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Washington's front bench on Africa takes shape

Career diplomats dominate the new team as the Biden administration tries to repair ties and regain influence

The nomination of Mary 'Molly' Catherine Phee as US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa on 15 April reinforces the message that career diplomats are back in charge, especially on Africa policy. That is likely to mean more power and initiative flowing to ambassadors in the region, and less prompting from Foggy Bottom.

Currently, Phee is Principal Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and her nomination is likely to be speedily confirmed by Congress. Formerly ambassador to South Sudan and Deputy Chief of Mission in Addis Ababa, Phee has extensive experience in the Middle East and South Asia, and is a fluent speaker of Arabic, French and Italian.

Phee's knowledge of the Horn of Africa will be useful with the Tigray crisis running high on Washington's list of regional priorities. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other top officials several times over the last two months.

Last month, Biden sent his close political ally the Africanist Christopher Coons to Addis to relay his deepening concerns about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. That elicited an official admission from Addis about the continued Eritrean military presence in Ethiopia.

Foreign Policy, the insider journal based in Washington, has tipped veteran diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as Biden's Special Envoy to the Horn in recognition of the regional spread of the crisis.

By making many of Washington's top diplomatic appointments within three months of the 20 January inauguration, Biden and Blinken hope to restore the State Department's morale, battered during the Donald Trump era.

Biden has made much of the need to modernise US Africa policy and rebuild trust. Trump's public and not so public utterances on Africa alienated many officials on the continent.

In that light, Linda Thomas-Greenfield's role as US Ambassador to the UN is critical. After several top postings to Kenya, Nigeria and Liberia, Thomas-Greenfield was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in Barack Obama's administration, and is well liked and respected in Africa. Nominated by Biden in November, Thomas-Greenfield is already a key player on African policy and is restoring Washington's standing among UN General Assembly members.

Another early appointee was Dana Banks, who took over as National Security Council senior director for Africa in a move that was lauded by Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary for Africa in the George W Bush administration. US Africa policy is likely to return to its traditional bipartisan character under Biden, says Frazer.

On 15 April, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously backed Biden's nomination of Samantha Power as Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) opening the path to a vote by the full Senate. Power, a strong human rights advocate as US Ambassador to the UN under Obama, will face some harsh choices for USAID amid deteriorating conditions in Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan.



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