WASHINGTON — President Biden will meet with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on Thursday amid an unfolding humanitarian disaster in neighboring Ethiopia that has prompted calls for the United States to put more resources toward the East African region.
Mr. Biden’s first in-person meeting at the White House as president with the leader of an African nation comes during 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 northern Ethiopia.
The two presidents are expected to discuss the situation in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, where some fighters have been accused of atrocities against civilians, including sexual violence, massacres and ethnic cleansing. Last month, Ethiopia expelled several senior United Nations officials amid accusations that Ethiopian officials were 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 United Nations officials was also seen as a rebuke to Mr. Biden, who last month threatened to issue sweeping sanctions against both 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 the strategic ally.
In Mr. Kenyatta, the current president of the United Nations Security Council, the Biden administration sees a partner in the efforts to curb the ongoing violence.
“It has the potential to be a very crowded agenda because there are so many important regional issues to address,” said Michelle D. Gavin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Botswana. “Kenya’s neighborhood is getting tougher and tougher, and 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.”
Mr. Biden and Mr. Kenyatta are also expected to discuss the economy, climate change “and the need to bring transparency and accountability to domestic and international financial systems,” according to a statement from the White House this week.
The discussion about finances could prove to be tense after the release this month of the Pandora Papers report, a collaboration by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 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.
“The president has a range of meetings diplomatically with leaders where he has shared interests of the United States and their country, and may also have areas where there’s disagreement,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday, adding that she did not think he 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,” Ms. Psaki said.
For Mr. Kenyatta, the meeting will serve as an opportunity to bolster the relationship with the United States as his nation 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 the rising economic influence of China 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 over a dispute over how to demarcate a disputed area in the Indian Ocean thought to be rich in oil and gas, a decision that has deepened uncertainty in the Horn of Africa.