Africa: U.S. Ambassadors and African Diplomacy

U.S. Ambassador Donald J. Wright presents credentials to Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli.

Washington, DC — In most African countries, the U.S ambassador plays a crucial role in managing the U.S. bilateral relationship with the host country. Hence, the importance of the arrival in Tanzania of Dr. Donald J. Wright, MD. He presented his ambassadorial credentials to President John P. Magufuli on August 2.

Magufuli is increasingly problematic: he is becoming authoritarian in style and he refuses to share with international health agencies information about COVID-19. Worse, he claims the disease is absent from Tanzania because of the power of prayer. He rejects all of the usual protocols for containing the disease, to the discomfiture of neighboring countries. Ambassador Wright has had a long career as a clinician and in public health; in 2017, he briefly served as acting secretary of Health and Human Services. He would appear to be well-positioned to respond to President Magufuli on COVID-19.

According to the American Foreign Service Association's current U.S. ambassadors trackerat present, the position of U.S. ambassador is vacant in Eritrea, Gabon, Guinea, Sudan, and Zambia. Eswatini (Swaziland), Ethiopia, Liberia, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone are also vacant, although the White House has nominated candidates.On Inauguration Day, all ambassadors submit a letter of resignation to the president whether or not there has been a change in administration. If there has been a change, the letters from ambassadors drawn from the career Foreign Service or other career federal agencies are routinely declined, while those from political appointees are accepted.

U.S. ambassadors to sub-Saharan Africa are almost always career members of the U.S. Foreign Service. (The White House nominees for the five vacant ambassadorships are all career.) The exceptions have usually been South Africa, Mauritius, and Tanzania. At present, it is South Africa and Kenya that are political appointees, while Mauritius is career. Ambassador Wright would seem to fit neither category: he has held senior positions in the Trump administration but has had a long career in public health. In any event, Inauguration Day has not usually meant the wholesale turnover of U.S. ambassadors in sub-Saharan Africa, unlike, say, in western Europe. The pattern looks to be the same on Inauguration Day 2021, no matter who wins.

As with other aspects of U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa, the Trump administration's ambassadorial appointments have followed the pattern of previous administrations. The ratio of political to career ambassadorial appointments is much the same, unlike in other parts of the world where the Trump administration has appointed more political ambassadors than his predecessors. Worldwide, about 45 percent of President Trump's ambassadorial appointees have been political. Under previous administrations, the percentage has varied between 30 and 35 percent.

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