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Blinken eyes African conflicts, human rights concerns

Chrispin Mwakideu
November 19, 2021

On his first visit to Africa, US top envoy Antony Blinken has addressed Ethiopia's raging Tigray conflict, the terrorism threat in Africa and human rights concerns in Nigeria.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is paying his first official visit to the African continentImage: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to Nigeria — his second stop on a three-nation tour — comes as Africa's most populous nation grapples with a myriad of challenges.

The country is facing rising insecurity amid a spate of kidnappings for ransom in the north, the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, a secessionist push in the south and inflation that has affected most of Nigeria's 206 million people.

"My expectation from the visit of the US secretary of state is that we can have discussions relating to how the US may help financially," Anjola Oladayo, a Lagos resident, told DW.

He said the US should assist Nigeria to develop in sectors such as agriculture and technology. "Since we are moving towards a century where everything is going online with their [the United States'] help and vast knowledge, they can also help us grow," the computer scientist said.

Washington is the single largest donor helping with the humanitarian response in Nigeria, according to US international development and humanitarian agency USAID.

In 2020–21, it gave nearly $505 million (€445 million), most of which went to northern Nigeria, where an estimated 9 million people are at risk of food insecurity. 

"The US is basically sending a signal to Nigeria that the US is back," Oge Onubogu, who is West Africa director at the United States Institute of Peace, told DW.

"The US is looking to strengthen and deepen its relationships with a partner it has had on the continent for a very long time."

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari talks to Nigerian soldiers.
Nigeria is still waiting for the US to deliver 12 attack helicopters for its militaryImage: Bayo Omoboriowo

US-Nigeria relations

The US and Nigeria share fraught but strategic ties. Washington backs Nigeria's war against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). But it is yet to clear the sale of 12 combat helicopters to Nigeria.

"We bought some ammunition from the US, and they are giving us conditions on how to use that ammunition," Lawrence Adebowale, a teacher in Lagos, told DW.  "I don't believe such conditions should exist."

In addition, the US Congress cites President Muhammadu Buhari's human rights record in the wake of#EndSARS police brutality protests and the government's ban on Twitter as a sign that Africa's biggest economy and oil producer is leaning towards authoritarianism.

EndSars demonstration in Lagos.
A deadly shooting by security forces ended the youth-driven #EndSARS protestsImage: Sunday Alamba/AP/picture alliance

At a joint press conference with Nigeria's foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, on Thursday, Blinken urged Buhari's government to hold responsible all those accused of using excessive force during the #EndSARS protests.

"Our government is very bad in terms of corruption and unemployment," Favour Njoku, a trader in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, said.

"I want him [Antony Blinken] to ask our president a lot of questions about our country because many things are wrong, and they don't want the outsiders to know about it."

For political analyst Onubogu, there are now two Nigerias: "A lot of the engagements have been with the power centers of the country: the state, the institutions, the corporations that dominate Nigeria's oil industry," Ogunogu said.

She suggested that it was now high time the US engaged with the growing young population, many of whom work in the informal sector. "We have to think about how we broaden our engagement with them to really understand what peace means to them, what democracy means to them," she said.

Ethiopia's conflict

The first stop of Blinken's Africa visit was Kenya, but the ongoing Tigray conflict in neighboring Ethiopia featured prominently in his press conferences there. 

"We are gravely concerned about the escalating violence," Blinken said, adding that the US regretted the expansion of fighting throughout the country "and what we see as a growing risk to the unity and to the integrity of the Ethiopian state."

Antony Blinken said the US supported Kenya and the AU's mediation efforts led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to broker a cease-fire in northern Ethiopia.

However, Kenyan political analyst Martin Oloo said Blinken's diplomatic tour had more to it than met the eye. "The US has military interests, and therefore the kind of insecurity or instability that happen in Africa lend themselves very well to America's weapons of war," Oloo told DW.

He said such conflict raised questions as to whether the US needs to sell more guns or do more in its support of anti-terrorism: "It reinforces their need to do more to support governments to be stable and work around democratic strengthening."

TPLF fighters have been battling Ethiopian troops backed by Eritrean and regional militia groups for more than a year.

According to the UN, the violence has killed thousands and triggered a humanitarian crisis affecting more than 5 million people.

People walk past a military tank.
The US has called on Ethiopia's warring sides to end hostilities and allow humanitarian aid Image: Eduardo Soteras/AFP

Plea to end hostilities

"I reiterate our call to all parties to urgently and seriously engage in negotiation on cessation of hostilities without preconditions," Blinken told reporters in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

"I underscore the need for immediate, unhindered humanitarian access to northern Ethiopia and in support of all Ethiopians in need," he added.

According to the US top envoy, Ethiopia's warring parties cannot resolve the crisis militarily. "Every party has to recognize that and act accordingly," the 59-year-old diplomat said, adding that the US had deep concerns about the atrocities committed in Ethiopia.

The United Nations and Ethiopia's Human Rights Commission recently released a report blaming both federal troops and TPLF fighters for human rights violations against civilians.