U.S. Troops Are on the Ground in Africa, but Diplomacy Is Missing in Action

Nikki Haley’s trip to the continent won’t solve the problem.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump attend a luncheon with African leaders in New York on Sept. 20. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump attend a luncheon with African leaders in New York on Sept. 20. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The deadly ambush of U.S. troops in Niger this month has pulled back the veil on Washington’s growing military footprint in Africa but has also underscored the lack of senior diplomats on the continent. The level of empty Africa posts this late into an administration is unprecedented, several career State Department officials with decades of experience told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

President Donald Trump has only appointed a handful of ambassadors to the continent during his nine months in office. Outside of inventing an African country, deflecting criticisms on Niger, and praising the continent for its business potential, he hasn’t said much on Africa, despite humanitarian crises, rising instability, and growing terrorism threats. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, traveled to hot spots in Africa this week, but any diplomatic momentum she generates on her trip could sputter with no envoys on the ground to see her ideas through.

Only five ambassadors have been confirmed and deployed to Africa during the Trump administration. Ten others have been nominated but are either awaiting Senate confirmation or haven’t assumed their posts, leaving many of the 54 African countries without senior U.S. representation. This includes strategically important countries like South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Trump also hasn’t appointed an assistant secretary of state for African affairs, a key position that leads U.S. diplomacy on Africa from Washington (the top pick for that post is being held up by a lone Republican senator, as FP previously reported).

The empty chairs in Washington and Africa have already set back the United States diplomatically. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson botched meetings with senior African leaders, and Chad, a key anti-terrorism partner, was thrown on the U.S. travel ban over office supply glitches — diplomatic snafus that could have been avoided with senior officials in place.

But the lack of appointees also undercuts the U.S. military’s work in Africa and could put troops’ lives at further risk, current and former diplomats say.

“The empty positions are a very serious problem,” said Princeton Lyman, a retired U.S. career diplomat with decades of experience in Africa, including as special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan and ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa. “When you have military operations going on in a country, the relationship between an ambassador and the relevant military command is absolutely critical.”

Ambassadors negotiate with host governments on the terms of American engagement, manage the fallout of U.S. military presence (often a politically touchy subject), and liaise between the military and host government on military operations. U.S. Africa Command, which oversees all U.S. military operations on the continent, is based in Germany, so it relies heavily on diplomats on the ground to facilitate its missions.

Some lower-level career officials have stepped in to fill the void in the interim as acting ambassadors, a common practice as one administration transitions to the next. But without the president’s nomination and Senate approval, they don’t have the same clout. “If you’re going to carry some tough messages and work on sensitive security matters, having a respected ambassador there matters,” said Lyman, now a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The diplomatic morass extends to the lower levels as well. The State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs faces “profound” difficulties filling all its overseas posts, according to a new inspector general report. The report found that at most, only one foreign service officer bid on 37 percent of the open slots in Africa over the summer, “leaving 143 of 385 total positions potentially unfilled.”

And some experts criticize where and how U.S. diplomats are deployed on the continent. Small countries, like Lesotho and Swaziland, could have more than a dozen foreign service officers, whereas there’s no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Nigeria north of Abuja. That means there is no one to represent U.S. interests in a region with some 90 million people — primarily Muslim — that’s the epicenter of the fight against the Boko Haram terrorist group.

Haley traveled to Congo on Thursday to wrap up her tour of the continent, which included visits to Ethiopia and South Sudan. Humanitarian organizations widely praised her sharp rebuke of South Sudanese leader Salva Kiir, as the country roils in violent conflict and famine. She’s also expected to reproach Congolese President Joseph Kabila for refusing to step down after his term ended last year.

The attention of a senior U.S. diplomat is sorely needed, but some are skeptical of what gains the United States can make in Africa following her trip with so many empty posts abroad.

“She can do a great deal on this trip,” Lyman said, “but if there’s no one there to implement her ideas, they will simply be lost in the fray.”

Correction, Oct. 27, 2017: The ambassador to Nigeria is W. Stuart Symington, who was appointed in 2016. A previous version of this article erroneously said there was no appointed ambassador to Nigeria.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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