US Senate clears 14 ambassadors to Africa after months of delay

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 20 December 2021 23:20

U.S. President Biden gives an update on the administration's coronavirus response at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves the stage after giving remarks on the administration's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response and the vaccination program from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building's South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington U.S., July 6, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

The US Senate cleared 14 of President Joe Biden’s nominees to serve as ambassadors to Africa shortly after midnight Saturday morning, in one of Congress’s final acts of the year.

The nominees were among dozens of diplomatic appointees held up by Republican Senator Ted Cruz over the Biden administration’s refusal to impose Trump-era sanctions on Russia’s natural gas pipeline to Germany. The Texas senator extracted a promise from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to hold a vote on a new sanctions bill in the new year in exchange for lifting his hold.

“Major victory,” Cruz said on Twitter over the weekend. “When the Senate reconvenes, we’ll finally have a vote on sanctioning Putin’s pipeline.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the development in a tweet over the weekend.

“I welcome the Senate’s confirmation of a slate of Ambassadors,” he wrote. “This is important progress, as the United States needs its full team on the field to protect and advance our interests. I encourage additional confirmations at the earliest opportunity.”

The Africa nominees, all of them non-controversial career diplomats, have been waiting to take up their posts – in some cases – since April. They notably include envoys to five countries with no current US ambassadors: Algeria, Cameroon, Guinea, the Republic of the Congo and Somalia.

Here’s the full list:

  • Algeria: Elizabeth Aubin;
  • Angola & Sao Tome and Principe: Tulinabo Mushingi;
  • Benin: Brian Shukan;
  • Cameroon: Christopher Lamora;
  • Central African Republic: Patricia Mahoney;
  • Republic of the Congo: Eugene Young;
  • Equatorial Guinea: David Gilmour;
  • The Gambia: Sharon Cromer;
  • Guinea: Troy Fitrell;
  • Lesotho: Maria Brewer;
  • Mozambique: Peter Vrooman;
  • Senegal & Guinea-Bissau: Michael Raynor;
  • Somalia: Larry Andre; and
  • Togo: Elizabeth Fitzsimmons.

Six other nominations – to Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar and Comoros, Malawi and Tanzania – have yet to be acted on. Biden nominated billionaire campaign donor and former eBay and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman as his envoy to Nairobi earlier this month in a telling sign of Kenya’s growing economic and diplomatic clout with the US.

Meanwhile, Reuben Brigety, a former US ambassador to the African Union, is reportedly Biden’s top pick as ambassador to South Africa. Brigety left his post as vice-chancellor of the University of the South in Tennessee earlier this month after just a year and a half.

Strategic blur

This weekend’s Senate action follows growing pressure from the White House and congressional Democrats for leeway to staff up the Biden administration’s diplomatic team, amid rising competition with China and Russia in Africa. Although not blocking the nominations entirely, Cruz’s holds had held them up by requiring lengthy debates and votes on the Senate floor.

“There is little to celebrate when it comes to nominations in the Senate,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said on the Senate floor on Friday, shortly before the vote. “The truth is that some Republicans’ unprecedented obstructionism is straining the system to the breaking point, leaving the president without a team of national security positions that are critical to the interests of the United States and the American people, leaving our nation weakened.”

J. Peter Pham, a former special envoy to both the Great Lakes region and the Sahel under the Donald Trump administration, says the confirmations are a “step in the right direction” for US-Africa diplomacy.

“It was overdue,” he tells The Africa Report. “Unfortunately, the nature of the Senate and the leverage it confers to the minority party means that oftentimes there is collateral damage from principled fights on other issues, and that’s regrettable.”

It’s important to get ambassadors out there… But it’s even more important to give them something to execute.

However, he added that personnel changes aren’t a substitute for a clear US-Africa policy, which the new administration has yet to adopt. Pham is unofficially advising the administration on its strategy for engagement with the continent, which is expected to be unveiled in the first half of 2022 ahead of the US-Africa summit in the summer.

“Ambassadors are wonderful. Having them in place is a good thing, but having an articulated policy […] is a true strategy, I think we’re still waiting for that,” he says.

Pham says a key concern should be prioritising which countries are most vital to US interests, as the Trump administration had in its own Africa strategy that was never made public. “It’s important to get ambassadors out there,” he says. “But it’s even more important to give them something to execute.”

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