Several weeks ago at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, President Obama unveiled the Security Governance Initiative (SGI), a new program designed to address security sector governance and improve security capacity in six African countries: Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia. The SGI is the latest in a series of security assistance initiatives that the US has rolled out specifically targeting Africa, primarily – though not exclusively – in the Sahara, Sahel, and Horn.
These initiatives are part of a broader shift in American security policy. As international attention has been focused on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and more recently Ukraine, the United States has been slowly but gradually expanding its security assistance into Africa and working to build the capacity of African states to become reliable security and counter-terrorism partners. It is a significant departure from the mid-1990s, when a report released by the Department of Defense declared that the United States had no “strategic interest in Africa.”
America began gradually increasing its security assistance to African countries after 9/11, recognizing that weak African states were susceptible to becoming safe havens for terrorists, as Sudan had been for Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. It stood up United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007-08, and currently has “boots on the ground” in at least 13 African states—though the clandestine nature of much of this security assistance makes finding complete and valid figures difficult.
The US military presence includes a network of small air bases – from Niger in the west to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa – used to launch Predator and Reaper drones for surveillance flights, as well as Special Forces teams on the ground in places like Uganda, where they advise government and African Union troops fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Recent assistance, however, has been focused primarily in North and West Africa, which has become a hot-spot for radical groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Al-Sharia, and other fundamentalist off-shoots. In many ways, the Sahel has become the new frontier in the global counterterrorism campaign.
One key feature of American engagement across the continent is its preference for what US officials have termed “enabling.” In structuring its security assistance, American policy makers face two competing challenges. On one hand, they are concerned about the spread of extremism and remain deeply committed to preventing future terrorist attacks against Americans. On the other hand, Washington’s prevailing climate of austerity and legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq have left them reluctant to spend vast sums of money or commit US troops to foreign hotspots. There is little interest in having American troops involved in another foreign war, where perceptions of the country’s national interests are murky. In order to mediate this tension, the Obama administration has focused on building the capacity of its African partners with deployments focused on training and advising.
However, America’s security assistance in Africa has posed a number of logistical, practical, and moral dilemmas for the country’s security decision makers. The US is attempting to funnel security assistance into states and regions that are incredibly difficult operating environments, with complex histories often little understood in the United States. As a result, American operations and activities have achieved limited success, and even resulted in some high-profile embarrassments.
Perhaps the best example was the American attempt to establish a counterterrorism-training centre in Libya last year at Camp Younis, approximately 15 miles from Tripoli. Shortly after the American arrival, Camp Younis was raided by gunmen who overpowered the base’s Libyan guards and stripped it of weapons and equipment, including high-powered assault weapons and armored vehicles. Similarly, in Somalia, Navy Seals were forced to abort a counterterrorism raid after encountering heavier fire and stiffer opposition than their intelligence had led them to believe. The United States also launched “Operation Lighting Thunder” to take out the LRA in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which ended ignominiously after it was discovered that the group had fled the area well in advance.
In particular, the US focus on “enabling” has come with challenges. Many of its security partners in Africa are weak states with little capacity to be “enabled.” For example, despite significant security assistance, Niger’s security forces have been unable to stop the smuggling and flow of extremists across its easily permeated borders with neighbouring Mali, Nigeria, and Libya. Some have argued that the weak capacity in some of its African partners will create an inevitable “mission creep.” As American security actors struggle to achieve their objectives simply by “enabling,” they will inevitably be dragged into becoming more involved in implementing and carrying out operations on the ground.
Aside from capacity, additional questions have been raised about the questionable nature of many of America’s partners in the region. In this sense, US security assistance has exposed the broader tension between ensuring security through what are effectively “train and equip” programs and promoting the softer norms of human rights and good governance, the latter being important tenets of security sector reform. US officials, including the president himself, have raised the issue of human rights abuses with some of their African counterparts. However, the administration has been criticized for continuing to provide security assistance – an activity that can be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the status quo, and clear message that security trumps all else. This issue has been of particular importance in Nigeria, where domestic security forces have come under significant criticism for alleged human rights violations in their quest to defeat Boko Haram.
Some analysts have also pointed out that the current approach of “enabling” and working with domestic partners, who may have questionable legitimacy, is replicating many of the strategic errors that the US made during the Cold War – by supporting repressive regimes, excusing human rights abuses, wasting scare budget dollars, creating resentment, and undermining long term US interests on the continent. As a result, the current approach to security assistance could actually have the perverse effect of perpetuating anti-American sentiment and stoking the instability that already exists in the continent.
Another concern is that increased American security assistance may have the unintended consequence of alienating and delegitimizing African leaders, whose citizens view American involvement as exploitative or imperialistic. This is a tension that is deeply embedded across the continent and has already come up within the context of America’s security engagement. There is a reason that AFRICOM is still located in Germany, rather than somewhere in Africa. Neither of America’s two most powerful partners on the continent – South Africa and Nigeria – were willing to play host to an American military presence. This refusal was especially telling in the case of Nigeria, who has been a major beneficiary and recipient of American security aid. Similarly the South African Development Community has said in previous statements that “it is better if the United States were involved with Africa from a distance rather than be present on the continent.”
It is clear that increasing security assistance in Africa is a priority for the Obama administration and given the rise in extremism across the continent is unlikely to change under future administrations. However, American policy makers would be wise to pair their counterterrorism and security assistance with strong security sector reform programming. The Security Governance Initiative is an important step in this direction, but should not be the only or the last.
Eric Muller is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.