U.S. Embassies in Africa Are Chronically Short-Staffed

Hollowed-out posts could leave the United States playing catch up to China and Russia.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs following a speech on U.S. Africa policy at the Economic Community of West African States in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs following a speech on U.S. Africa policy at the Economic Community of West African States in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs following a speech on U.S. Africa policy at the Economic Community of West African States in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, 2021. ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. embassies across Africa are facing chronic staffing shortages that are undercutting U.S. foreign-policy goals on the continent and sapping the morale of the diplomatic corps, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials and regional experts.

The problem has caught the attention of top U.S. lawmakers, who have raised alarm bells about the long-term impact of understaffed embassies, while senior officials at the State Department say they are working to fill the gaps as quickly as they can.

“The persistent and acute understaffing of career foreign service positions at U.S. missions in Africa is a significant concern,” Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy. “While the global need and demands on the department are immense, the dire staffing and human resource situation reflects Africa as an afterthought rather than a priority of global significance.”

U.S. embassies across Africa are facing chronic staffing shortages that are undercutting U.S. foreign-policy goals on the continent and sapping the morale of the diplomatic corps, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials and regional experts.

The problem has caught the attention of top U.S. lawmakers, who have raised alarm bells about the long-term impact of understaffed embassies, while senior officials at the State Department say they are working to fill the gaps as quickly as they can.

“The persistent and acute understaffing of career foreign service positions at U.S. missions in Africa is a significant concern,” Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy. “While the global need and demands on the department are immense, the dire staffing and human resource situation reflects Africa as an afterthought rather than a priority of global significance.”

For the State Department, the staffing shortages have stretched thin diplomats who are already overworked, reflective of a wider staffing problem as the department struggles to overcome the aftershocks of a Trump-era hiring freeze. “It’s having a significant effect,” said one exasperated senior State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on record. “We just don’t have enough people for all of the tasks we need to do and the tasks Washington needs us to.”

The staffing gaps appear to mostly afflict embassies in politically unstable countries—arguably the ones where skilled and seasoned U.S. diplomats are needed the most—though it’s not uniform and some U.S. embassies in Africa retain adequate staffing numbers. Several critically important U.S. embassies in East Africa face significant staffing gaps, several officials said, most notably Sudan, where U.S. and international efforts to help the country transition to democracy have run aground following a military coup last year.

The problem is most acute in Africa’s Sahel region, where the United States and its allies are struggling to quell a rising tide of terrorism and violent extremism that has only grown despite billions of Western dollars invested in security cooperation and development aid.

In recent months, the U.S. Embassy in Niger, for example, had over half its posts vacant, including 44 percent of posts for U.S. diplomatic positions, according to State Department data obtained by Foreign Policy. In the same time period, the embassy in Burkina Faso had nearly one-third of its posts empty, including half of posts for U.S. diplomatic positions, and in Mali, the embassy had nearly 20 percent vacancy, including one-third of its U.S. diplomatic positions. (The overall embassy headcount includes posts beyond diplomats, such as administrative and maintenance support staff.)

Officials cautioned that these figures present only a snapshot in time of the issue and staffing numbers constantly shift, particularly as diplomats transfer to new posts during the State Department’s so-called summer transfer season.

Chronic staffing shortages at important U.S. embassies across the continent reflect a broader challenge with U.S. policy toward Africa over the past several decades, one that prioritizes military and security cooperation while giving diplomacy and development short shrift.

“The United States government has invested billions in the security sector in countries in Africa over the years, but we are falling short with regards to addressing the lack of resources and diplomatic presence,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This hampers our ability to balance security programs with those aimed at tackling the root causes of extremism and overall insecurity.”

The shortages also risk undercutting U.S. efforts to compete with its geopolitical rivals China and Russia, lawmakers warn, as the two work to expand their own influence across the continent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced this week that he would visit Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia, and the Republic of Congo later this month—all countries that have deepened ties with Moscow in recent years.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Molly Phee, the top U.S. envoy for African affairs, acknowledged the staffing problems and said top State Department leaders were working hard to fill the gaps, despite difficult structural issues within the bureaucracy.

As for competing with geopolitical rivals in Africa? “We would be more influential, more impactful, more effective if we had more staffing resources, but I remain confident that the U.S. model and U.S. partnership is ultimately more attractive to [African countries],” Phee said. “We can do better, but I think the fundamentals are strong.”

