A Welcome American Absence from Africa

Washington must approach African states as partners, not as mere victims to be aided.

In a recent article, Dawit Giorgis argues for a more robust American policy in Africa to combat terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He believes that it is the obligation of the United States to lead from the front, particularly “when there is danger,” and that this would foster a more stable political environment. I disagree.

In many ways, the article reinforces dangerous American stereotypes of the continent—that Africa is a continent to be feared, that it is dangerous. This approach obscures the very necessary steps we should be taking to engage the African continent. While the aforementioned terrorism groups do pose a serious danger to peace and stability, they are by no means the greatest threat facing the region. Quite the contrary. Weak institutions, poor governance, and fragile economies are the underlying problems—creating the vacuums in which terrorist groups have emerged and thrived—and these will not be fixed by American drones or military forces. The United States should focus instead on helping African governments, business leaders and citizens to improve governance, strengthen institutions, and build economic and business ties. This will eliminate the conditions necessary for terrorism to thrive and place African governments in a position where they can come up with solutions to their own problems.

The problems are real, as Giorgis explains:

African problems are growing. In the Sahel, Al Qaeda has affiliates and sympathetic groups, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Elsewhere, in the Horn of Africa, Somali Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab is still actively fighting to retake territory lost to African Union forces, while in West Africa, Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram—whose members have been tied to AQIM—continues to wage war against the government.

Unfortunately, solutions to these problems are less apparent. African governments that are prepared to combat radical Islamists lack training and leadership, and even the more professional African militaries don’t have the appropriate resources or training.

The United States must be wary of viewing the entire continent of Africa through this lens, however. In most instances, these groups have arisen in the void of effective governance. They may clothe their activities in the guise of Islam, but in reality are simply thugs—criminal gangs engaged in drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other illegal activities. They may bear allegiance to Al Qaeda, but these are loose and fluid affiliations. Al Qaeda and other groups are not the major threat facing African countries; they merely exploit and obscure the real problems—the lack of effective governance, weak institutions, and fragile economies. These conditions have led to the vacuums in which these groups thrive. It is interesting to note that the blossoming of terrorist groups in the Sahara—with the exception of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has its roots in the Algerian Civil War—has occurred coincidentally with the “Global War on Terror”. Groups such as Al Shabaab, MUJAO and Ansar Dine emerged and thrived in nations with weak government control.

Giorgis argues that the United States has not been active enough in the fight against these groups. He suggests that surveillance drones are inadequate and that we should introduce the use of armed drones in combating terrorist groups in Africa (which is already happening in Somalia). This at a time when we are questioning our use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Further, his article portrays Africa as a victim in need of a savior, and that savior is the United States.

He writes:

In both the Libyan and Malian crises, America opted for a supporting role while Europe, and especially France, took the lead. With the French expected to pull out as soon as they are able, how long can we realistically expect Mali and the region to remain secure without U.S. help? Similarly, can Libya stabilize itself without extensive assistance? The president’s reluctance to lead the fight against Islamist extremists in Africa is particularly worrying, as Al Qaeda affiliates and other jihadi groups increasingly destabilize the continent.

One forgets that both Mali and Libya are unstable precisely because of international involvement, “limited” as American involvement may have been. Mali was, and still is, a staunch ally of the United States. The Malian army worked with, and received training from, the United States military. This same Malian army proved incapable of quelling the insurgency in the north and was complicit in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré in Bamako. Some training.