WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken departed early Tuesday for a five-day swing to Africa, where he will lend support for democratic principles and seek to advance diplomacy aimed at preventing Ethiopia from descending into a catastrophic civil war.
Mr. Blinken plans to begin his trip with a stop in Kenya, which borders Ethiopia and which has played a key role in diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution to a conflict between the country’s central government and rebels in its northern Tigray region.
The conflict in Africa’s second most populous country has already featured numerous alleged atrocities, including rape, executions and looting. The fighting threatens the stability not only of a key U.S. partner on the continent but all of East Africa, experts say.
“I hate to be alarmist, but all the warning signs are flashing red in Ethiopia right now, and we’re not using all the tools at our disposal,” said Cameron Hudson, a director of African affairs at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
“This is Rwanda-esque,” added Patricia Haslach, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 2013 to 2016. Ms. Haslach stopped short of saying that genocide might be occurring in the country, but other experts have called that a realistic possibility in a conflict increasingly defined by ethnic identity. The Clinton administration’s failure to intervene and potentially prevent the massacre of as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 has haunted former U.S. officials for decades.
Ms. Haslach said her immediate concern was the prospect of mass starvation in Tigray, where Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been choking off food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies to millions of people.
Some critics say the Biden administration has been inattentive to Africa, a common complaint about U.S. foreign policy but one that has gained more currency as China, America’s top strategic competitor, plants deeper political and economic roots on the continent and anti-American jihadist groups continue to thrive there. Mr. Blinken had planned to visit Africa in late summer, but postponed the trip after the sudden Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August.
The Biden administration has not articulated its vision for the continent, something Mr. Blinken was to address during a stop in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, where he planned to deliver a speech on the United States’ Africa policy. He plans to conclude his trip with a visit to the Senegalese capital of Dakar.
American officials are concerned by democratic backsliding across Africa, which has seen a wave of military coups in recent months — notably including in Sudan, where a coup last month squashed a democratic transition that followed the 2019 ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic ruler, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Experts say the four successful military coups in Africa this year — also in Guinea, Chad and Mali — are the highest number in more than 40 years.
Democracy will be a central theme of Mr. Blinken’s visit to Nigeria, whose government Mr. Biden has condemned for endemic corruption and for violently cracking down on demonstrators seeking more civil-society freedoms.
Sudan’s coup also exposed the limits of American diplomacy on the continent. It came hours after a visit to the country by the special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who departed believing that a mediated political settlement was within reach.
Mr. Hudson said the Biden administration had struggled to respond to the crises in Sudan and Ethiopia, and called for more aggressive U.S. action.
“They are a little bit on their heels, I think,” he said, adding that the descent of Ethiopia into chaos would be “a huge strategic setback for this administration.”
The fighting in Ethiopia began a year ago, after Mr. Abiy kicked off a military campaign in the rebellious Tigray region. Tigrayan fighters soon seized the advantage and have been advancing toward the capital, Addis Ababa, a city of five million people. The State Department has repeatedly urged Americans in the country to leave immediately.
“I am very concerned about the potential for Ethiopia to implode given what we are seeing both in Tigray, but also as we have different forces and different ethnic groups that are increasingly at odds,” Mr. Blinken told reporters last week, saying that outcome “would be disastrous for the Ethiopian people and also for countries in the region.”
Mr. Blinken called for a cease-fire, the free movement of humanitarian assistance and a negotiated political settlement.
Leading the State Department’s efforts to date has been Mr. Feltman, who visited the Ethiopian capital and the Kenyan capital of Nairobi last week.
Ms. Haslach called Mr. Blinken’s trip to the region important, but warned that “we cannot do this on our own.” She said a diplomatic solution would require help from Ethiopia’s neighbors and the African Union, whose headquarters are in Addis Ababa.
Mr. Hudson was skeptical that the African Union, which he said often sides with the continent’s rulers, was in a position to force Mr. Abiy into real concessions. He said the United States must consider additional unilateral steps, including a possible embargo on arms he said were being shipped to the government by the United Arab Emirates.
Complicating matters, some members of Mr. Abiy’s government have accused the United States of trying to topple him and install a government led by Tigrayan officials, Mr. Feltman said in remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace this month. He called those claims false.
Mr. Feltman also warned of studies showing that “the average modern civil war now lasts 20 years. I repeat: 20 years.”
Others have called for even more dramatic American action to prevent such an outcome. In an opinion essay published by Bloomberg last week, James G. Stavridis, a retired four-star Navy admiral, recommended that the United States consider sending troops to Ethiopia as part of a United Nations-led peacekeeping force.
He, too, invoked the Rwandan genocide, adding that Ethiopia “is far larger and more geopolitically important than Rwanda.”
A spokesman for the National Security Council said the United States was pursuing a diplomatic solution and not considering the deployment of military forces to Ethiopia.