U.S. Envoy for East Africa to Call It Quits

David Satterfield is expected to leave his post after just a few months on the job, leaving a big vacuum at a bad time.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
David Satterfield speaks in Iraq.
David Satterfield speaks in Iraq.
David Satterfield, a senior U.S. State Department official, speaks in Iraq on June 10, 2008. Mohammad Jalil/AFP via Getty Images

The top U.S. diplomat for the Horn of Africa region, David Satterfield, is leaving his post after just several months on the job, current and former officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, leaving a fresh diplomatic void in a region that is confronting rising political instability, mass atrocities, and the threat of famine.

Satterfield, a veteran career diplomat who served as U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the East African region, was appointed in January to oversee U.S. efforts to address the devastating conflict in Ethiopia and respond to neighboring Sudan’s floundering efforts to transition to democracy after decades under authoritarian rule.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson did not respond to questions on on why Satterfield was leaving his post, the timeline of his departure, or who is expected to replace him. The deputy special envoy, Payton Knopf, is expected to take over his job on an interim basis in an acting capacity, two officials said.

The top U.S. diplomat for the Horn of Africa region, David Satterfield, is leaving his post after just several months on the job, current and former officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, leaving a fresh diplomatic void in a region that is confronting rising political instability, mass atrocities, and the threat of famine.

Satterfield, a veteran career diplomat who served as U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the East African region, was appointed in January to oversee U.S. efforts to address the devastating conflict in Ethiopia and respond to neighboring Sudan’s floundering efforts to transition to democracy after decades under authoritarian rule.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson did not respond to questions on on why Satterfield was leaving his post, the timeline of his departure, or who is expected to replace him. The deputy special envoy, Payton Knopf, is expected to take over his job on an interim basis in an acting capacity, two officials said.

“No transition is imminent, and Satterfield is expected to stay on in an advisory role” after he leaves his post, added another source familiar with the matter.

Satterfield, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Lebanon, shuttled between Washington and East Africa during his tenure in the job, pushing the Ethiopian government to open humanitarian access to the country’s war-torn Tigray region and broker a peace agreement between the Ethiopian government and opposing Tigrayan rebel forces.

Satterfield’s departure comes just over three months after his initial appointment as special envoy, replacing Jeffrey Feltman, a former top U.S. and U.N. diplomat who served for less than a year on the job.

Satterfield and his deputy, Knopf, are arriving in Ethiopia on Wednesday for meetings. “Their visit continues U.S. efforts towards ceasing hostilities, unhindered humanitarian access, transparent investigations into human rights abuses and violations by all actors, and a negotiated resolution to the conflict in Ethiopia,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.

Some officials at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) and State Department didn’t see Satterfield’s departure coming, according to several officials and a congressional aide familiar with the matter. The interagency seemed “taken by surprise and vexed by how to handle this,” said the Congressional aide.

Cameron Hudson, an expert on East Africa with the Atlantic Council think tank, said the possible departure of another special envoy could hamper U.S. efforts to help negotiate a stable truce in Ethiopia—and keep both Ethiopia and Sudan at the top of the agenda in a Washington otherwise consumed by the crisis in Ukraine.

“The envoy has two areas of responsibility,” Hudson said. “One in the region offering solutions, mediating, being a senior-level American presence on the ground to push the parties. But the second and equally important job in my view is to corral the interagency to drive the policy agenda in Washington.”

“That’s a big part of the job that’s going unmet” without an envoy in place, Hudson added.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government announced what it called an “indefinite humanitarian truce” late last month, offering the first glimmer of hope for an eventual end to one of Africa’s deadliest wars.

Researchers studying the conflict at Ghent University in Belgium estimated as many as 500,000 people have died from the war in Ethiopia since it began more than 16 months ago, both directly from the conflict and the ensuing humanitarian and food crisis. The truce between Ethiopian government forces and rebels from the country’s northern Tigray province appears to have held in the weeks since its announcement, but only a trickle of humanitarian aid has made its way into Tigray to help the civilians caught in the war there.

Elsewhere, U.S. officials fear that other militias allied with the Ethiopian government, including those from Ethiopia’s Amhara state, aren’t adhering to the truce. Two human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, released a new report this month detailing evidence of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against civilians in Tigray by Amhara militias, possibly with the help of Ethiopian government forces. The report also details atrocities committed by Tigrayan forces against Amharas during the conflict. The Amhara regional government rejected the allegations leveled against its forces in the report.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed out of its committee a bill late last month that mandates targeted sanctions on officials responsible for exacerbating the conflict in Ethiopia. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the committee.

“Behind the scenes, Satterfield was working almost exclusively on [Ethiopia],” the Congressional aide said. “Obviously there’s going to be some questions about how to keep that sustained engagement and pressure.”

Rumors about Satterfield’s plans to step down have been swirling in Sudanese diplomatic circles for weeks. Satterfield was scheduled to travel to Khartoum, Sudan, on March 25 to meet with key Sudanese figures but ended up canceling the trip, according to one Western diplomat familiar with the matter. Several U.S. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is growing frustration that Washington, including the outgoing special envoy, has focused too much attention on Ethiopia at the cost of helping address the political crisis in Sudan.

Sudan has been undergoing a highly delicate political transition since popular protests triggered by soaring bread prices brought about the fall of Sudan’s military dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019. That revolution paved the way for a transitional government that was led by then-Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok but dominated by the country’s military leaders. In October 2021, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a military coup, briefly placing Hamdok under house arrest and restoring military control over the government.

A renewed power-sharing agreement between Sudanese military and civilian representatives resulted in Hamdok’s brief reinstatement as prime minister in November 2021, but he subsequently resigned in early January amid rising protests over the military’s dominant role in the government.

Since then, the Sudanese military has unleashed a brutal crackdown on opposition figures and threatened to expel the head of the U.N. mission in Sudan while overseeing an economy that is spiraling deeper into crisis. Inflation has spiked to above 250 percent, and the World Food Program has warned that 40 percent of the country’s population faces severe food insecurity by the end of the year.

Update, April 13, 2022: This article was also updated to include more comments from sources, and additional details on Satterfield’s departure as well as his latest trip to Ethiopia.

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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