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Blinken to visit Ethiopia, Niger as US boosts Africa push

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards his plane at New Delhi Airport to depart for Washington, D.C. from New Delhi, India, Friday, March 3, 2023. (Olivier Douliery/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Ethiopia and Niger next week as the Biden administration accelerates a push to engage with Africa to counter China’s growing influence on the continent, the State Department said Friday.

Blinken will visit Addis Ababa and Niamey starting Tuesday to discuss the peace deal that ended hostilities in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and counter-terrorism efforts aimed at Islamic extremists in Niger and the Sahel more broadly.

His trip will be the fourth high-profile visit to Africa this year by top members of the Biden administration. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and first lady Jill Biden have already gone there.

Blinken plans to meet with both Ethiopian and Tigrayan officials in Addis Ababa and will be the first secretary of state ever to visit Niger, which has hosted U.S. military operations targeting Islamic State affiliates in the area.

In discussions with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan officials, the State Department said Blinken would focus on “implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement to advance peace and promote transitional justice in northern Ethiopia.”

The Tigray conflict led the U.S. to suspend some preferential trade agreements with Ethiopia, which the country is eager to have restored. But the top U.S. diplomat for Africa said Friday that a full normalization of relations will depend on more action from Addis Ababa, particularly after the “earth-shattering” Tigray conflict.

“What we're looking to do is refashion our engagement with Ethiopia,” said Molly Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “We would like to be able to have a partnership that is commensurate with their size and influence and with our interest and commitment to Africa."

“But to put that relationship in a forward trajectory we will continue to need steps by Ethiopia to help break the cycle of ethnic/political violence that has set the country back for so many decades," she said.

The conflict in Tigray erupted a year after Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with longtime rival Eritrea. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments saw the Tigray regional leaders, who had long dominated Ethiopia’s government before Abiy took office, as a common threat.

An estimated 500,000 civilians were killed in the two-year conflict that ended with a peace agreement signed in South Africa in November. U.S. officials mediated in that deal.

The conflict cut off the Tigray region of more than 5 million people, with humanitarian aid often blocked and basic services severed while health workers pleaded for the simplest of medical supplies.

In a meeting with the Addis Ababa-based African Union Commission chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, Blinken will also try to blunt both Chinese and Russian attempts to win support from African nations over Russia’s war with Ukraine; a topic that has raised considerable concerns amongst formerly colonized states.