The Biden administration is weighing plans to establish a new special envoy for the Horn of Africa to address political instability and conflict in the East African region, including a brewing civil war and humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia, current and former officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
The new special envoy post could fill a diplomatic leadership gap in the administration’s foreign-policy ranks as it works to install other senior officials in the State Department, a process that could take weeks or even months to complete, as they require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Special envoy posts do not require Senate confirmation.
A new Horn of Africa envoy would have their work cut out for them: Sudan is undergoing a delicate political transition after three decades under a dictatorship, South Sudan is wracked by chronic instability and corruption, and the fragile government of Somalia is grappling with ongoing threats from the al-Shabab terrorist group and political gridlock that has delayed national elections. An ongoing dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over a major dam project adds another layer of complexity to the tensions in the region.
The most pressing crisis in the eyes of many U.S. policymakers, however, is in Ethiopia. In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the ruling party in the country’s northern Tigray region, after accusing it of attacking a government military base. Conflict has ravaged the region since then, marked by thousands of deaths, millions in need of humanitarian assistance, and widespread reports of interethnic violence. U.S. officials fear that the conflict could turn into a full-blown regional crisis, with turmoil spilling over into neighboring Eritrea and Sudan.
While officials cautioned no final decision has yet been made, one top contender for the potential job is Donald Booth, a seasoned diplomatic troubleshooter in the region who currently serves as U.S. special envoy for Sudan and has previously served as U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Zambia, and Ethiopia.
Some experts welcomed more attention to the Horn of Africa but cautioned against the new administration relying too heavily on special envoy posts. “I don’t want us to get back into the practice of throwing special envoys at every problem set. It often saps the State Department’s resources and authorities in ways that aren’t productive,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, and a former senior U.S. intelligence analyst. “But in this case, it is urgent, and there aren’t enough senior people in the region.”
With less than a month in office, President Joe Biden doesn’t yet have his full cabinet in place, let alone many senior posts across the State Department that require Senate confirmation. Biden has yet to name a nominee for the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and the U.S. ambassador posts in Eritrea and Sudan are unfilled, held in an acting capacity by lower-ranking diplomats. The next U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Geeta Pasi, is expected to arrive at her post shortly.
A State Department spokesperson did not confirm the administration was set on creating the new special envoy post when asked for comment. “Africa is a priority for the Biden-Harris administration, and we are committed to re-invigorating our relationships throughout Africa from a position of mutual respect and partnership. This includes deepening our engagement on the challenging issues present in the Horn of Africa,” the spokesperson said. “Senior-level engagement on a consistent basis will be a signal of our commitment. The Administration is actively considering a range of options to ensure that our staffing, including any use of Special Envoys, supports implementation of our strategy.”
One big question would be whether the new special envoy post would report directly to the president or secretary of state, or to the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. The former would be viewed as more empowered to negotiate on behalf of Washington, with a direct line to the president or his cabinet.
Some administration insiders have also floated the idea of tapping a former senior U.S. lawmaker for the job, arguing someone with political clout could engage directly with senior African leaders, including Ethiopia’s Abiy. (Biden has eyed former Republican Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake for a senior diplomatic post, such as an ambassadorship in South Africa or Europe, according to Axios.)
There is precedent for such a move from the Obama administration: Former Secretary of State John Kerry tapped Russ Feingold, a former U.S. senator from Wisconsin, to serve as special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa in 2013. Feingold was widely credited with helping broker a peace deal between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and M23 rebels in 2013.