Africa’s security landscape defies easy generalization. Some parts of this vast continent — spanning 54 countries and more than one billion people — are much more peaceful, democratic, and economically vibrant now than in years past. Sadly, however, other areas still struggle with a volatile mix of hazards, from predatory militias, transnational terrorists, and illicit traffickers to interethnic violence, massive human displacement, infectious disease outbreaks, and the scramble for natural resources whose increasing scarcity or mismanaged abundance can fuel corruption and disorder.
During his historic trip to eastern Africa in July 2015, President Barack Obama trumpeted the continent’s great potential as a hub for global trade and investment, while also conveying “tough love” messages to his hosts regarding their need for improved governance, greater human rights observance, and gender equality. His effort at balanced commentary was entirely understandable — especially given how vividly Africa’s complex on-the-ground realities feed competing narratives regarding its great promise and enduring perils — but it is also clear that President Obama’s successor will face a steep uphill climb in seeking to forge stronger, more enduring linkages between America’s interests and Africa’s security needs.
To offer perspective on this complex issue, three questions deserve close scrutiny. First, what are the biggest security challenges currently facing the continent, and how might these interact, recede, or possibly metastasize? Second, what factors shape America’s policy inclinations toward Africa’s security domain? And, finally, looking ahead, what imperatives should guide Obama’s successor in the United States’ future security-focused engagements in Africa?
Myriad Security Challenges
Africa’s turbulence is often viewed through a geostrategic lens. This optic typically hones in on the imperial rivalries among European colonizers throughout the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then follows the African nations’ journey toward independence during the mid-twentieth century, often amid Cold War-era struggles between pro-Soviet and Western-backed groups and a pervasive fear of falling dominoes. Thankfully, those days are gone, at least in Africa.
More than a generation later, the tempo of political violence has greatly subsided across large areas of southern and eastern Africa and, more recently, in parts of coastal west Africa. Tragically, other venues — most notably central Africa’s Great Lakes region, as well as the Maghreb and Sahel to the north — are still riven by deep-set instabilities. And, yes, colonial-era legacies do still exert some malign influences, state fragility poses perennial relapse risks, and new threats are ever-evolving.
Despite these complexities, any geostrategist would have to acknowledge contemporary Africa’s positive features. The continent has not seen a war between sovereign states since the late 1990s, when Eritrean and Ethiopian forces waged large-scale mechanized warfare along their (still) disputed border. Nor is Africa a venue for aggressively overreaching hegemons. None of its largest, strongest countries — Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania — are locked into polarizing rivalries with each other, and growing economic interdependencies within and beyond their regions have tended, on balance, to aid local stability. This is all good news, but alas, it is only part of the story.
Africa’s security challenges today should be viewed through an anthropological lens, given the decisively important influence that sociocultural dynamics have on shaping peaceful coexistence — or its absence. Subnational groups, for instance, may clash over ethnic identity, tribal or clan loyalties, political grievances, or simply a desire to pillage resources. Whether specific militias fight more for a cause or a livelihood is hard to disentangle; clearly, both elements are present. Jihadist terrorist groups in parts of northern Africa and the Horn are more “cause” focused, given their extremist theology and willingness to inflict self-sacrificial violence. Their modus operandi is to exploit local cleavages while escalating sectarian conflicts. Their transnational reach also has certain transactional qualities. In western Africa, criminal networks and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups work together to secure routes for the trafficking of humans and drugs headed toward Europe, while sharing revenues and fueling corruption across transit states.
“Africa’s security challenges today should be viewed through an anthropological lens”
At present, this pernicious partnering of terrorists and traffickers across the Maghreb and Sahel represents Africa’s most visible security challenge, especially as Islamic State–inspired groups exploit Libya’s ongoing chaos and seek to expand their presence in enclaves nearby. In the meantime, Somalia’ new federal government grapples with al-Shabaab’s insurgency, although the country’s stability and economic viability are slowing improving, aided by continuing remittances from the Somali diaspora, now assisted by the World Bank, as well as the courageous efforts of African peacekeepers.
Although Africa’s traditionally Muslim regions are currently most vulnerable to baleful transnational influences, violence in sub-Saharan areas inflicts the most massive human suffering. Witness the horrific conflict between Dinka and Nuer communities in South Sudan. This two-year-old tribal war has killed tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee, upending the fragile unity that helped steer South Sudan toward independence from Khartoum in 2011. Elsewhere, subnational violence stretches from the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Central African Republic. Despite their tragic human impacts, these enduring struggles are often dubbed as “forgotten” conflicts — a label that also clouds the ever-present risk of recurring eruptions of mass atrocities in countries such as Burundi — since their visibility outside of Africa is, at best, episodic.
