The US envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, will soon leave his position following setbacks for President Joe Biden’s administration in mitigating the conflict in Ethiopia and attempts to salvage a civilian transition of power in Sudan.
He will be replaced by career diplomat and former ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield.
Mr Feltman, 62, took the position in April as the new administration hoped to bolster a US diplomatic role in the Horn of Africa. But eight months on, the State Department is faced with increasing challenges in trying to reverse the tide of conflict in Ethiopia and unscramble a coup in Sudan.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed Mr Feltman’s departure and Mr Satterfield’s appointment.
“The ongoing instability in the Horn of Africa and the region’s interlinked political, security and humanitarian challenges demand sustained focus by the United States,” Mr Blinken said.
In both Ethiopia and Sudan, different stakeholders threw a spanner into US diplomatic efforts. In Ethiopia, the war front between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and Tigrayan forces expanded despite US and African Union efforts to broker a cessation of hostilities.
Mr Feltman will be travelling to Ethiopia this week and will be meeting Mr Abiy on Thursday, the State Department said.
Addis Ababa has intensified its air campaign in Tigray since October, using drones and air strikes to regain ground.
Mr Feltman’s successive trips to Ethiopia and meetings with Mr Abiy — a Nobel Peace Prize winner — and the opposition attempted to leverage a ceasefire and allow humanitarian access into the Tigray and Amhara regions.
In Sudan, the October 25 coup came despite commitments the country’s military leaders made to Mr Feltman a day earlier in Khartoum.
Since then, the US has restricted aid to Sudan and has unsuccessfully engaged with Sudanese leaders to restore the road map to democratic transition.
Mr Feltman’s tenure as envoy was marked by shuttle diplomacy trips across the region over the past eight months.
Before becoming the US envoy to the region, he served for about six years as the under-secretary-general for political affairs at the UN, where he worked directly with former secretary general Ban Ki-moon on mitigating conflicts.
He also served for 26 years in the US foreign service, including as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and as former ambassador to Lebanon.
Mr Feltman’s departure is seen by those close to him as triggered by both personal and professional reasons.
The envoy signed took up the position on a part-time basis while maintaining his affiliation as a visiting fellow in international diplomacy at the Brookings Institution.
But the demands of the envoy job became more taxing as the situation imploded in Sudan and as Ethiopia descended into a war of attrition.
Mr Satterfield’s last post was as US ambassador to Turkey until October and he previously served in Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, said Mr Feltman’s exit is not surprising, noting that “he was only supposed to be in the job for six months and has already stayed longer”.
Going forward, Mr Hudson hoped for continuity in the position and avoiding a diplomatic vacuum.
“It would be damaging to US policy and our credibility if we were seen to be stepping back from these critical issues in Sudan and Ethiopia by allowing a vacuum in our own leadership to emerge,” he said.