America’s African Balancing Act

America’s African Balancing Act

Washington must find a way to remain competitive and engaged in the continent without contributing to political unrest and dependence.


In 2016, upon returning to America after ten years in South Africa, I argued in the National Interest that the “Africa Rising” narrative of inevitable economic and political development was too simplistic. The continent encountered bumps in the road, including stagnating economies, electoral violence, and extremist attacks. Unfortunately, we have seen a significant rise in conflict and political upheaval almost eight years later. 

The most recent “African” media coverage in the United States surrounds the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, where the M23 rebellion once again took up arms in late 2021. Congolese protestors have targeted Western embassies, such as the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, alleging that the West supports the M23 by backing neighboring Rwanda. Kigali denies these claims. Nevertheless, the UN estimated that by the end of 2023, nearly seven million people would be displaced in DRC.


At the same time, the United States and the DRC have been jointly fighting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group linked to the Islamic State. In 2021, Washington and DRC President Felix Tshisekedi enlisted U.S. Special Forces to aid the DRC Army in the fight against the ADF, which has allegedly killed thousands since 2014. The ADF’s most recent attack earlier this month killed at least eleven people in eastern DRC.

In addition, we have also witnessed an epidemic of coups in recent years. Coups and attempted coups took place in Niger, Gabon, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe. Political upheavals in other African countries, including Burkina Faso, Mali, and Sudan, preceded these. Even Senegal, long considered America’s beacon of democracy in West Africa, began showing warning signs of democracy in early February. President Macky Sall postponed the presidential election, sparking widespread protests. However, after the elections on Sunday, Senegal has a new president-elect, the forty-four-year-old Bassirou Diomaye Fay.

More than twenty elections are taking place across the continent in 2024. Political change has the potential to trigger military coups and political violence.

Simultaneously, we have seen an increase in official U.S. diplomatic visits across Africa. The more high-profile diplomatic visits included Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. These exclude the more military cooperation-focused visits, such as U.S. Marine Corps General Michael Langley and Commander of the U.S. Africa Command visiting Morocco on February 20 to 21. Furthermore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin concluded a tour of Africa in September 2023, making stops in Djibouti, Kenya, and Angola.

Not to oversimplify, the United States has stepped up diplomatic efforts to boost economic ties with African nations abundant in critical minerals.

Not all have been pleased by the U.S. visits, including the military junta in control of Niger since July 2023. Following high-level talks with U.S. diplomatic and military officials just last week, Niger’s military government announced they had ended an accord with the United States that allowed American military personnel and civilian staff to operate in their country. Niger military spokesman Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane stated that the United States “did not respect diplomatic practices” by not providing information on the visit, such as the date, attendees, and its purpose. Moreover, Niger “forcefully denounces the condescending attitude” of the United States.

This is a significant blow to U.S. operations in the region, particularly the $100 million-dollar U.S. drone base known as Airbase 201, constructed near Agadez in central Niger, which helps target extremist groups.

Adversarial Activity

Despite the persistence of coups, conflicts, and disagreements, the continued presence of the U.S. military in Africa is not a matter of choice but of necessity. The Pentagon is fully aware of the geopolitical dynamics at play, such as Niger’s closer alignment with Russia. Washington must ensure an enduring American footprint across strategic African locales. This includes vital maritime routes and military outposts, including the drone base in Niger, as well as others like Contingency Location Garoua in Cameroon, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. These strategic sites enable swift responses to emerging threats and can help protect Americans during crises. While these bases do not need to be vast in scope, they must be large enough to house U.S. Special Forces and necessary equipment. Most operations are run by the Joint Special Operations Command, consisting of smaller forces like the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force.

At the same time, Russia continues to meddle in Africa, much as it has done for decades since the Cold War. Moscow is keen on generating profits through arms sales. According to a recent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report, Russia topped China as the primary arms supplier to Sub-Saharan Africa between 2018 and 2022. Moscow plies its military hardware throughout the continent, with key destinations including Algeria, Angola, Egypt, and Sudan. The world also became familiar with Russia’s Wagner Group last year, and there is a clear link between Russia’s African arms sales and the mercenary force’s operations throughout Africa. 

Iran is ramping up its arms sales on the continent as well. Tehran has supplied Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Ethiopia and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara. Government forces in countries like Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Sudan are known to utilize Iranian ammunition.

America is also keeping a close eye on Chinese activity. Beijing has one base on the African continent, located in Djibouti, which opened in 2017 adjacent to the U.S. base. Recent reports indicate that Gabon and Equatorial Guinea offered Beijing opportunities for a military presence along their Atlantic coastline. The prospect of a Chinese naval base where Beijing could rearm and repair warships could seriously threaten American maritime security.

At the same time, notwithstanding some concerns by U.S. lawmakers, America is aiding in arming its African allies. For example, the United States wanted to sell Nigeria twelve AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopters for nearly a billion dollars. In 2023, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee placed a hold on the sale due to possible human rights abuses by the Nigerian government. However, Congress eventually approved the sale since it aids Nigeria’s counter-insurgency against the terrorist group Boko Haram. 

However, the focus is no longer on counter-terrorism but rather great power competition. The United States continues to closely monitor Africa’s military relations, such as the South African Navy’s plans to send their frigate SAS Amatola to Russia for a parade at the end of July. Pretoria aims to strengthen relations with global navies, including its BRICS partners. South Africa also recently participated in the naval Exercise Milan in India, with nearly fifty other countries, and is looking to bolster relations with the Egyptian Navy. Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all confirmed admission into the BRICS bloc. However, whether this indicates a general orientation toward China and Russia remains to be seen. 

Partners for Prosperity 

Given the escalation of conflicts worldwide, the Pentagon must maintain its partnerships with African allies to ward off future threats and, more importantly, ensure Africans have a concrete foundation of security and economic prosperity. However, this requires a delicate balancing act. The same American training and weaponry, regardless of its course, can lead to coups and unrest, leading to situations like in Niger, where the United States loses partners despite its investment. 

Nevertheless, it must be made clear that not all recent developments around Africa are negative. American support for the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) has yielded some success. The KDF has been instrumental in the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia and the overall fight against al-Shabaab. Kenya’s internal stability has allowed more than 120,000 U.S. citizens to visit the country annually since 2022, making America the leading source of tourists to Kenya.

Moreover, Kenya and other East African countries like Ethiopia seek economic transformation through digital transformation or increased cooperation. For instance, Kenya aims to update its coastal port of Lamu to establish it as a regional trade hub. This pleases Ethiopia because they rely on the Lamu port to import vital goods inland. Bilateral or multilateral improvements, whether economic or otherwise, are always welcome news. 

Africa’s prosperity will be critical as the world continues to “shrink.” Africa is no longer a faraway place. Consequently, some African nationals will go to extraordinary ends to emigrate to America. Some immigrate through legal channels or apply for asylum. Some choose the illegal route. Saving enough money to fly into Central America and then enter America through the U.S.-Mexico land border is a common means of entry. According to U.S. government data obtained by The New York Times, 58,462 Africans were apprehended at the southern border in 2023, up from 13,406 in 2022. The top African countries represented were Mauritania at 15,263, Senegal at 13,526, and Angola and Guinea with more than 4,000 each.

The important lesson that Africans, particularly young Africans, understand is that they must lead their own countries into the future to prosper. They know they need strong leaders paired with robust institutions, not corrupt leaders reliant on security forces. They also understand that in the long term, the changes necessary for prosperity will not be handed to them by Washington, Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran but rather by themselves.