Jeffrey Feltman, Biden special envoy to Horn of Africa, faces daunting task

In its policy towards Ethiopia, “the U.S. should tread cautiously.” That was the opinion now a month ago of Christina T. Collins of Princeton University. One reason is that among Ethiopians, including Ethiopians in the U.S., “there is an almost universal hostility to anything that appears to be imperialistic,” in part stemming from Ethiopia’s “proud uncolonized history,” writes Collins. Another is that Ethiopians in the U.S. – a population with a strong influence on political views back in Ethiopia – are split over how the conflict in the Tigray region should be resolved.

The Trump administration cared little for political history and even less for nuances in view, both which were reflected in its policies. Last fall, as talks stalled on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), it withheld $130 million in aid to the country and Trump reportedly made incendiary comments about the dam to Egypt, which the Ethiopian Foreign Minister said amounted to a U.S. “incitement of war between Ethiopia and Egypt.”

“While aid has been restored by the new administration,” there are “many Ethiopians [in the U.S.] who remain suspicious of the US government’s intentions.” Indeed, many of the recent protests in the U.S. have ensued from Ethiopian opposition to a perceived “US involvement in Ethiopia’s domestic affairs,” according to Collins.

Regarding Ethiopia, President Biden entered office put on the back foot by the previous administration’s policies, in part due to its actions, another due to its aggravation of structural factors.

That being said, Biden has just appointed a U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa with a mandate to address a range of “complex regional issues” that directly involve Ethiopia: the conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, rising tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan, and the tripartite dispute over the GERD project – and addressing all this in order to support “once-in-a-generation opportunities for reform,” according to the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

Not only does the Biden administration see “high-level U.S. engagement” with these regional issues as “vital” in order for them not to worsen and destroy opportunities for development, it’s also critical, in its view, that the conflict and dispute resolution processes be U.S.-led. “Special Envoy Feltman is uniquely suited…to develop and execute an integrated U.S. strategy to address these complex regional issues,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.

This may be, but it’s unclear why the Biden administration has asserted that regional reconciliation be U.S.-led given the challenges to U.S.-Ethiopia cooperation, let alone with the wider region.

It’s important to note that Biden has already sent a U.S. delegation to Ethiopia in Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) – at one point rumored to be considered for Secretary of State to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa.

While the talks at the end of March were reported to be “constructive,” Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufi also said, “Domestic matters are Ethiopian matters and sovereignty matters.” Although he was referring specifically to what Ethiopia sees as an American mislabeling of the Amhara militia as a “foreign force,” this serves as yet another reminder of the challenges the U.S. faces in enacting its policy.

At present, the U.S. is mainly pressing for an end to the conflict in the Tigray region, including a full withdrawal of Eritrean forces, and “unimpeded” access to the worsening humanitarian crisis there.

Yet not everyone shares the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for ending the conflict. Collins describes the thinking of some Ethiopians in the U.S. as a “difference in emphasis.” For some, the conflict is “personal and painful” and their “main point of concern” is the humanitarian crisis.

Others have focused more on the “political dimension” of the conflict, seeing it as “a kind of necessary evil in order to rid the country of a corrupt [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] TPLF regime” and more broadly as “an inevitable outcome of decades-long political infighting arising from ideological differences, ethnic favoritism, and government suppression of dissent.”

According to Collins, not only has the conflict “created a new sense of bitterness in some Ethiopians, while bringing to the surface latent hostilities in others”; it and the nuances in view “[are] a growing point of tension among Ethiopians in the U.S.”

Collins suggests that the U.S. government can better serve Ethiopians in the U.S. by recognizing this diversity of viewpoints and taking “measures to promote reconciliation among members of the community.”

Biden sends his best

President Joe Biden talks on the phone with Katherine Tai in the Oval Office of the White House Thursday, March 18, 2021, to congratulate her on her confirmation as U.S. Trade Representative. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden talks on the phone with Katherine Tai in the Oval Office of the White House Thursday, March 18, 2021, to congratulate her on her confirmation as U.S. Trade Representative. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

In the Horn of Africa region, it’s unclear how Feltman will carry out his work or for how long. One thing to keep in mind is the complex relationship the U.S. has with Egypt and the Trump administration’s fraught negotiations with Sudan. Another mention – although this is not to take away from the efforts of the African Union (AU) and other partners – is that unlike in Feltman’s case, the U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen has had the advantage of building off of the three years-long work of the UN Special Envoy to Yemen.

In Ethiopia, the UN has been relatively more circumspect. Even as the UN Security Council last week voiced its concern over the humanitarian situation in Tigray, its members also made note of their “commitment to the sovereignty” and “political independence” of Ethiopia.

In any event, “The United States is ready to work with [its] allies and partners to promote shared piece and prosperity across the Horn of Africa,” said Sullivan. This is a welcome change from Trump’s unilateralism, but those on the African continent aren’t the only ones in need of convincing.

Christina T. Collins is a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. She submitted written responses to questions for this article.

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