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Crises in the Horn of Africa monopolize the U.S. envoy in the region


The Biden administration's envoy for the Horn of Africa is very busy these days. A civil war in Ethiopia has been going on for about a year. And that country is scheduled to lose its American trade preferences because of the war. Meanwhile, in Sudan, military leaders staged a coup last week, which upended that country's path to democracy. So what are the current goals for the U.S. in that region?

Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Jeffrey Feltman served as a top official at the United Nations a few years ago, he says he saw Ethiopia as an exporter of stability. Now it consumes much of his time as the U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: Our goal is to see a stable Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia is playing its traditional leadership role and where the Sudanese people are able to achieve their aspirations for a democratic transition that we believe is the cornerstone of stability in Sudan at this point.

KELEMEN: But it was just as Feltman was leaving what he thought was a successful visit to Sudan that military leaders there ousted the country's prime minister. Now diplomats are scrambling to try to reverse the coup. Meanwhile, the government in Ethiopia has ignored Feltman's calls to negotiate a cease-fire with rebels in Tigray and allow in food aid.


FELTMAN: No government can tolerate an armed insurgency. We get that. But no government should be adopting policies or allowing practices that result in mass starvation of its own citizens.

KELEMEN: He's also now warning rebels in Tigray not to try to besiege or move on Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Feltman was speaking yesterday at an event hosted by the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Lise Grande.

LISE GRANDE: What Ambassador Feltman is facing as the U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa has got to be one of the toughest jobs in the world right now.

KELEMEN: Fighting terrorism and ensuring maritime security are among the critical U.S. priorities in the region.

GRANDE: This is an area of enormous importance. And you've got two countries that are embroiled in conflict and war. And the entire stability of the region depends on them getting out of that war. And that's what the U.S. envoy is trying to help them do.

KELEMEN: But the situation on the ground is moving quickly. And the U.S. has little leverage, says Murithi Mutiga, who runs the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group.

MURITHI MUTIGA: It must be a difficult and forlorn job at the moment. It's a very, very difficult context. But the bottom line is that in both Sudan and Ethiopia, local elites have just decided to privilege their own political survival over the importance of engaging with the international community.

KELEMEN: Mutiga, who's based in Nairobi, Kenya, says not only are local actors putting their own personal interests first, there are a lot of other countries seeking more influence, from China and Turkey to several Gulf States.

MUTIGA: They are a greater number of actors, and local elites feel that they can make their choices, and those choices don't always have to be aligned with the traditional Western actors.

KELEMEN: Feltman has been trying to rally countries to send a united message both to Sudan to reverse a coup and to Ethiopia to stop fighting and negotiate peace. He says, so far, Ethiopia is heading in a dangerous direction. The Biden administration has notified Congress that Ethiopia will lose U.S. trade benefits by January 1.


FELTMAN: What I hope the Ethiopian government will take away from this is that they basically have a bit of time - not very much time - to prevent us from actually moving forward in implementing this.

KELEMEN: Ethiopia shows no signs of reversing course, though, arguing that it should not be punished for confronting an insurgency. The country is now in a state of emergency.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.