Highest ranking U.S. official for Africa Mary Catherine Phee makes first trip to continent with stops in Ghana and Burkina Faso

Ambassador Mary Catherine Phee, the highest ranking United States official for Africa in the Biden administration, has embarked on her first trip to the continent with stops in Ghana and Burkina Faso to reinforce President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s message that “America is back” and “diplomacy is back” at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Phee, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, embarked on her first trip to the continent on October 16. The trip comes just about two weeks after she was sworn into office on September 30, months after she was nominated by President Biden in April.

In a statement on Saturday, the U.S. State Department said Phee will meet with senior government officials and civil society representatives in Ghana to “reaffirm our strategic partnership and explore cooperation to advance shared global priorities, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding U.S.-Ghana trade and investment, addressing the climate crisis, creating opportunities for clean energy, and strengthening democracy in West Africa, through Ghana’s leadership as Chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).”

Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo 
Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo

“As Ghana will join the UN Security Council for the 2022-2023 term, the Assistant Secretary will also lay the groundwork for advancing shared objectives and cooperating on key international and regional Africa priorities,” added the statement.

From Ghana, the Assistant Secretary will travel to Burkina Faso, where she also will meet with senior government officials and members of the business and civil society communities. 

 Mr. Roch Marc Christian Kabore, President of the Republic of Burkina Faso, arrives in New Delhi For Founding Conference of International Solar Alliance (March 10, 2018) 
Mr. Roch Marc Christian Kabore, President of the Republic of Burkina Faso, arrives in New Delhi For Founding Conference of International Solar Alliance (March 10, 2018)

“The Assistant Secretary will underscore our shared goals of strengthening democratic governance and building lasting security in Burkina Faso and across the Sahel.  She will discuss how to harness U.S. trade and investment to diversify and grow Burkina Faso’s economy,” the State Department added.  “Assistant Secretary Phee also will participate in an engagement at Africa’s largest and most prominent film festival—the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO)—which promotes partnerships between American and African independent filmmakers.”

President Biden nominated Phee on April 15, 2021, to serve as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and chair of the Board of the Foreign Service. Her job will be to rebuild badly damaged ties following the chaotic years of former President Donald J. Trump.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the passing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Tuesday, August 10, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the passing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Tuesday, August 10, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

But who is Mary Catherine Phee and what is her background?

As a graduate of Indiana University, she earned a B.A. and an M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, Ambassador Phee most recently served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan. She was sworn into office on July 15, 2015.

Prior to that, she was Chief of Staff to the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan. Ambassador Phee also completed a three-year assignment as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2014.

In addition, she was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, where she was responsible for coordinating the U.S. transition from military to civilian operations culminating in the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in December 2011.

Ambassador Mary Catherine Phee, President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s top diplomat for Africa was sworn into office on Thursday, September 30, 2021, by U.S. State Department Under Secretary Victoria Nuland 
Ambassador Mary Catherine Phee, President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s top diplomat for Africa was sworn into office on Thursday, September 30, 2021, by U.S. State Department Under Secretary Victoria Nuland

From 2005 to 2008 she served as Counselor for Political Affairs and Deputy Security Council Coordinator at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where she advanced U.S. policies on issues such as Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Burma, Iraq, Lebanon, and sanctions.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus invited her to join the Joint Strategic Assessment Team established in 2007 to revise the U.S. campaign plan in Iraq, and she was the Senior Civilian Representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority to Maysan Province, Iraq, from 2003 to 2004.

Ambassador Phee has also served at U.S. Embassies in Rome, Italy; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Cairo, Egypt; and Amman, Jordon. Assignments in Washington, DC include special assistant to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, desk officer for UN Security Council Affairs, and desk officer for Iran.

During her career, Ambassador Phee has received many awards, including the Baker-Wilkins Award for Outstanding Deputy Chief of Mission, 2014; the Order of the British Empire, 2006; the Secretary of Defense’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award, 2004; and numerous Department of State Superior and Meritorious Awards.

Before joining the Foreign Service, Ms. Phee was a deputy press secretary to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The difficult task ahead

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken recognizes Dulles Operation Allies Welcome staff, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on October 13, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken recognizes Dulles Operation Allies Welcome staff, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on October 13, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/

Phee is coming into office at a time of increased instability across Africa, from Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, where a humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day in the Tigray region, to Mali and Guinea, where the military has overthrown democratically elected presidents there, and in Sudan where the Prime Minister has just survived a coup attempt.

There is also a volatile election coming up in Libya where the United Nations just failed to agree on a physical presence in Tripoli ahead of the December 24 vote, and in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, where anger is growing among the youths and other parts of the country that have been sidelined by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Ambassador Phee will also have to confront food shortages across Africa, the increased threat of terrorism spreading from Mozambique to Somalia, the worsening climate crisis threatening the entire planet, the deadly coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Africans and the ravaging corruption straining decent relationships with the United States.

President Biden’s top diplomat will also have to confront China and Russia and other autocratic nations who are rapidly increasing their influence in Africa while attempting to downplay the value of democracy, and paying no attention to human rights.

But, of all those continental problems, Ambassador Phee will confront another monumental crisis, the use of the Internet, the spread of disinformation and misinformation by America’s adversaries, mainly China and Russia.

On her day to day job, Phee will attempt to promote fruitful diplomatic relations with African nations.

Her confirmation and swearing-in 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 center of his foreign policy. But the task ahead will be as hot as hell.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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