Trade and Conflict Resolution on Agenda of John Kerry Visit to Africa

Published: April 30, 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry will focus on human rights, crisis aid and economic cooperation on his six-day trip to three African countries.

By Philipp Sandner


It was like a slap in the face for the US administration when, just days before the visit to Ethiopia by Secretary of State John Kerry, Ethiopian police arrested six bloggers and three journalists. The reaction from Kerry’s press spokesperson Jen Psaki was swift.

“We urge the government of Ethiopia to expeditiously review the cases of these detainees and promptly release them. We have raised these concerns on the ground directly with the government of Ethiopia. And we, of course, reiterate our longstanding concern about the abridgment of the freedom of press and the freedom of expression in Ethiopia, and urge the government of Ethiopia to fully adhere to its constitutional guarantees,” Psaki said.

It is a regular occurrence for the US to criticize human rights violations in the authoritarian state. Kerry is certainly going to raise the topic during his visit. However, it is not his main reason for going to Ethiopia.

For the US, Ethiopia is an important partner in the battle against the numerous crises in neighboring countries like Somalia and South Sudan, says Alex Vines from London-based think tank Chatham House. Historically, it’s a strong relationship, Vines told DW. “The US has invested heavily in terms of international development, but also in capacity building and institution building in Ethiopia.”

A demonstration against Ethiopia's authoritarian government
A demonstration against Ethiopia’s authoritarian government

Possible stopover in South Sudan

The ongoing conflict between the government and rebels in South Sudan is also on Kerry’s agenda. He has indicated that he may make a brief stopover there. Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa was the venue for so far unsuccessful peace talks held under the auspices of IGAD, the regional alliance on the Horn of Africa. Observers believe Kerry wants to kick start a new round of talks.

Vines points out that the US played a major role in bringing about the 2011 referendum in which the people of South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence.

For Kenyan observer Barack Muluku, Kerry’s trip to Africa underlines the growing rivalry between the west and burgeoning economic powers like China and Brazil who are also expanding their cooperation with Africa. “The influence of western states and America on Africa is decreasing,” he told DW.

The US and other western countries generally become involved when their own interests are concerned, Muluku said, quoting the examples of South Sudan and Angola, two countries with large oil reserves. Angola will be the last stop on Kerry’s itinerary. Big US oil concerns are active there, such as Chevron which last year joined a major oil extraction project off the Angolan coast.

Angola has rich oil reserves
Angola has rich oil reserves

Chatham House’s Vines also believes economic interests come indeed into play, but says there is more to it. “The visits to Angola and the DRC are about Eastern Congo and about conflict resolution there. Kerry is visiting Angola in particular to congratulate the Angolan President Jose Edouardo dos Santos on his role as acting president of the Intergovernmental Conference for the Great Lakes and the positive role that the Angolans have been playing in trying to push for solutions to the variety of crises that remain in Eastern Congo.”

In short, there will be some praise and many sensitive questions to be raised during the Secretary of State’s six-day trip.


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