A Welcome American Absence from Africa

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.

When the Islamic Courts Union took control of Mogadishu in Somalia in 2006—and a shaky peace had taken hold—the United States backed the subsequent invasion by Ethiopia. This invasion deposed the ICU, plunged the country back into chaos, and led to the increased radicalization of Al Shabaab. As the Council on Foreign Relations explains:

Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December 2006 and ousted the ICU from Mogadishu with little resistance. The intervention, which came at the request of Somalia's transitional government, had a radicalizing effect on al-Shabaab, analysts say. After much of the ICU fled to neighboring countries, al-Shabaab remained and retreated to the south, from where it began organizing asymmetric assaults, including bombings and assassinations, on conventional Ethiopian forces. Some experts say it was during these years that the group morphed into a full-fledged guerilla movement and gained control over large pieces of territory in central and southern Somalia.

The Ethiopian occupation was responsible for "transforming the group from a small, relatively unimportant part of a more moderate Islamic movement into the most powerful and radical armed faction in the country," writes Rob Wise, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Addis Ababa says the intervention was a "reluctant response" to calls by the ICU for a jihad against Ethiopia and renewed territorial claims against both Ethiopia and Kenya. It has stressed that the intervention was supported by the United States and the African Union, among others.

Another example would be the Garamba Offensive—otherwise known as Operation Lightning Thunder—in Uganda in late 2008, when the United States backed an operation to catch Joseph Kony and crush the Lord’s Resistance Army. It failed on both counts—both Joseph Kony and the LRA remain at large. The operation succeeded only in pushing the LRA out of Uganda and into the vague and even more ungovernable borderlands of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the South Sudan. The reprisal attacks in the wake of the operation left hundreds dead and even more displaced. Not exactly a success.

Yet Giorgis is confident that this is exactly the kind of thing we need to do more of. He writes:

But U.S. policy currently precludes meaningful engagement on the African continent, instead focusing on “African solutions to African problems.” This effectively means that because the United States is apprehensive of committing its own forces in the wake of bruising conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is only willing to send drones to troubled areas that do not directly impact its interests.

According to his article, the United States is the only country capable of providing the appropriate resources and training to African governments to combat terrorist groups operating in Africa. There is something strange with the notion that having African countries come up with solutions to their own problems is in any way not meaningful engagement. The United States should encourage African nations to govern, and to do so in a way that respects the rights of human beings and follows the rule of law. Governments must be held accountable by strong institutions. Ultimately, it is a government’s responsibility to govern its territory; if it cannot do this, perhaps it does not deserve to govern that territory. Getting somebody else—the United States, for example—to police that territory on its behalf is even worse. It eliminates accountability and prevents that government from taking the hard but necessary steps to address its own problems. The United States is right to be wary of being dragged into further conflicts, particularly since the verdict still is out on Iraq and Afghanistan. Are these countries any safer, any more stable, than they were before we became “meaningfully engaged”? And what business do we have to send drones—armed or not—to places which do not even directly affect us?

The United States should focus instead on building relationships with African countries as partners rather than victims. The influence of China—and, increasingly, India—vastly outweighs that of the United States in Africa. This was accomplished with little to no military involvement. China is not actively involved in fighting terrorist groups in Africa. They are more concerned with business and infrastructure projects, and yet they have been much more successful than the United States. I would argue that the last thing Africa needs is increased militarization. In that sense, the lack of American military activity in Africa could be described as a welcome absence. If we do deepen our military involvement with Africa, however, we must ensure that we understand what we are doing. If we act first, think later, we could very well end up with a situation like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or even Mali. And that is not in anyone’s best interest.