Africa: Newly Confirmed UN Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield Among Top Africa Experts in Biden-Harris Government

Linda Thomas-Greenfield answering questions during her Senate confirmation hearing.
22 February 2021

Washington, DC — The U.S. Senate has voted to confirm Linda Thomas-Greenfield as United States ambassador to the United Nations. The vote was 78-20. The veteran diplomat is the Cabinet-level member of the Biden-Harris team with the most extensive Africa resume.

Her 35-year career in the foreign service includes tours as assistant secretary for Africa and U.S. ambassador to Liberia. She served as the State Department's Director General, the official who manages the U.S. foreign service around the world. While her UN brief means her responsibilities span the globe, she is likely to be one of the administration's most influential voices on Africa issues. She assumes the post a few days before the United States assumes the rotating presidency of the Security Council.

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Already, the newly confirmed ambassador's influence is evident in the choice of Dana Banks as senior director for Africa at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), the White House office that coordinates national security and foreign policy for the Executive Branch. Banks - one of Thomas-Greenfield's former special assistants at the Department of State - is a foreign service officer who most recently was deputy political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, following tours at American embassies in Togo and Tanzania.

Thomas-Greenfield has tapped as her senior Africa advisor Lesley Anne Warner, a foreign affairs and security analyst for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, now chaired by Gregory Meeks (Democrat-New York), the first black lawmaker in that post.

Other NSC staffers with Africa expertise include senior director for development, global health and humanitarian response is Linda Etim, who was in charge of Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Obama administration, has been senior advisor for Africa Policy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and served on the Biden-Harris transition team.

Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield observing the 2016 presidential elections in Ghana.

The new NSC chief of staff is Yohannes Abraham, whose parents immigrated from Ethiopia before he was born. He worked in the Obama White House and became a senior adviser at the Obama Foundation and Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School before the election. He, too, worked on the Biden-Harris transition.

Another senior official with Africa experience is Samantha Power, who is awaiting Senate action on her nomination to lead USAID. In 2003, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book -  A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide – examining  the U.S. response to genocide. About the administration of President Bill Clinton's decision not to intervene in the 1994 Rwanda genocide that led to the deaths of an estimated 800,000 people over 100 days she wrote that "American leaders did not act because they did not want to." rejecting. Power served on the NSC staff under President Obama, who named her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, when Susan Rice became Obama's NSC advisor. Rice is heading the Biden-Harris Domestic Policy Council.

High-level Biden-Harris nominees also include Adewale Adeyemo - tapped for the number two post in the Treasury Department - who was born in Nigeria's Osun State, grew up in California after immigrating with his parents and two siblings. He graduated from University of California Berkeley and Yale Law School. If confirmed, he will become the first black Deputy Secretary at Treasury, where he served during the Obama administration before becoming the deputy director of the national economic council and later the president's senior international economic adviser. Most recently, he has been president of the Obama Foundation.

Another Nigerian-American on the Biden-Harris team is Osaremen Okolo, who is a policy advisor in the White House Office on the Covid-19 Response. She moves to the executive branch from Capitol Hill, where she was senior health policy advisor to Illinois Democrat, Representative Jan Schakowsky. Before that she advised the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield (center) at the meeting of Ministers during the 2016 African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum in Washington, DC

Nigerian-born Funmi Olorunnipa Badejo has also moved from Capitol Hill to the White House to serve as associate counsel in the Office of White House Counsel. A graduate of Berkeley Law, she worked in the Department of Justice and the White House Counsel office.

The Biden administration's upcoming appointment that is highest on the radar of Africa watchers is assistant secretary for Africa at the State Department. No nominee has been announced amid speculation whether the post will go to a career official or a political pick. Among those lobbying for a high-profile selection is Mel Foote from the Washington-based Constituency for Africa, who is advocating for the post to go to an African American.

While formulation of Africa policy involves agencies throughout the government, day-to-day management of relations with Africa remains largely the province of the Africa Bureau at the department, which oversees relations with 49 African countries and the Africa Union.

The bureau is currently headed by Robert F. Godec, a former ambassador to Kenya, who moved from principal deputy assistant secretary to acting assistant secretary when the tenure of Tibor Nagy ended on Inauguration Day. Nagy, a retired career diplomat, was appointed by President Trump and confirmed for the job in 2018.

Other top officials in the Bureau include Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, a career diplomat and Acting Principal Deputy who coordinates congressional, public affairs, and public diplomacy efforts (AF/PDPA). Other deputy assistant secretaries includes Matt Harrington, southern Africa (AF/S) and economic and regional affairs (AF/ERA); Mike Gonzales, regional peace and security (AF/RPS) and west Africa (AF/W); Bryan Hunt - the Sudans (AF/SSS) and east Africa (AF/E); and Margy Bond - central Africa (AF/C). Janette Yarwood, who been staff director for the House Africa Subcommittee chaired by Rep. Karen Bass, has joined the Bureau as senior advisor.

NOTE on Senate Vote: The 75 Senators voting to confirm Linda Thomas-Greenfield include 47 Democrats, 2 Independents and 26 Republicans. All 20 voting against are Republicans, as are 4 of the 5 who did not vote.

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