Blinken warns on democracy at start of Africa tour

Nairobi (AFP) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday urged Africans to watch out for rising threats to democracy as he began a three-nation tour of the continent that is also expected to focus on regional crises, especially Ethiopia's year-long war.


Before meeting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Blinken held talks with civil society leaders and asked for ideas on how to stop the "bad actors" who test democratic institutions.

"We have seen over the last decade or so what some call a democratic recession," he said.

"Even vibrant democracies like Kenya experience pressure, especially around election time.

"We have seen the same challenges here than we see in many parts of the world -- misinformation, political violence, voter intimidation, voter bribery."

Blinken is focusing his trip on promoting democracy and action on climate change and supporting African efforts to fight Covid-19 in the face of growing inroads in the continent by China.

The visit will also focus on efforts to resolve Ethiopia's spiralling conflict, with Kenyatta making a surprise visit to the country on Sunday and Washington backing the African Union's renewed bid to end the war.

Ethiopia has been a close US ally but the United States has been dismayed by curbs on aid delivery into the northern Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands of people face famine-like conditions.

Echoing frequent themes of President Joe Biden's administration, Blinken warned of threats against the free press and of corruption, which he said "chips away" at democracy.

Blinken acknowledged that threats to democracy also existed in the United States, where a mob loyal to former president Donald Trump attacked the US Capitol on January 6 in a bid to overturn the election result.

"The United States is hardly immune from this challenge," Blinken said. "We've seen how fragile our own democracy can be."

'Free pass' for Kenya?

Kenyatta was the first African leader invited to the White House by Biden.

Kenya's last election in 2017 was marred by deadly violence, although Kenyatta and his former opponent Raila Odinga have since made peace.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has emerged as a key US ally, addresses the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on November 1, 2021
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has emerged as a key US ally, addresses the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on November 1, 2021 YVES HERMAN POOL/AFP/File

However, Amnesty International warned that the signs were not good for the country's next election.

The NGO's Kenya chief Irungu Houghton, who met Blinken, said he saw "all the signs of a very contested and violent election" next year and urged Kenyatta not to "weaponise" the police, judiciary and other institutions.

Houghton praised Blinken's focus on democracy but said Washington's desire for Kenyatta's leadership on the Ethiopia crisis should not make him immune to criticism.

"It's really important that America continues to be vigilant, to be attentive and engaged, and not give Kenya a free pass," Houghton said after the Blinken meeting.

Biden has vowed to pay attention to Africa and draw a distinction with Trump, who made no secret of his lack of interest.

Biden has promised a global effort to promote US values in the face of a rising China, which has pursued resources in Africa and makes no fuss about democracy.

In symbolic signs of the challenges, Blinken's motorcade travelled near a road being built with Chinese funding and one of his meetings was at a hotel with a conference room reserved for the Kenya China Chamber of Commerce.

Blinken will travel from Kenya to Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, which has faced US criticism on human rights including in the police response to mass demonstrations a year ago.

He will end his trip in Senegal, seen as a beacon of democratic stability in Africa.