing significant headwinds in Africa, where several governments—including of autocratic leaders whom the United States partnered with on counterterrorism and security matters—were ousted in coups in the past year. Sudan’s military coup was the fourth in Africa this year, following putsches by military figures in Chad, Mali, and Guinea. Additionally, three other African countries—the Central African Republic, Niger, and Madagascar—fended off coup attempts of their own, adding to the highest rate of coups and coup attempts the continent has seen since the 1980s.

Blinken plans to meet with members of civil society in each of the three countries he is visiting, in addition to meetings with senior foreign government officials, to “demonstrate through our actions as well as our words that we are investing partnerships with the people of Africa as well as the governments of Africa to advance democratic values,” according to the senior official.

Other major agenda items for his trip include tackling the coronavirus pandemic—developing countries in Africa lag far behind the wealthiest nations in access to vaccines—and climate change.

Blinken’s trip comes on the heels of the major U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in which African nations proposed talks on a $700 billion financing deal to help the continent adapt to climate change and speed up decarbonization efforts. Africa contributes an estimated 4 percent of total global carbon emissions, but African countries are considered among the most vulnerable to extreme weather, droughts, and natural disasters spurred on by climate change.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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