U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration faces waves of criticism for not properly staffing the State Department, where dozens of senior posts sit empty.
But as Rex Tillerson departs for his first trip to Africa as secretary of state, Trump is eyeing appointing a retired career diplomat to be next assistant secretary of state for African affairs, four sources close to the administration and former State Department officials tell Foreign Policy.
Tibor Nagy, a retired foreign service officer with over three decades of experience, is expected to be nominated as assistant secretary of state for African affairs as soon as this month, sources say. It could give extra umph to the State Department’s role on the continent, which critics say is waning with an absence of senior appointees and ambassadorships, all while the U.S. military’s footprint is rapidly expanding to confront growing terrorism threats.
The news comes as Tillerson visits Africa for a weeklong tour of the continent, months after Trump triggered diplomatic uproar for reportedly calling African nations “shithole countries.”
Former officials say Nagy, if nominated and confirmed, could send a much-needed signal that the State Department under Trump values veteran career diplomats. Nagy, whose family came to the United States from Hungary as political refugees in 1957, joined the foreign service in 1978. He spent over two decades in Africa as a foreign service officer, including stints as ambassador to Guinea from 1996 to 1999 and Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002.
After leaving the foreign service, he went back to work for his alma mater, Texas Tech University, where he recently retired as vice provost for international affairs.
“I think it’s a good signal that they’re reaching back to a former foreign service officer,” says Linda Thomas-Greenfield, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who had heard Nagy’s name floated for her old job. “I just hope they empower him to actually do the job.”
A White House spokesperson says they have no announcements on the position at this time. Nagy declined to comment when FP reached out to him.
Nagy may not have been the White House’s first choice for the job. J. Peter Pham, an academic and author currently at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, was on the shortlist to take the job. But a lone Republican senator, James Inhofe from Oklahoma, blocked his nomination over a disagreement on the status of the disputed Western Sahara region in Morocco, as FP first reported.
Donald Yamamoto, a career diplomat, is currently filling the role in an interim position.
Tillerson is slated to visit Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad, and Nigeria this week, and he is expected to focus on counterterrorism, development, and boosting trade ties with the continent as China expands its influence on the continent.
“Our country’s security and economic prosperity are linked with Africa’s like never before,” Tillerson said in a speech at George Mason University on Tuesday before he embarked on his trip. He also announced a new $533 million aid package for areas wracked by famine and conflict, including Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Lake Chad Basin region. “This will save lives,” he said.
Beyond the new pledge in aid, the trip appears to be a listening tour, senior State Department officials indicate. “There’s really no deliverables,” a senior State Department official told reporters on a call last week. “For our trip now, it’s really to underscore the commitment of the United States to Africa, but also to explore with the leadership in each of the countries about what we want to achieve at the — together as partners but also in our overall program.”
Some experts in Washington believe the trip is in part a cleanup tour for Trump’s alleged “shithole” comments in January, which incensed African leaders. “It is a good thing for the secretary of state to go to Africa, but the timing can only be read as a reaction to President Trump’s horrible insult to the entire continent,” says Reuben Brigety, dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and former U.S. ambassador the African Union under President Barack Obama.
If Nagy’s nomination is put forth, it could help Tillerson deflect growing criticism from lawmakers and former officials that he is hollowing out the State Department.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said on Monday the administration was hindering U.S. engagement in Africa with a “failure to properly staff the Africa bureau, inadequate budget requests, lack of strategic engagement with the continent, and poor interagency coordination.”
The State Department has repeatedly pushed back against these types of criticism, saying Tillerson has a cadre of talented career diplomats filling the gaps in interim roles. “We have experienced career professionals serving in key positions that are highly capable of advancing U.S interests in the African region,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert writes in a statement to FP.
The State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs “continues to develop new and creative approaches to tackle difficult challenges, and further strengthen the United States’ partnership with the region,” she adds.
In the meantime, eight African countries, including South Africa, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, still have no U.S. ambassadors in place.
Update, March 7, 2018: This article was updated to specify the timeframe of a quote from a senior State Department official.