More than three months on from the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, the international community is witnessing the exacerbation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, fueled in large part by the obstinacy of the Ethiopian side and its insistence on completing the second phase of filling the reservoir on its own terms. Addis Ababa also escalated the dispute by refusing to hold a tripartite summit with Egypt and Sudan, while Cairo and Khartoum have invested efforts into internationalizing the crisis and bringing external mediators on board.
Further complicating the situation is the escalation of the border crisis between Sudan and Ethiopia, as well the spike in activity by terrorist organizations in a number of African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other regional factors making the resolution of this issue less likely include the recent killing of the Chadian president, in what may have been an internal coup, and the growing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia following a conflict with the central government.
As a result of these critical developments, which threaten to cause protracted upheaval in the entire region, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month announced the appointment of a special envoy to the Horn of Africa. The appointment of Jeffrey Feltman signals the State Department’s commitment to cooperating with Africa to resolve political and security crises at all levels. Blinken stated that Feltman would “lead a comprehensive diplomatic effort to address the interlinked political, security, and humanitarian crises in the region.”
The new US administration is seeking to make a diplomatic effort to urge all parties to engage in dialogue concerning the various crises before they turn into conflicts. Direct involvement to this effect indicates an American desire to work as a mediator to solve the GERD crisis, for example. Some believe that the Biden administration’s stance on the GERD has been below expectations, as the State Department and the president were supposed to directly intervene and take a more effective stance, following the country’s past involvement as a broker in peace talks.
Washington is seeking to make a diplomatic effort to urge all parties to engage in dialogue before the crises turn into conflicts
The US confirmed in March’s Interim National Security Strategy Guidance that it would seek to engage more with African countries to promote peace. It is worth noting that Feltman will focus not only on the issue of the dam in Ethiopia, but will also aim to solve the internal conflicts that threaten the collapse of the Ethiopian state. Washington does not want to see an opportunity emerge for more terrorist outposts in the Horn of Africa. Additionally, it hopes to prevent the conflict in the Tigray region extending to neighboring countries. These effects are already painful for the likes of Sudan, which has received nearly 100,000 refugees since the outbreak of the crisis last November.
Finally, the timing of the appointment of the US special envoy to the Horn of Africa is due to the exacerbation of these crises on many levels, whether they are internal within one country or affecting many states. Some consider this step to be ineffective due to the growing scale of the crises and the assessment that some have reached unprecedented levels, such as the GERD. They believe that such a sensitive situation requires the appointment of an envoy specifically for the GERD crisis, rather than treating the issue as part of broader regional discussions. This is due to the dispersion of the envoy’s efforts and his inability to focus well on all issues at the same time.
Additionally, some believe that the US administration has not paid enough attention to the region’s issues and has allowed them to get out of control. They say that perhaps it is time for an official in the State Department to handle the most urgent crises directly, as certain situations can only be solved by the intervention of senior officials or even the head of state.
Feltman is now on a trip to the region, taking in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, where he will underscore the US’ commitment. This comes at a critical time for the region and the appointment of such a seasoned diplomat suggests that the Biden administration is taking a serious approach.
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• Maria Maalouf is a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster, publisher, and writer. She holds an MA in political sociology from the University of Lyon. Twitter: @bilarakib