Finally, Africa’s security challenges are increasingly influenced by both environmental and “multihazard” anthropogenic stressors. Growing desertification throughout the Sahel continues to drive tensions between farmers and cattle-herding pastoralists over grazing and water access rights. Meanwhile, rapid urbanization along Africa’s coastal lowlands, especially to the east, is heightening vulnerability to sea-level rise and extreme weather events. Rapid population growth in sprawling cities also carries with it a range of risks, such as the massive spillage (or dumping) of toxic wastes or the combustibility of poorly stored fuels, hazardous chemicals, pesticides, drug precursors or munitions. And Ebola-like biomedical hazards, either independent of or sparked by conflicts or climate disasters, will only add to this anxiety.
America’s Policy Inclinations?
Whenever U.S. policymakers gather to assess Africa’s security trends and the mix of America’s interests at stake, three fundamental questions always loom large: Why should we care? To what goals should we aspire? And how can we best achieve successful outcomes?
The “why” question inevitably pivots on threat-centric concerns — namely, the physical safety of American citizens and the risks to U.S. interests and the global economy more broadly. The ingress of transnational terrorist groups into ungoverned areas in north and east Africa has received intense scrutiny since 9/11 and, more recently, since the Arab upheavals of 2011, but other risks periodically loom large. Among these are infectious disease outbreaks, especially in cases where the transmission of pathogens could quickly outpace detection and response. (Thankfully, this was not the case with the 2014 Ebola outbreak.) And in the economic sphere, the ebb and flow of maritime piracy and criminal activities along major global transit routes — most notably through the Gulf of Aden, and now through the Gulf of Guinea as well — can quickly jump to the fore if a spike in disruptions were to escalate shipping costs or inflict larger global economic impacts.
Beyond the threat-centric ambit, a broader array of developmental and humanitarian imperatives also helps to answer the “why” question. Extreme poverty, dysfunctional governance, and rampant corruption have long been seen — and fairly so — as the fuel for internal conflicts and, in some cases, mass atrocity hazards in defiance of universal values. Internationally, Africa-centric great power choreography can never be fully relegated to a bygone era. For instance, it is hard to predict whether Beijing will compete more than collaborate with Washington in Africa over the coming decade. Undoubtedly, China’s quest for natural resources and market share are present-day realities across the continent. Yet geostrategically, China’s reach has a peculiar knock-on effect, casting it as a voracious “access consumer” in Africa just as it strives to be an “access denier” to the United States and its allies in east Asia.
For Washington, the task of formulating policy goals — in effect, answering the “what” question — has proved to be fairly straightforward. In its 2012 strategy review, the Obama administration flagged five security priorities for sub-Saharan Africa: (1) combating terrorism and violent extremism; (2) advancing regional security cooperation and security sector reform; (3) countering criminal threats; (4) preventing and, where necessary, mitigating mass atrocities and holding perpetrators accountable; and (5) supporting regional peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions. Although this fivefold set of security priorities is framed within a larger strategy of strengthening democratic governance, spurring economic growth, and achieving sustainable development outcomes, it also reflects a continuity of U.S. interests in Africa, one that President Obama’s successors are very likely to reaffirm.
The really hard question is “how” best to achieve these goals. Within the security sphere, America’s current predispositions toward Africa have been greatly affected by the searing impacts of both past actions and inaction. The Somalia example is illustrative: A U.S.-led humanitarian relief operation there in 1993 saved countless lives but quickly morphed into the “Battle of Mogadishu,” the tragic loss of 18 American service members, and a hasty U.S. withdrawal. This episode bred great sensitivity to “mission creep” hazards, and greatly reinforced Washington’s inclination not to act when genocidal violence erupted in Rwanda only a few months later. Nearly two decades later, Libya loomed large. In March 2011, when strongman Muammar Gaddafi threatened a “no mercy” assault upon the rebel-held city of Benghazi, the imperative to act won out: the United States and its allies intervened decisively. Their air campaign staved off potential mass atrocities, but the regime’s eventual overthrow did not end the fighting, and President Obama has since lamented not pressing ahead on any viable post-Gaddafi stabilization planning.
