Departure of second US envoy for Horn of Africa exposes Ethiopia and Sudan policy rifts

Disagreements within the State Department are understood to have hindered David Satterfield, making him the second ambassador to leave the position

US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, will step down from his role before the summer. Reuters

The impending resignation of David Satterfield, the US envoy to the Horn of Africa, comes just three months after he took the position and throws a spanner in Washington’s efforts to mitigate the crises in Ethiopia and Sudan.

A US official confirmed to The National on Wednesday that Mr Satterfield will be leaving his position. His deputy, Payton Knopf, a long-time diplomat on the file, will take over the post in an acting capacity.

The exit, the second for an envoy to the Horn of Africa after Jeff Feltman’s departure in January, is being blamed on internal failings and frustrations within the State Department.

US sources told The National that divisions within the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department and disagreements between the envoy desk and Assistant Secretary Molly Phee were behind the resignations.

Asked about those disagreements, a State Department representative did not immediately comment.

Other frustrations sources cited for Mr Satterfield included a lack of progress, insufficient White House attention to the region and a weakened US hand in Khartoum and Addis Ababa.

Cameron Hudson, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the second departure of a US envoy to the Horn of Africa will inevitably hurt President Joe Biden's administration.

“It should be looked at in the context of US's overall diplomatic posture towards this region, which is suboptimal,” Mr Hudson said.

There are no confirmed US ambassadors on the ground in Addis or Khartoum, a void that makes the envoy position “having an authoritative and empowered voice all the more important,” Mr Hudson told The National.

But in both cases of Mr Feltman and Mr Satterfield, who share the background of being former prominent US ambassadors across the Middle East, their job was thought to be hindered by Washington’s bureaucracy.

“It has been a general impression that our Horn envoy has never been empowered enough by the [State] department. Rather they have acted more as mouthpieces for Washington policy,” Mr Hudson said.

“If Washington is not making policy or, which certainly seems to be the case, there’s not much to empower the envoy with,” he warned.

Mr Satterfield and Mr Knopf arrived in Ethiopia on Wednesday, according to the State Department, for meetings with Ethiopian government officials, representatives of humanitarian organisations and diplomatic partners.

This is the departing envoy’s fourth trip to Ethiopia as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.

Two leading human rights groups last week accused armed forces from Ethiopia's Amhara region of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Tigrayans during a war that has killed thousands of civilians and displaced more than a million.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report that abuses by Amhara officials and regional special forces and militias during fighting in western Tigray amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

They also accused Ethiopia's military of complicity in those acts.

In Sudan, US efforts to restore the civilian transition following a coup last October have so far been stymied by military commanders on the ground.

Sudan has inched closer to Russia, and Mr Satterfield, according to Foreign Policy, cancelled a planned trip to Khartoum last month as he increased his focus on Ethiopia.

“The problem is that Washington does not look serious,” Mr Hudson said.

He argued for a concerted US effort across different agencies “to overcome the bad optics around this departure and our overall policy approach.”

The US Congress has been pushing the administration into adopting a stricter posture in the Horn.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly approved a new measure last week designed to impose sanctions on Addis, under the Ethiopia Peace and Stabilisation Act of 2022.

The legislation that now will go to the Senate floor would impose sanctions on anyone who undermines a negotiated settlement to Ethiopia’s civil war, or who has committed human rights abuses in the conflict.

Last November, the US Congress passed the Sudan Democracy Act to impose targeted sanctions on the country’s military leaders for undermining the civilian-led democratic transition.

Updated: April 14, 2022, 3:14 AM