Biden Meets With Kenya’s President Amid Crisis in Ethiopia

Biden Meets With Kenyas President Amid Crisis in Ethiopia

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday announced the donation of millions of coronavirus vaccines to a group of African countries during a meeting with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, which is contending with the pandemic and an unfolding humanitarian disaster in neighboring Ethiopia.

The Biden administration’s donation of 17 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the African Union came a month after Mr. Kenyatta publicly pleaded for more equitable vaccine distribution around the world. At a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Kenyan president criticized the “asymmetry” of the vaccine supply, a clear reference to countries such as the United States that are administering booster shots instead of donating more vaccines to nations in need.

During Mr. Biden’s first in-person meeting at the White House with a leader of an African country, Mr. Kenyatta thanked him for the donation while also suggesting it was not enough.

“As a continent, we are lagging well behind the rest of the world in terms of being able to vaccinate our people,” Mr. Kenyatta said.

Mr. Biden committed to sending more vaccines to Kenya by the end of the year.

“We’re continuing our shared fight against Covid,” he said before reporters were ushered out of the Oval Office. “We’re going to discuss what more the United States can do together on the Horn of Africa to advance peace and security.”

The meeting came at a crucial time for Kenya, which is contending with a simmering feud with Somalia over its maritime border, a fragile peace in South Sudan and the diplomatic challenge of staving off an accelerating civil war and famine in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.

In Mr. Kenyatta, the current president of the United Nations Security Council, the Biden administration sees a partner in the efforts to curb the continuing violence in Ethiopia, as well as threats from Al Shabab in Somalia.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Kenyatta were expected to discuss the situation in the Tigray region, where some fighters have been accused of atrocities against civilians, including sexual violence, massacres and ethnic cleansing. Last month, Ethiopia expelled several top U.N. officials amid accusations that the country was blocking aid deliveries to the region, even as at least five million people there are in need of help during a catastrophic famine.

The decision to expel the U.N. officials was also seen as a rebuke to Mr. Biden, who threatened last month to issue sweeping sanctions against the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, as well as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Amhara regional government, to stop the escalating violence. But the administration has yet to carry out the financial penalties against a strategic ally.

It remains unclear to what extent the United States, either directly or through Kenya, will work to prevent the widespread sexual violence in the civil war or assist the hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans living in famine-like conditions. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, did not provide an updated timeline for the sanctions when asked on Thursday.

“Obviously, what’s happening in Ethiopia — it’s an atrocity,” she said. “It’s horrific.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Kenyatta also spoke about the economy, climate change and “strengthening the financial transparency,” Mr. Biden said at the start of their discussion.

“You’ve spoken to that, Mr. President,” he told Mr. Kenyatta. “I want to talk to you about that.”

The discussion about finances was most likely tense after the release this month of the Pandora Papers report, a collaboration by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and news media partners that included The Washington Post and The Guardian, that exposed information on how the offshore financial services industry helped the wealthy hide their assets. Mr. Kenyatta, who campaigned on pledges to curtail corruption, was among the more than 330 current and former politicians included in the report as benefiting from offshore businesses and foundations managing his assets.

Ms. Psaki had previously described Mr. Biden’s meeting with Mr. Kenyatta as necessary, adding that she did not think the president would “hold back.”

“We have a range of interests in working with Kenya, and working with them on issues in Africa, in the region, and that will be the primary focus of the meeting,” she said.

For Mr. Kenyatta, the meeting was an opportunity to bolster the relationship with the United States as his country suffers from the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kenya has also plunged into deep debt after borrowing heavily from China to pursue large infrastructure projects. Mr. Biden has tried to make countering China’s rising economic influence a focus of his national security strategy.

Tensions are rising between Kenya and another neighbor, Somalia, after the United Nations’ top court sided with Somalia in a dispute over how to demarcate an area in the Indian Ocean thought to be rich in oil and gas. The decision deepened uncertainty in the Horn of Africa.

“Kenya’s neighborhood is getting tougher and tougher,” said Michelle D. Gavin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Botswana. “It needs to be able to not only weather the storm in terms of its own security issues, but to be a kind of regional leader.”

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