Granted, history is not just replete with downside examples. In June 2003, the United States dispatched a Marine Amphibious Group to coastal Liberia; its mission was to help secure the U.S. embassy in battle-scared Monrovia and assist with the evacuation of U.S. nationals. That mission morphed into the opening of and support for an aid corridor into that war-torn city, and the assistance of beleaguered UN peacekeepers. It arguably was a positive example of mission creep; the prospect of a heightened U.S. military presence prompted Liberia’s blood-stained president Charles Taylor to flee into exile, whereupon a seemingly endless spiral of fighting between rebel and government militias quickly ramped down. Taylor was apprehended, tried, and convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and is currently serving his de facto life sentence in a British prison.
Looking back, while each of these episodes took different paths, all stirred compelling (if, at times, contentious) narratives about U.S. action or inaction and the extent of Washington’s responsibility for whatever ensued. When set against America’s larger mix of interests and goals in Africa, these experiences have fed U.S. policy inclinations in distinctive ways.
Distilled into “elevator speech” parlance, the cascading refrain for U.S. policymakers is clear. Countering terrorism and defusing conflicts are definitely in sync with U.S. interests. Helping our regional partners build their capacity to act quickly and effectively is our preferred method of operation. Keeping our military footprint light is a necessity. And, finally, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Africa’s regional security, economic development, and good governance over the longer term are inextricably linked.
The Primacy of Partnerships
When he took office in 2009, President Obama inherited this strong preference for partnering from his predecessors and indeed has trumpeted its virtues. His administration has sought to build enduring relationships upon a firm foundation of equality (not patronage) where the recipient nations work together effectively and more self-sufficiently under the oft-cited banner of “African solutions to African problems.” Will his successor find this pathway an easy route to navigate? Politically and rhetorically, this is likely to be the case, since partnering will always fare well compared with its only logical alternatives — that is, doing nothing or ramping up large-scale U.S. interventions. Practically, though, several challenges are present.
First, despite its alluring quality, “partnering” is a very nebulous label. Consider then–Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s strategic guidance for his department back in 2012: “Across the globe we will seek to be the security partner of choice, pursuing new partnerships with a growing number of nations … whose interests and viewpoints are merging into a common vision of freedom, stability and prosperity.” Diplomatically, a values-based approach always will be a strong sell, but it creates challenges for setting policy priorities when the club appears to be globally all-inclusive. Security partnerships, after all, are rarely borne of benign circumstances — they can be principled and progressive, or extremely problematic. So what is the problem that we and our aspiring partner are jointly trying to solve? And is our aspiring partner “choosing” us for the right reasons? Is what they want similar to, or different from, what we think they need?
Second, America’s returns on U.S. taxpayer investments has come under great scrutiny, given the setbacks that U.S.-trained and -equipped forces have endured in fights against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Although the recent history of U.S. security assistance does include some more positive cases — including Colombia, the Philippines, and African peacekeeping contributors in Somalia — it is also clear that context matters, and our expectations for partner performance have not always been in line with on-the-ground realities.
Third, and most significant, is the question of relevance. Practical experiences can teach a great deal, but our partnering efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be that relevant elsewhere. Following our regime-change interventions, U.S. military presence in both those countries was sizable, and our need for partners absolutely skyrocketed. U.S. forces served as the “hub” while our partners operated as the “spokes,” and the coalition-building imperative — gaining allies to serve alongside us —heavily influenced our assistance efforts with regard to a huge swath of partners as diverse as Georgia, Mongolia, El Salvador, Poland, Pakistan, and ultimately the Iraqi and Afghan security forces. In Africa, by contrast, our goal is focused more on a self-sufficiency imperative; we aim for partners to be able to operate in lieu of, not alongside, us. Interoperability may still be valuable in terms of maximizing a recipient’s capability to effectively use and maintain the equipment we provide, but in “light footprint” settings (where large coalitions are not on the horizon), much more responsibility will fall to a smaller cohort of U.S. trainers, advisers, and implementing partners. Their performance effectiveness will pivot significantly on their sociocultural understanding, language skills, civil-military rapport, and mentoring proficiencies; however, they also may lack the access, influence, and resources that large coalition operations typically generate.
Despite these challenges, it is unlikely that the next administration will step away from a partnering-centric strategy in Africa. Efforts to help African countries build their counterterrorism and peacekeeping capacities, while providing information support, have yielded some positive results. Most notably, the African Union’s Mission in Somalia has been able to forge a pathway toward greater stability, and France’s Operation Serval, which thwarted Islamist fighters from overrunning Mali in 2013, was greatly aided by U.S.-trained Chadian counterterrorism forces, which are also key in regionally aligned efforts to counter Boko Haram militants. Yet there are also cases where U.S. training and material assistance may have unintentionally enabled adverse outcomes — including instances where beneficiaries or their units underperformed, intercommunal tensions were exacerbated or legitimate, and fragile civilian governance was undermined or even toppled.
