By AAMER MADHANI and CARA ANNA
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is set to hold his first bilateral talks as president with an African leader on Thursday, hosting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as war and a humanitarian crisis roil neighboring Ethiopia, according to the White House.
The Oval Office talks come just weeks after Biden signed an executive order threatening to levy sanctions against Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other leaders involved in a conflict gripping the Tigray region if steps aren’t taken soon to wind down the 11-month-old war.
But the situation appears to have only worsened on the ground, with Tigray forces saying Ethiopia’s government has launched a long-threatened major military offensive against them in an attempt to end the war. A statement from the Tigray external affairs office earlier this week alleged that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian “regular and irregular fighters” launched a coordinated assault on several fronts.
Kenya, which shares a border with Ethiopia, has long had a strong relationship with the U.S., partnering with Washington in efforts to thwart Islamic terrorism.
Kenya is the current president of the U.N. Security Council, a post that rotates monthly, one reason why Kenyatta is in the United States. Kenya also has been relatively vocal among African nations on the war in Ethiopia.
The Biden administration is conducting an interagency review as it considers targets that might be hit by sanctions. The review is, in part, to make certain all agencies are “fully on board” with proposed targets, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.
The Biden administration has said it would move forward with sanctions quickly if there is not a dramatic shift on the ground. The United Nations has warned that hundreds of thousands are living in human-made famine-like conditions as the conflict festers.
With Ethiopia’s government rejecting international “meddling” in its affairs, recent emphasis has been placed on trying to find an African solution to the crisis that has killed thousands, some now by starvation.
The U.S. and United Nations say Ethiopian troops have prevented passage of trucks carrying food and other aid. Scores of people have starved to death, The Associated Press has reported.
In remarks to reporters at the U.N. on Tuesday, Kenyatta called on Ethiopia’s warring sides to ensure humanitarian access, impose a ceasefire and take steps toward a political solution to the conflict. Any fracturing of Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country with more than 110 million people, risks sending some people fleeing over the border into Kenya, East Africa’s economic hub.
The meeting with Kenyatta comes as the Kenyan leader has faced scrutiny over he and his family’s offshore holdings uncovered in the Pandora Papers.
Kenyatta is one of more than 330 current and former politicians identified as beneficiaries of the secret accounts unveiled in recent reporting by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The ICIJ found that as Kenyatta publicly campaigned against corruption, his family stowed away about $30 million in offshore wealth.
The Pandora Papers revelations are expected to be brought up during the Office Office meeting, the administration official said.
The Biden administration is in the midst of developing a new Africa strategy, one that officials say will look to prioritize democracy and human rights — in addition to counterterrorism concerns — as both China and Russia look to continue growing its influence on the continent.
The Senate late last month confirmed Mary Catherine “Molly” Phee, a seasoned diplomat, to serve as assistant secretary of State for African Affairs. The White House National Security Council also recently brought on Judd Devermont, a former senior CIA official and national intelligence officer for Africa, as it looks to push forward with retooling the U.S. approach to the continent.
The White House is expected to complete its review in four to six months, the administration official said.
Anna reported from Nairobi.
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