Biden’s new Africa nominee Mary Catherine Phee tasked with confronting crises in Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, and promoting U.S.-Africa ties

U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced Thursday that he will be nominating Mary Catherine Phee to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and Chair of the Board of Foreign Service.

Mary Catherine Phee 
Mary Catherine Phee

She will be tasked with confronting issues such as the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region in Ethiopia and food shortages across Africa, as well as promoting fruitful diplomatic relations with African nations.

Mary Catherine Phee, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor, currently serves as Principal Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the State Department.

Throughout her career, Phee has held numerous prestigious positions dealing with African affairs. She was U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan from 2015 to 2017. Previously, she served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and as Chief of Staff in the Office of the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.

She has held many other impressive positions and has served in many other capacities throughout her career, receiving numerous awards, including the Robert C. Frasure Memorial Award for conflict resolution and peacemaking.

Phee’s nomination has the potential to represent a significant step in the right direction when it comes to United States-Africa relations, especially as President Biden has repeatedly emphasized that diplomacy will be at the forefront of his administration’s approach to international affairs.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris walk from the Oval Office of the White House Friday, March 12, 2021, to the Rose Garden to deliver remarks on the American Rescue Plan. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) 
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris walk from the Oval Office of the White House Friday, March 12, 2021, to the Rose Garden to deliver remarks on the American Rescue Plan. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The newly nominated Mary Catherine Phee comes with an impressive resumé at a time when Africa is plagued by many economic and humanitarian crises, ranging from the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia to the instability and food shortages in Nigeria and South Sudan.

In the wake of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, African people and nations are struggling to recover financially. According to the IMF, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be the slowest growing region in the world in 2021 and its economic recovery is predicted to substantially lag behind the rest of the world in the coming years.

However, the issues pervasive in Africa today are not simply economic matters but are also issues of human rights.

As violence continues in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, there have been countless civilian deaths and millions have been displaced from their homes. A U.S. government report concluded that a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing is being carried out in Tigray.

Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have detailed the heinous human rights abuses and war crimes that have occurred under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership, including systematic raping, indiscriminate killings, and the looting of health facilities.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia is one of the most pressing issues that Phee will face upon her nomination and is an opportunity to promote justice in the country where she previously completed a three year assignment as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa.

As millions of Ethiopians are currently in need of life-saving assistance, the newly nominated Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs will have the opportunity to take practical steps so that the United States can help redress the situation in Ethiopia.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on March 2 and reportedly “urged the Ethiopian government to take immediate, concrete steps to protect civilians, including refugees, and to prevent further violence” while also highlighting “the United States’ commitment to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations throughout Ethiopia.”

Secretary of State Atony J. Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meet with NATO Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg in Brussels, Belgium on April 14, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Atony J. Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meet with NATO Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg in Brussels, Belgium on April 14, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

In addition to the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, there is also extreme poverty and hunger throughout many regions of Africa. According to Action Against Hunger, 239.1 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were undernourished in 2018- a number that has undoubtedly grown amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Food shortages in Nigeria have been exacerbated by the damage and terror caused by Boko Haram militants as well as the detrimental effects of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Human Rights Watch, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, over 90 million Nigerians already lived in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.

South Sudan, to which Phee was once a U.S. ambassador, has also been plagued by famine. The U.N. World Food Programme has said, “Food insecurity in South Sudan has reached the most extreme levels since independence in 2011” and that “60 percent of the population are struggling to find enough food each day.”

While the continent of Africa has lots of potential and the ability to grow as a positive global force, there are many challenges and difficulties that must be overcome.

President Biden has repeatedly called for a more cooperative and diplomatic approach to global issues and Mary Catherine Phee brings an expertise and perspective to the administration that could be instrumental in confronting Africa’s many crises.

If Phee makes the most of her nomination, she could be a catalyst for dramatic change in U.S.-Africa relations at a time when Africa could greatly benefit from assistance from the international community. The actions that she takes could not only bring Africa’s predominant issues to the attention of the Biden Administration, but also to the forefront of national and international discourse.

Upon assuming her position, Mary Catherine Phee will have a very heavy workload and only time will reveal her strategy in combatting Africa’s problems. However, she will likely have to choose a major focus, given that there are currently so many complex sources of the extremely diverse continent’s instability.

Yet, the role of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs is not limited to humanitarian efforts across Africa. On top of this, she will also be tasked with addressing and facilitating trade agreements and bilateral ties between the United States and African nations.

A continent with a population of over 1.3 billion people, Africa is a player on the world stage and a growing member of the global economy. As the world has become increasingly more interconnected, relations between the United States and African countries are more important today than ever before and will likely grow to be an even more important aspect of U.S. foreign affairs.

This puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of American diplomats, like the newly nominated Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mary Catherine Phee.

Noah Pitcher is a global politics correspondent for Today News Africa covering the U.S. government, United Nations, African Union, and other actors involved in international developments, political controversies, and humanitarian issues.

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