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New NSC Hire to Jump-Start Biden’s Africa Strategy

A former top U.S. intelligence official is joining the White House to help craft a new Africa strategy.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden talks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
U.S. President Joe Biden talks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, the United Kingdom, on June 12. Leon Neal/Getty Images

A former senior intelligence official is joining U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Security Council (NSC) to craft a new U.S. strategy for Africa, current and former officials confirmed to Foreign Policy.

Judd Devermont, a former senior CIA official and national intelligence officer for Africa, is joining the NSC as the special advisor for Africa strategy, where he will help Biden’s national security team—including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the top NSC official for African affairs, Dana Banks—devise a fresh strategy for U.S. engagement with Africa. The new approach, which officials said will likely be unveiled in the next four to six months, is aimed at weaving together Biden’s priorities on democracy and human rights, counterterrorism objectives, and countering Russia and China’s growing influence on the continent. Devermont’s posting to the NSC is expected to last that same amount of time and focus on formulating and drafting the new strategy, a senior administration official said.

Biden’s strategy for Africa could mark a stark shift in tone from the Trump administration’s Africa strategy, which centered on countering China’s inroads into the continent and was punctuated by the former president’s threats to curb large swathes of U.S. funding for aid programs and U.N. peacekeeping operations across the continent.

A former senior intelligence official is joining U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Security Council (NSC) to craft a new U.S. strategy for Africa, current and former officials confirmed to Foreign Policy.

Judd Devermont, a former senior CIA official and national intelligence officer for Africa, is joining the NSC as the special advisor for Africa strategy, where he will help Biden’s national security team—including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the top NSC official for African affairs, Dana Banks—devise a fresh strategy for U.S. engagement with Africa. The new approach, which officials said will likely be unveiled in the next four to six months, is aimed at weaving together Biden’s priorities on democracy and human rights, counterterrorism objectives, and countering Russia and China’s growing influence on the continent. Devermont’s posting to the NSC is expected to last that same amount of time and focus on formulating and drafting the new strategy, a senior administration official said.

Biden’s strategy for Africa could mark a stark shift in tone from the Trump administration’s Africa strategy, which centered on countering China’s inroads into the continent and was punctuated by the former president’s threats to curb large swathes of U.S. funding for aid programs and U.N. peacekeeping operations across the continent.

Africa is slated to lead the world in population growth in the coming century and has some of the world’s fastest growing economies, even as it grapples with trends of democratic backsliding, growing terrorism threats, and some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and chronic instability in countries like Somalia and South Sudan. Yet even as U.S. policymakers ring alarm bells about these challenges and China’s growing influence across the continent, it gets relatively little attention in Washington compared to the Middle East or Indo-Pacific region—factors that give new urgency to administration officials hoping to craft and implement a new U.S. strategy on Africa.

Biden’s focus on democracy promotion abroad has already faced fresh challenges in sub-Saharan Africa, including a slate of coups in West Africa among countries that are key U.S. counterterrorism partners. Top Biden administration officials have faced criticism for tamping down their critiques of autocratic regimes in the region to focus on counterterrorism partnerships.

Devermont, who most recently served as director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank, has argued the United States should not overlook democracy promotion in favor of security assistance to African governments that cooperate on counterterrorism.

“It will require significant divestment from traditional counterterrorism and security-focused policies and programs—which have had minimal success in the Sahel during the past two decades—and renewed investments in democratic institutions,” he wrote in one CSIS report in June on West Africa and the Sahel region.

Devermont previously served as the national intelligence officer for Africa from 2015 to 2018 and as the CIA’s top political analyst on sub-Saharan Africa from 2013 to 2015. He also served on the NSC during the Obama administration and contributed to then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. Devermont declined to comment.

Much of the Biden administration’s focus on Africa so far has been on the conflict and ensuing humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and on Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy, several U.S. officials said. Biden’s top official running foreign aid programs, U.S. Agency for International Development chief Samantha Power, visited both countries in August.

Beyond that, however, neither Biden nor any other top administration officials have yet to visit Africa after nearly a year in office. (U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a last-minute trip to several countries in Africa in August to focus on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.)

Biden also did not meet with almost any of the dozens of top African leaders who traveled to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly last month. Blinken met with only one, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi, though the president and his team sought to limit their in-person engagements at the U.N. summit due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s pick to be his administration’s top diplomat for Africa, career diplomat Molly Phee, was finally confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 28 after a nearly six-month delay. Several U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity said they hoped Phee’s confirmation as assistant secretary of state for African affairs and Devermont’s appointment to the NSC will increase the administration’s high-level focus on Africa.

FP reporter Amy MacKinnon contributed to this report.

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

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