Obama’s successor should consider steering our security sector assistance efforts in Africa towards a reform agenda
Toward a “Full Spectrum” Strategy
Given the imperfections and enduring necessity of forging partnerships, President Obama’s successor should consider steering our security sector assistance efforts in Africa towards a reform agenda — one aimed at mitigating key deficiencies while forging stronger linkages between America’s interests and the continent’s needs. To do this right will require more than a bit of strategic patience, as well as a detailed understanding of key needs and an ever-present ability to adapt our efforts in light of new challenges. Our overall goal here — in essence, a “full spectrum” partnering strategy — could best be pursued by embracing four key priorities:
1. Strengthen the analytic pillars of partnering
When U.S. practitioners start to prepare security partnering recommendations for their policy leaderships, they need to anticipate that they will be asked some fairly foundational questions: So is what you’re proposing really the right thing to do here? And, if so, how can we be sure we’re doing it right? These and related questions require well-informed responses, and U.S. security sector assistance authorities and practices frequently give the practitioners a range of analytic “must-dos.” For example, a cohort of U.S. security cooperation officers will look closely at a partner’s military capabilities within a given mission area to assess what additional equipment, skills, or enabling support may be required to fill critical gaps. Also, U.S. embassy teams will evaluate a partner’s ability to finance an acquisition and the ways in which that commitment might affect its other public expenditures, along with a spate of potential end-use monitoring concerns, including the risks of misuse or diverting specific items to unauthorized users.
Important as these tasks are, they tend to have a very narrow scope, typically around specific transfers of equipment or services. The job of rigorously identifying and assessing a broader range of sociopolitical risks is much harder to do, and as a recent RAND study has pointed out, U.S. security partnering efforts often face a conundrum in Africa: those states that are in greatest need of assistance are usually the ones least able to benefit from it.
What is needed here is a stronger focus on anticipatory “perturbation” impact assessments — specifically, to analyze the reactive behaviors that our assistance might catalyze. Regarding counterterrorism, for example, there is an understandably strong preference for training and equipping elite forces, given the tactical prowess that such units need to perform their kinetic operations effectively and without excessive force. But would creating elite units also tend to aggravate fault lines within a recipient nation’s larger conventional force? What steps might its leadership have to take in order to mitigate tension between self-perceived winners and losers? Conversely, are there lessons that might be gleaned from security sector reforms piloted by other African countries? Emulating successes nearby may be a better strategy than adapting a purely American model, but to help orchestrate their decisions effectively, U.S. practitioners need a much stronger comparative knowledge base than they currently possess.
2. Emphasize sustainability
Sustainability, or more specifically its absence, is one of biggest challenges that U.S.-Africa security partnerships have faced over the past decade. Too often, U.S.-trained personnel in Africa have seen their skills atrophy while their equipment has become dysfunctional with little or no maintenance.
Why is this so? On the U.S. side, programming often has a contingency flavor — focusing on urgent or emergent requirements, achieving quick impacts via training and equipping, but with no multiyear funding to sustain the newly created capacity. On the African side, meanwhile, given state fragility in many venues, partners often have neither the wherewithal nor the incentive to put basic structures in place, especially if their forces can get a free ride or have operational support provided by internationally funded, private-sector contractors.
Fixing this problem will not be easy. In low-income countries, the size of security forces may have to be determined more by public-sector revenue flows than by mission-centric manpower requirements. Bad things can happen if police and soldiers are not paid. There also needs to be greater efforts to build logistics, transportation, engineering, and maintenance into a partner’s military force structure, along with education and training. Although U.S. “train-the-trainer” programs are often portrayed as a pathway toward sustainability, they only work if training functionalities and requisite expertise are really made a working part of the partner’s force structure. If not, even the trainers’ skills will atrophy.
3. Maximize civil society buy-in
As African countries continue their transitions toward greater economic growth, social cohesion, and stronger democratic governance, they and their partners have come to recognize the close interconnections between physical security and human development. This raises an obvious question: can U.S. partnering help to reinforce complementarities between these two spheres in ways that promote “human security” while building stronger civil-military relationships?
Surprisingly, this consideration has not been a high-profile issue for U.S. partnering efforts to date. America may not carry the baggage that comes with being a postcolonial power, but it is very aware that it lacks the depth of knowledge that various European partners, whether in Anglophone, Francophone, or Lusophone Africa, possess regarding the continent. It has also been cautious — and understandably so — about possible downsides of encouraging security force involvement in the civil sector, given the ever-present risks of fueling corruption in fragile state settings.
