Biden Eyes Former Top U.N. Official for Horn of Africa Envoy

Washington wants a seasoned point person for the brewing crises in East Africa.

Jeffrey Feltman speaks at the United Nations.
Jeffrey Feltman, then the United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs, speaks at the United Nations in New York on Feb. 28, 2014. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Biden administration is expected to tap a former senior United Nations official and seasoned U.S. diplomat to be special envoy for the Horn of Africa, a new position aimed at tackling the unraveling crisis in Ethiopia and instability in the broader region.

Jeffrey Feltman, the former top political advisor to the U.N. secretary-general, has been offered the newly created post, according to several people familiar with the matter, though they cautioned that the appointment hasn’t been finalized.

If appointed, Feltman would become U.S. President Joe Biden’s top diplomatic troubleshooter for a region wracked by conflict and violence in the wake of a brewing civil war in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s military campaign in the country’s northern Tigray region has been marked by widespread reports of atrocities and massacres along ethnic lines, and it threatens to escalate beyond Ethiopia’s borders and spiral into a full-scale regional crisis.

The crisis marks a key early foreign-policy test for the new Biden administration, which has ramped up pressure on the Ethiopian government to end the conflict in Tigray and extended a pause in U.S. funding for most security assistance programs to the East African country.

Biden dispatched a close ally on Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, to Ethiopia over the weekend to convey U.S. concerns about the crisis to senior Ethiopian and African Union leaders.

Ethiopia has rejected U.S. allegations of ethnically motivated massacres in Tigray, which followed the federal government’s military campaign launched in November 2020 to oust the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Human rights group Amnesty International released an investigation last month that concluded troops from neighboring Eritrea were responsible for the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in Tigray after the conflict started, findings that sparked widespread international condemnation. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have denied that Eritrean troops are fighting in Tigray despite widespread eyewitness accounts undermining their claims.

The Ethiopian government called the meetings with Coons “constructive,” though senior Ethiopian officials have sought to downplay U.S. criticism of the conflict, portraying it as confusion on Washington’s part. Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen briefed Coons “on the real situation in Tigray so as to shed light on the confusions that the US Government previously had about the military operation in the region,” according to Ethiopian government media—though it did not elaborate on what that confusion was.

The Biden administration and Coons have yet to issue statements on the senator’s meetings in Addis Ababa.

Along with Ethiopia, the new envoy could be tasked with crafting U.S. policies on other crises in the region, including terrorism threats in Somalia, Sudan’s tenuous transition to democracy, and a humanitarian crisis and conflict in South Sudan.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment directly on the Horn of Africa special envoy appointment but said Africa is a “priority” for the Biden administration. “Our consistent senior-level engagement—including on security, global health, climate change, freedom and democracy, and shared prosperity—demonstrates our commitment, and that certainly applies to the Horn of Africa,” the spokesman said.

Feltman also declined to comment.

A special envoy for the Horn of Africa could fill a leadership void in the Biden administration as it works to staff up the State Department—a process that officials say are slowed by bureaucratic backlogs and bottlenecks. Biden also has yet to name a nominee for the top envoy position on Africa, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, which would require Senate confirmation.

“There are multiple crises unfolding simultaneously across the region that are crying out for international engagement and high level U.S. leadership,” said Cameron Hudson, an expert on East Africa with the Atlantic Council who previously worked at the State Department and CIA. “With several key positions still vacant at State, this appointment could not wait for Senate confirmed officials to be in place before the U.S. got involved diplomatically.”

Feltman, currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, was the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs from 2012 to 2018, an influential post where he served as top foreign-policy advisor to U.N. Secretaries-General Ban Ki-moon and António Guterres. Prior to joining the United Nations, he worked at the State Department for nearly three decades as a career foreign service officer, serving in a variety of posts across the Middle East and North Africa. He was ambassador to Lebanon under President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2008, and the State Department’s top Middle East envoy from 2009 to 2012 under President Barack Obama.

There are ongoing debates within the Biden administration over what countries the new Horn of Africa special envoy post should cover, officials familiar with the matter said, and how it will fit in with a constellation of other potential special envoys whom the United States often dispatches to address foreign-policy crises in Africa.

While Ethiopia will be a top focus, the United States is also grappling with how to address instability and conflict in South Sudan; Somalia, the focal point of counterterrorism operations against the terrorist group al-Shabab; and a fragile democratic transition in Sudan after a revolution overturned three decades of autocratic rule. A simmering diplomatic feud among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over a major Ethiopian dam project on the Nile River has further inflamed regional tensions.

“Ethiopia is at the center of everything that is unfolding across the region,” Hudson said. “All roads lead to Addis, but it will take considerable shuttle diplomacy around the region and to foreign backers across the Red Sea to stitch together a comprehensive international response.”

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

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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