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Pompeo to Tap New Envoy for Troubled Central African Region

Pompeo has reversed his predecessor’s policy of eliminating special envoy posts.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to press at the State Department in Washington on Oct. 23. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to press at the State Department in Washington on Oct. 23. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to announce the appointment of a new special envoy to oversee the Great Lakes region of Africa, as part of his drive to fill the U.S. State Department’s depleted ranks.

J. Peter Pham, an Africa scholar at a Washington-based think tank, is slated to be tapped for the job, two officials familiar with internal deliberations told Foreign Policy, which State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert later confirmed in a statement. He will oversee U.S. policy on a region beset by insecurity and political unrest. The area includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where President Joseph Kabila is clinging to power well beyond the country’s constitutional term limits and which is struggling with an internal rebellion, humanitarian crises, and a growing Ebola outbreak.

Pham was initially slated to be President Donald Trump’s senior-most diplomat on Africa, but a lone Republican senator threatened to block his appointment to the post of assistant secretary of state for African affairs if nominated, as FP first reported.

Republican Sen. James Inhofe held up his nomination over a disagreement between the two on issues related to the disputed Western Sahara region that Morocco claims as its own territory. Following the impasse, Trump instead tapped Tibor Nagy, a former career diplomat, to fill the assistant secretary post.

Assistant secretary of state positions require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, whereas special envoy positions do not.

The Great Lakes region includes Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, in addition to Congo. Much of the portfolio for the new envoy, officials familiar with the matter say, will focus on Congo. One of Africa’s largest and most populous countries, it is also one of the most unstable. Fighting between warring militia groups and government forces has worsened the country’s already precarious security situation while displacing more than 4 million people and leaving 7.7 million “severely food insecure,” according to the World Food Program. Congo is also grappling with a growing Ebola outbreak in its eastern provinces, which has infected 300 people so far.

Kabila, who was supposed to relinquish power in December 2016, has pledged to hold new elections next month, following pressure from the United States and the international community. Experts and international observers fear a flawed vote could stoke a new political crisis, further unraveling the country’s fragile security situation.

In September, Mike Hammer, a career diplomat, was sworn in as the new U.S. ambassador to Congo after the post sat empty for nearly two years, one of dozens of ambassador positions that the Trump administration has failed to fill. But Kabila has not yet accepted the credentials of the new ambassador, leaving Hammer stuck in diplomatic limbo and further complicating the U.S.-Congo relationship.

The State Department expects Kabila to accept his credentials soon, according to a department spokesperson, who added that “it is common for credentialing to take a few weeks.” 

Pham’s expected appointment reflects a stark departure from State Department management under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who sought to eliminate a raft of special envoy positions in his drive to reform and streamline the department. Critics of special envoy posts say they can duplicate efforts of other department bureaus, while proponents say they bring high-level attention to specific issues of priority for a U.S. administration.

Since taking over as secretary of state in April, Pompeo has appointed five new special envoys: Brian Hook to coordinate the administration’s Iran policies; Zalmay Khalilzad for Afghanistan; Stephen Biegun for North Korea; and James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn to oversee efforts on Syria.

Pham, now the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, is expected to fill the position in a part-time capacity. His position mirrors the arrangement of Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, who also retains his job as the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

Update, Nov. 9, 2018: This article was updated to include comments from State Department spokespersons. 

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

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