Part of the problem, current and former diplomats said, are the incentive structures in place to go to embassies in poorer countries with significant security threats or limited infrastructure. In some posts, families and spouses aren’t allowed to accompany diplomats for security reasons. Other countries may have limited options for spouses to find work or few options for good schools for diplomats’ children. This may push a highly qualified mid-level foreign service officer with a spouse and children to bid for a lower-level posting at, say, the U.S. Embassy in Botswana or South Africa over a more senior position at the U.S. Embassy in Mali or South Sudan.

As a result, many positions remain vacant, while some are filled by people who do not have the requisite knowledge or experience to navigate the local environment. “You have people in places that don’t necessarily understand the dynamics of what’s happening or the networks and contacts and established relationships that can make you more effective as a diplomat,” said Joseph Siegle, the director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The State Department previously overcame this type of issue with its embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan by offering higher pay, shorter postings, and fast tracks to promotions and more senior positions afterward to incentivize its diplomats to “bid” on posts there. Yet some countries in Africa don’t yet have the same incentive structure, and even then, seasoned diplomats have questioned how effective an embassy will be if many of its diplomats cycle in and out of a country after only one year.

Still, top State Department officials say they are working to fill the gaps in U.S. embassies in Africa with new hiring incentives and reforms to the way that diplomats bid for posts at embassies across the continent, Phee said.

“It’s a zero-sum game because the State Department as a whole does not have sufficient staff to meet the challenges we have globally, so if you take more folks, let’s say, and insert them into the [African] bureau, that means another bureau is losing folks,” she said.

The problems at the rank-and-file level are punctuated by staffing gaps at the top as well. U.S. ambassadors and top-level State Department officials require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, but that process has become logjammed and increasingly politicized. President Joe Biden was slow to announce some ambassador nominees during his first year in office, and on Capitol Hill, a nominee can wait for months, or even years, for a vote to confirm their posting for a variety of reasons, from increased oversight by lawmakers to being held up by a senator for wholly unrelated reasons to exert pressure on the administration to simply being sidelined in a jampacked Senate schedule.

Sudan is a case in point. It took Biden over a year after entering office to announce a nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Sudan, during a crucially important phase of the country’s fragile (and now derailed) transition to democracy. Biden finally nominated John Godfrey in late January. The Senate confirmed Godfrey this month, over five months after his name was first put forward.

“Not appointing the right people at the right place, particularly at the ambassadorial level, or leaving those posts vacant, like now in the Sahel, like now in Sudan, all these places where things are pretty turbulent now,  you cannot say that you really care about these places,” said Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Eighteen months into Biden’s presidency and the National Security Council has yet to release its Africa strategy, nor has the president or vice President visited the continent. On Wednesday, Biden announced plans to host leaders from across the continent for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, set to be held in Washington in December.

The issue of staffing shortages at U.S. embassies in Africa predates the Trump and Biden administrations, however, said Elizabeth Shackelford, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former U.S. diplomat.

“When I was in South Sudan in 2013, I had basically two and a half jobs as a second-tour officer because they just couldn’t fill any of the positions,” she recalled. “I was the entire consular section and half the political section of the embassy in a war-torn country just when a civil war broke out,” she said. “I had to run evacuations and meanwhile do all the embassy’s human rights reporting.”

Shackelford said staffing shortages at U.S. embassies in Africa become a “self-reinforcing problem” over time. “We can’t implement good policy there because we don’t have the high-level resources or people that we need … and that in turn means it’s difficult to implement good policy there,” she said.

A similar problem persists in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), whose missions in Africa that dole out billions of dollars of U.S. aid and humanitarian assistance face their own severe staffing shortages. A top USAID official addressed the matter in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month during questioning from Menendez and Republican Sen. Mike Rounds.

“There just aren’t enough qualified staff,” Robert Jenkins, a senior USAID official, said at the hearing. “We are doing everything we can to hire more foreign service officers after what was a hiring freeze in the last administration that affected the entire throughput at various levels.”

Since the end of the Cold War, when Washington vied for influence against the Soviet Union in Africa, U.S. policy has sought to advance good governance, peace and security, and trade and investment. But the continent has never ranked high on Washington’s priority list. “U.S. engagement has been on the decline since the Cold War,” Dizolele said.

Russia has made significant inroads in Africa in recent years, dispatching mercenary groups and political operatives closely aligned with the Kremlin to prop up embattled leaders and secure access to lucrative mining concessions.

As great-power rivalry has returned to Africa, with China also expanding its footprint, experts say the United States has been caught on the back foot and has struggled to articulate a positive case for deepening ties.

“As African colleagues have said, we know what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin stands for—authoritarianism, intimidation, and corruption,” Siegle said. “The question is: What does the U.S. stand for?”

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

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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