Civil-military relations are hugely significant, especially in the peacekeeping and counterterrorism mission sets in which the United States is strongly invested. Consider those countries that are navigating through or out of conflicts. If local communities view their police or soldiers more as predators than protectors, that levies a huge burden upon legitimate actors — be they overstretched government officials, UN peacebuilders, or local nongovernmental organizations — to find ways of fostering greater respect, professional conduct, and mutual trust. Also, given the influx of transnational actors throughout much of Africa, there is a need for greater investment in border management, customs enforcement, and both national and community-level policing.
How can “full spectrum” partnering address these challenges? First, a greater investment in military logistics and engineering capacities could spur positive steps, both for economic growth and for emergency response to chronic or sudden-onset natural disasters. As development expert Calestous Juma has argued, African economies could hugely benefit from realigning military forces to build and maintain basic infrastructure corridors. Security sector reform advocates have also trumpeted a number of positive cases, most notably Senegal and Botswana, where military contributions to infrastructure development, wildlife protection, and flood relief have generated public support and been effectively and accountably implemented under strong civil supervision.
In future postconflict venues (including, hopefully, South Sudan and Libya), where the tasks of “rightsizing” security forces as well as demobilizing and reintegrating ex-combatants into society can be overwhelming, a strategy of revamping units to perform engineering tasks could be part of a manageable downsizing process. This reorganization would give soldiers useful skills for the private sector and build trust with local communities. Again, the aim is achieving a smooth transition, specifically through military efforts that supplement or complement civil sector efforts to restart the economy and foster productive interdependencies across ethnic or sectarian lines.
4. Ramp up institutional investments
Finally, a “full spectrum” partnering strategy must seek to help African partners strengthen legitimate, accountable ministerial oversight of their security sectors. President Obama’s 2014 launch of his Security Governance Initiative was definitely a positive step forward, but it will be hard to predict how far his successor can push forward in this arena.
At the operational level, it is comparatively easy to evaluate the effects of security sector assistance. Did the recipient unit accomplish its mission? Is a given village or district clear of insurgent fighters? Institutionally, however, measuring performance impacts is much harder. Government actors often face competing pressures to ensure that their country’s forces are nationally inclusive, yet not bloated, and accepted locally. It is not easy to turn those imperatives into performance metrics. Capacity-building must embrace reform of key administrative functionalities — specifically, a merit-based personnel system and a coherent, auditable financial resource management system — but both these domains have “life cycle” attributes that will take time to build, strengthen, repair, or transform.
In Africa, as anywhere else, context matters greatly. For the least-developed countries, basic literacy and numeracy education must be put in place before any institutional capacity-building can be launched. Societies with greater economic viability will likely benefit from public services at home as well as diaspora support abroad, but they may struggle with the corrupting effects of patrimonial influence at the national or regional levels. Again, the analytics here are a key ingredient. The ultimate goals of public service are not really in dispute. What President Obama and his successor will really need are well-honed strategies based on rigorous assessment of a partner’s institutional terrain, along with proposed (and, hopefully, agreed-upon) milestones for measuring progress toward those ends.
Greater regional burden-sharing doesn’t fit with our old mantra about “exporting stability” to Africa.
Finding the Right Balance
Africa’s continuing rise carries with it enormous hope. State fragility, subnational violence and transnational threats still pose major challenges, but the continent is also moving into an era anchored by growing public aspirations for greater self-reliance, economic development, and social cohesion, especially in venues where local interdependencies can also help to inculcate a “live-and-let-live” rather than a “winner-take-all” approach to governance and security.
For the United States, security partnerships modeled on a “full spectrum” approach can definitely help to foster incentives for greater self-reliance, civil society support, good governance, and regional leadership. Across the continent’s most turbulent areas, our African partners are pressing ahead with regionally generated, continentally mandated, and internationally supported campaigns to neutralize armed groups and stabilize volatile regions.
Greater regional burden-sharing doesn’t fit with our old mantra about “exporting stability” to Africa. The task now is really much more about finding indigenous ways to foster greater peace and stability within Africa. The ride ahead may well be bumpy, but President Obama can fairly claim credit for having helped to accelerate this positive shift, and his successor will likely follow in his footsteps.
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James A. Schear is a global fellow at the Wilson Center, and served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Partnership Strategy and Stability Operations from 2009 to 2013.
Cover photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force