Can the US’s New Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Set a New Policy Direction?

Can the US’s New Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Set a New Policy Direction?

The US’s Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, returned from his first visit to the region recently. The newly created post which brought Feltman, a veteran of the UN and the State Department, out of semi-retirement, shows the strategic importance of the region to Biden’s foreign policy priorities and his desire to mark a clear break with the Trump era. What is less clear is whether Biden represents a policy shift from longer term American approaches to conflict and security in Africa.

Overlapping Crises

A series of overlapping crises have been brewing in the Horn of Africa over recent years. Most dramatically the escalation of violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region following the Prime Minister’s Abiy Ahmed’s military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has drawn international attention. Meanwhile, tensions continue to build over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which Egypt and Sudan claim will cut off vital water supplies. Sudan faces its own domestic challenges as it seeks to secure a democratic transition and stabilise its economy in the wake of the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. In an indication of the Biden administration’s concern about mounting security threats in the region, the US State Department announced the appointment of Jeffrey Feltman to the newly created role of Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa last month. 

“File:Horn of Africa map.png” by copyright Z Fre is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Map showing the six countries making up the Greater Horn of Africa

Ahead of his first visit to the region last week, Feltman himself acknowledged the complexity of his brief whilst highlighting that stability in the Horn of Africa is an “extremely important strategically for the U.S., for our allies, for the region”. More tellingly, we warned that “if the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison”. The comment highlights not only the scale of the current crisis in Ethiopia, which has seen 1 million people displaced and 56,000 refugees cross the border to Sudan, but also real concern that the conflict could become entrenched and pose a long-term threat to global peace and security.

A Break with the Trump Approach

Since taking office, President Biden has been keen to demonstrate a change of tone in America’s relations with African nations. He used his address at the 34th African Union Summit to highlight the US’s reengagement with international institutions and commitment to “sustained diplomacy in connection with the AU to address conflicts that are costing lives”. This marks a notable break with the Trump administration’s preference for bilateral engagements and tendency to rouse tensions. The previous President had infamously referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and inflamed tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa by declaring that Egypt planned to “blow up” the contested Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Feltman’s appointment is intended to signal a move away from this approach. Previously Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the UN, he is an outspoken supporter of multilateralism. In one of his first interviews after leaving the UN, he acknowledged that advocates of an international rules-based system should not be complacent. In a break from the Trump administration’s strategy, Feltman has used his visit to the Continent to call for renewed negotiations between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum under the leadership of the African Union. Washington has also been forceful in its condemnation of the violence in Ethiopia with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken referring to human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray region as “ethnic cleansing”.

Changing Contexts 

However, while there is a clear desire to reassert the US’s moral leadership and re-position the country as a champion of multilateral institutions, it is not yet clear whether Biden intends to make a break with deeper trends driving American foreign policy in Africa over the last twenty years. Despite changes in administrations, since the 1998 terrorist attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, successive US Presidents have adopted a counter-terrorism lens to engagement with Africa. Alongside security engagements, each administration has implemented standalone flagship programmes to highlight their development credentials; for Bush, it was the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Obama had Power Africa and Donald Trump launched the Prosper Africa initiative. To critics, these approaches have neglected to take a holistic approach, underprioritising economic development and support for civil society groups in democratisation efforts.

In addition to this historical baggage, the American mission to the Horn of Africa will also come up against new actors in the region. Feltman’s European counterpart, Alexander Rondos, has highlighted the increasing commercial and political presence of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This trend is likely to continue following the reconciliation of the Gulf States through the Abraham Accords. Meanwhile, China has gained a military presence through its base in Djibouti, not far from the American base which forms a focal point of counter-terrorism in the region. “Anyone in the West who thinks we are the only players there,” Rondos concluded, “had better wake up and understand there are all sorts of other players in the Horn, who are there to stay.”

A New Diplomacy in Africa?

Feltman clearly intends to mark a clear break with the Trump administration’s approach to diplomacy in the Horn of Africa. However, it is too early to say whether he will usher in a new era for American engagement in the region or indeed whether previous roadmaps will prove valuable going forward. The new administration could present an opportunity for Washington to adopt a different approach in its relations with African states. Amidst concerns about democratic backsliding in the region, support for civil society groups and democratic processes from the US could prove instrumental. Early signs from Feltman’s visit are positive with efforts to highlight the value of the African Union in the GERD dispute, the moral imperative to end conflict in Ethiopia and the importance of Sudan’s democratic transition. Nonetheless, given the failure of successive actors to make progress on the key conflicts in the region, Feltman’s warning of a new Syria should be taken seriously. 

Categories: Africa, Security

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