Sunday May 7, 2023
Eastern Africa is 9,000 miles from New Mexico, but the problems besetting countries there can affect residents here, reflecting how the world has gotten smaller and more interconnected, says the U.S. ambassador for the region.
Mike Hammer, special envoy for the Horn of Africa, says problems common to both East Africa and New Mexico include large impoverished areas, the struggle to provide quality health care and education, and climate change magnifying droughts.
In a phone interview with The New Mexican, Hammer talked about the U.S. connection with Eastern Africa and strides the Biden administration has made to forge stronger partnerships with the region.
The U.S. needs a solid foreign policy in the Horn not only for humanitarian efforts in this often turbulent region but to protect U.S. economic interests there, Hammer said.
"It's important as part of my job … to explain to the American people all across the country what it is that we're doing with their taxpayer dollars, why it matters to them," Hammer said. "If successful, diplomacy can save us the cost of not only deploying our men and women into harm's way, but also save lives."
A career diplomat, Hammer, 59, will speak at a May 17 fundraiser for Global Santa Fe, a local nonprofit, that will be held at Hotel Santa Fe.
Hammer: Biden has holistic approach to region
Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea are the core countries in the Horn. Sudan and Kenya are included in some broader definitions.
The region abuts three continents as well as the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, making it a hub for international trade, Hammer said. About 12% of the world's goods flow through the Suez Canal in neighboring Egypt.
"The stability of the Horn of Africa is of strategic importance to the United States," Hammer said.
President Joe Biden is taking a broader approach to Africa than his predecessor did.
The Trump administration had a three-pronged Africa policy. The top priority, as outlined by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, was to compete with China and Russia, which were seen as making inroads on the continent. Countering Islamic militant threats and using American aid efficiently were also parts of the strategy.
A key tactic was persuading African nations to do business with U.S. companies instead of America's two archrivals.
Hammer described Biden's strategy as more holistic.
A month after taking office, Biden addressed the African Union Summit by video, saying his administration would promote partnerships with the countries and their institutions to support "African solutions to African problems," Hammer said. In December, he hosted a White House summit in which 50 African leaders took part.
The administration has made clear it wants to foster open societies, democratic elections, effective health systems as well as conservation and climate adaptation, Hammer said.
Competing with China and other foreign rivals is still important, Hammer said. But he said establishing a sturdy, lasting security is a higher priority because, without it, commercial investments become too risky.
In Somalia, the Islamic militant group Al-Shabab has unleashed frequent terrorist attacks, he said.
The al-Qaida affiliate has stepped up its assaults since Somalia's new president launched an offensive against the group, driving it out of a territory it previously held, Al Jazeera reported. The group set off two bombs that killed 116 people in Mogadishu in October and besieged a hotel in November, killing eight civilians.
"We are dealing with very real security issues related to terrorism," Hammer said. "So it's important we continue active anti-terrorism missions in Somalia and elsewhere. We know what happens if it goes unchecked."
About 500 American troops are stationed in Somalia to bolster the anti-terrorism efforts, he said.
Climate change and human rights
Dealing with climate issues is crucial everywhere but especially in the Horn of Africa, Hammer said.
Climate change has led to drier, hotter weather that has caused Somalia's worst drought in four decades and is compounding its food insecurity, which could turn into a famine in the coming months.
Biden's most fundamental effort to combat climate change is to push for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases that intensify droughts in arid regions, Hammer said.
At the same time, pressing the countries to respect human rights is a vital part of the U.S. mission, Hammer said. In fact, a country must not engage in human rights abuses if it wants to receive military assistance from the U.S., he said.
Hammer said he was tasked with helping find a diplomatic solution to end a war in northern Ethiopia that had killed hundreds of thousands of people.
In November 2022, after two years of devastating conflict, the two sides struck a peace accord that is still holding six months later. This shows Biden's policy to back an African Union-led mediation effort can achieve results, Hammer said.
Strong presence key to global competition
Hammer was prepped almost from birth for a life overseas. He grew up in Latin America, with stops in Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.
He joined the foreign service in 1988 and served in Bolivia, Norway, Iceland and Denmark.
He later became U.S. ambassador to Chile under then-President Barack Obama in 2014; ambassador to the Congo under then-President Donald Trump in 2018; then envoy to the Horn of Africa under Biden in 2022.
America must show its commitment to Africa by having a strong presence there, he said, adding this is key to competing with China.
Russia is less of an economic rival in Africa than a disruptor, deploying the Wagner Group — a paramilitary organization — to wreak havoc, he said.
The group has aided authoritarian African regimes and has been accused of war crimes, according to news reports.
Corrupt leaders will be more inclined to ally with China than with the U.S., he said, but in most cases, the American way of life is more appealing than China's and helps the U.S. sell itself.
Hammer said the U.S. tries to encourage the African countries to cooperate with each other, whether building a regional dam, strengthening maritime policing to combat piracy or curbing the spread of infectious diseases that can reach American shores.
Essentially, the U.S. is a supportive partner with a lot of resources, he said.
"We don't need to be solving everyone's problems, but rather we can be helping them address their own problems," Hammer said.