US wields velvet hammer in Ethiopia crisis

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 7 June 2022 14:50, updated on Wednesday, 8 June 2022 09:14

Mike Hammer with Felix Tshisekedi (photo presidential: twitter)
Mike Hammer with Felix Tshisekedi (photo presidential: twitter)

The State Department has tapped a blunt but gregarious diplomat to try to defuse a series of crises in East Africa, starting with the lingering conflict in Ethiopia.

Mike Hammer is leaving his post as ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo to take over as the Joe Biden administration’s third special envoy for the Horn of Africa in 13 months, the State Department announced last week. He replaces David Satterfield, who stepped down in April after just three months in the position.

“I am grateful to Ambassador Satterfield for the experience and determination he brought to the role, and I look forward to the energy and vision that Ambassador Hammer will now lend to our efforts in the Horn of Africa,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

“His appointment underscores our abiding commitment to diplomatic efforts in the region, most urgently in support of an inclusive political process towards peace, common security, and prosperity for all people in Ethiopia. This administration remains firmly focused on 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,” he said.

Africa watchers from across the political spectrum have welcomed the appointment and praised Hammer’s ability to forge deep ties with President Felix Tshisekedi after the 2018 election while bluntly denouncing corruption in the country and also bonding with regular Congolese.

He’s different from others. He’s very active publicly, Twitter, etc. so it’s a different type of diplomacy

“Ambassador Hammer is a committed and relentless diplomat who isn’t satisfied with managing the status quo, but rather seeks to use policy and diplomacy to improve people’s lives,” says John Prendergast, the co-founder of The Sentry, an investigative and policy organisation that battles corruption in Africa. “The Horn of Africa needs that kind of commitment from the US government, and Ambassador Hammer will be a critical actor in ensuring a more robust effort from the US in support of peace, human rights, and good governance.”

Africa hand

Hammer brings a fresh approach to US diplomacy and potent ability to connect with other cultures, thanks to a childhood growing up across Latin America. His father, an aid worker helping with land reforms, was murdered by right-wing interests in El Salvador when Hammer was 17.

The DRC was his first African posting after previous tours in Scandinavia and Latin America, where he notably served as ambassador to Chile. He quickly gained the trust of the Congolese and became a fixture in Kinshasa, where he went by the Bakongo nickname “Nzita”- recommended by his Twitter followers – and stood out from the usual diplomatic crowd in his DRC Leopards football jersey.

Although Hammer took office shortly before Tshisekedi’s disputed victory over Martin Fayulu and is seen as close to the DRC president, he has also bluntly denounced perceived efforts to mess with next year’s election. Last year, Hammer said the proposed legislation that was to make Moise Katumbi ineligible to run for office next year (because his father is not Congolese) was a “red line” for the US.

Retired diplomat J. Peter Pham, who served as special envoy for the Great Lakes region from 2018 to 2020, worked so closely with Hammer that the two joked about a “Pham bedroom” in the ambassador’s residence. He says Hammer has done “very well” in a “very tough spot” in the DRC.

“He’s different from others. He’s very active publicly, Twitter, etc. so it’s a different type of diplomacy,” Pham says. “In these types of settings you have to go with your sense of the native intelligence, experience, and good judgement of the person you put in there; and on all three of those, I would score Michael highly.”

Pham adds that Hammer’s inexperience in Africa proved to be a blessing when he took the DRC post with an open mind. Likewise, he comes to the Horn position with connections to key African leaders, but without the baggage of Satterfield and his predecessor Jeffrey Feltman, both of whom came from the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) bureau and may have been hamstrung by their perceived closeness to Egypt, which is locked in a diplomatic battle with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile.

“That he doesn’t come with any baggage certainly helps,” Pham says. “I do think that because of the sensitivity of Ethiopia – even before the civil war – on the dam issue, someone coming from the NEA almost came with extra unneeded baggage as far as the Ethiopians are concerned.”

Pham says special envoys can be invaluable as advocates for keeping attention on the region back in Washington. Even so, he notes that Hammer’s effectiveness will largely depend on his specific mandate, and who he reports to back in Washington.

Diplomatic overtures

Despite Blinken’s focus on Ethiopia in his announcement, a State Department spokesperson tells The Africa Report that Hammer’s role will be broader.

“The conflict in Ethiopia and political crises in Sudan and Somalia remain high priorities for the Biden-Harris Administration, and we are committed to active diplomatic engagement,” the spokesperson says.

Indeed, Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee is currently on a trip to Sudan for meetings with a “wide range of Sudanese stakeholders and political actors” to urge them to “restore the transition to democracy and economic stability” and “advance peace” under the process led by the UN, the African Union and the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), according to the State Department.

Meanwhile, on 24 May, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared the nomination of John Godfrey, setting up the Senate to approve the first US ambassador to Khartoum in a quarter-century.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, peace talks between the central government and Tigrayan rebels are making headway as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) agreed, late last month, to release some 4,200 prisoners of war. New tensions have however emerged between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Amhara ethnic group that had heretofore supported his crackdown on the TPLF over rumoured plans to disarm their Fano militia.

“Based on published reports, over 4,500 people are detained in the Amhara region alone, including journalists, critics of the government and patriots who have been fighting for the survival of the nation against TPLF aggression for over a year. These actions could tarnish the progress made by the Ethiopian government in steering the country toward peace, democracy and the rule of law. We, therefore, request that the government reverses course,” AEPAC Chairman Mesfin Tegenu said in a 24 May statement.

“As an organisation dedicated to advancing a positive relationship between the US and Ethiopia, AEPAC firmly believes these arbitrary mass arrests are not consistent with democratic values and contradict American interests in the Horn of Africa region,” Tegenu said.

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