President Joe Biden's administration has appointed diplomat Mike Hammer as Washington's new envoy to the Horn of Africa, as US policy faces mounting challenges in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.
Mr Hammer is the third person to be appointed to the position in 13 months: David Satterfield left the position in April and Jeffrey Feltman left in January.
He comes to the position at a critical time, as Sudan continues to reel from a military coup, as Somalia faces increased aggression by extremist group Al Shabab, and as the conflict in Ethiopia rages on.
In a statement on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Mr Hammer's "appointment underscores our abiding commitment to diplomatic efforts in the region”, singling out the importance of “an inclusive political process towards peace, common security and prosperity for all people in Ethiopia”.
Mr Blinken reiterated Washington’s commitment to achieve “a cessation of hostilities, unhindered humanitarian access, transparent investigations into violations and human rights abuses by all actors, and a negotiated resolution to the conflict”.
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The war in Ethiopia's Tigray region, which began last July, continues and the conflict has widened, with a number of shifts in alliances. In the Amhara region this week, the Ethiopian government began mass detentions of members of the Fano militia, its former allies.
Mr Blinken's statement made no mention of other pressing crises in the region, however: in Sudan, the administration has failed to return the country to civilian rule following the military takeover at the end of October, and in Somalia, a rising threat from Al Shabab led the US to send troops to the country last month.
The new envoy brings a different portfolio to the position: while Mr Satterfield and Mr Feltman's diplomatic careers had previously focused mostly on the Middle East, Mr Hammer, among his numerous roles, served recently as ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Cameron Hudson, senior associate on African peace, security, and governance issues at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr Hammer's appointment will bring a more Africa-focused hand to the position.
“He is coming from the [US State Department's] Africa Bureau and will be seen as more of a team player than perhaps previous envoys,” Mr Hudson said.
Rifts within the Bureau of African Affairs have previously undermined US policy in the region and ultimately led to Mr Satterfield’s departure.
Mr Hammer's "background in the Africa Bureau recognises a perennial complaint of our previous Horn envoys that they have largely been drawn from the Middle East and lack Africa-specific knowledge. This corrects that,” Mr Hudson told The National.
But he added that it remains unclear how much attention and diplomatic capital the administration wants to bring to this position, expressing concern that Mr Blinken had left out other major problems in the region from his statement.
“This statement, by only referencing Ethiopia, suggests that this is now established policy and that the other pressing policy concerns in the region will continue to suffer from a lack of attention from Washington,” he said.
The bigger question concerns the envoy’s mandate and “whether the administration will look to recalibrate his portfolio to account for changes on the ground in Ethiopia, the redeployment of troops to Somalia and the failing civilian transition in Sudan”, Mr Hudson said.