On May 14, the U.S. Senate showed rare bipartisanship in authorizing the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act — a bill designed to foster U.S.-African trade and investment and incentivizing African countries to foster the conditions for free markets. It was a signal that, nearly a year since President Obama welcomed African leaders to Washington, the United States remains keen to play a role in the development of some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
But Americans are also increasingly alert to the growing problem of terrorism emanating from Africa, which threatens to hold the continent hostage as well as imperil Americans and their allies globally. As Long War Journal editor Thomas Joscelyn noted in his testimony to Congress in April, declassified documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound document the extent to which Africa has been on the grid in al-Qaeda’s international operations. Bin Laden saw Qaeda affiliates south of the Sahara as a potent source of foot soldiers for attacks on the West. Meanwhile, with the expansion of ISIS from its beachheads in the Sinai and Libya through the Sahel and into West Africa, the prospect of new ISIS “provinces” is poised to jeopardize the painstaking progress many countries have made in stabilizing their economies and political systems.
How the United States and its allies manage the opportunities as well as the threats emanating from Africa over the next decade will profoundly affect global security as well as the global economy.
Unfortunately, the United States is under equipped to engage the continent. Whereas rivals like China and Russia — not to mention Sunni Islamists and the proxies of Tehran — have been working to build their presence in the region, the United States is a relative latecomer. Not only are its formidable military resources stretched thin, but its soft power capacities to affect political outcomes without the use of military force are weak. The limited American efforts at counter-radicalization tend to begin at the borders of Libya and move north and east into the Arab heartlands. Meanwhile, in the private sector, American businesses have not established the networks that their European counterparts have maintained for decades. All of these factors, in turn, affect the relative capacity of American intelligence establishments to cultivate human sources on the ground.
In seeking to navigate these challenges, one ally with which the United States can potentially partner is the Kingdom of Morocco: From a political development and counter-radicalization standpoint, the country has been working hard to share its own soft power tools with its southern neighbors, in support of stabilization efforts in fragile states. In terms of trade and investment, Morocco’s business and banking networks are well ensconced and growing. It is therefore warranted to briefly review Moroccan capacities in Africa and consider the means by which the United States can tap them — and incorporate the partnership into its broader strategies, both on the continent and beyond.
With numerous fragile African states at its doorstep, Moroccans are viscerally vested in shoring up their defenses. Part of the threat lies in the radicalization of those neighbors’ youth populations by Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated clerics. Fortunately, Morocco, a global bastion of Islam’s moderate Sufi “mystical” strand, has both the credibility and human infrastructure to compete and beat these hardline networks on the ground.
Last March, Rabat inaugurated the “Mohammed VI Institute” for the training of Imams — and the student body includes more than 400 foreign nationals, emanating largely from Mali, Guinea, Conakry, Ivory Coast, and Gabon (not to mention Tunisia, France, Belgium, and even the Maldives.) This represents the institutionalization of a technique initially developed at the request of the new government in war torn Mali last year: 500 imams were trained from that country, in order to counter the pro-Qaeda strand in religious leadership, which briefly occupied a piece of the country’s north the size of France.
Training for all these religious leadership figures takes down the warped interpretation of Islamic proof texts, which is the radicals’ stock in trade. It also stressed the salubrious role of women — including as leadership figures: Female imams, known as “murchidate” (“female guides”) learn to share in the administration of mosques and inculcation of their worshippers. J. Peter Pham, Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, has studied the Moroccan experience and described Morocco as a “model” and a “beacon” for Africa.
America’s own approach to counter-radicalization is based on partnership with local moderate institutions. Its efforts to work with seminaries in the Arab east are at a junior stage, and in any case less relevant to Africa south of the Sahara. By expanding its cooperation and support for the Moroccan efforts, Washington can help make a serious dent in radical inculcation in the region.
While granular efforts continue to provide an alternative to extremist teachings mosque by mosque, King Mohammed VI believes that a broader effort at national healing must be waged concurrently in countries torn by civil war and civil strife. Early in his reign, he inaugurated the first-ever equity and reconciliation commission in an Arab country: It provided victims of human rights abuses by the Moroccan security services in prior decades with an opportunity to express their grievances publicly — on national television — and both acknowledged their claims and compensated them and their families. The effort had a positive psychological effect on the country’s body politic. A decade later, in 2012-2013, as a wave of revolutions swept the Arab world, the Moroccan monarchy maintained the population’s support: Building on the sense of connectedness between the state and society, it served as the driver for a self-styled constitutional reform process. The state’s resiliency owes itself in large part to the national reconciliation process of the prior decade.
From Mali to Nigeria, similar efforts can strengthen the social contract and insulate state and society alike from subversion and radicalization. In his extensive travels throughout the continent, the Moroccan monarch has laid the foundation for the exportation of the Moroccan model of national reconciliation to a variety of African states. These efforts should be encouraged by the United States: The concept of national reconciliation is barely raised by American policymakers when discussing counter-radicalization strategies. It should be — and supporting the export of such soft power tools by neighboring states should go hand in hand with the engagement of moderate religious institutions.
Economic and sociopolitical development
From a Moroccan perspective, the ideals of religious moderation and tolerance and the benefits of national reconciliation also need to be seen as part of a broader, holistic approach to national stabilization that also includes economic and sociopolitical development.
With respect to the latter, it is instructive to review a new report by UNESCO, which considers the situation in sub-Saharan Africa with respect to the objectives of the "Education for All" agenda. The report notes that the region includes sixteen of the 20 countries ranked lowest in terms of progress over the past 15 years. Meanwhile, women's status is deteriorating in some countries. Health services in parts of the region do not meet the basic needs of their populations—as the world discovered during the Ebola outbreak. More mundane tragedies happen every day, like infant mortality and the death of mothers at childbirth. Other tragedies have been diagnosed as stemming from religious taboos and conservative social norms: In 2008, of the millions of abortions performed in Africa, according to the World Health Organization, only 3 percent were performed with proper medical care. The weaknesses of the education and health sectors, in turn, are largely a symptom of bribery and corruption in government, which amount to a vast, unofficial tax on the population that stymies government services as well as the economy.
Numerous African leaders have sought Moroccan advice and expertise to help address these matters, drawing from Morocco’s domestic efforts to address similar problems. Under the umbrella of his ten-years-running the National Human Development Initiative, King Mohammed VI has sought to improve the status of nearly 10 million poor Moroccans, half of whom live in rural areas. Six billion dollars have been invested to date, in support of more than 719 anti-poverty measures and projects. The work favors a strategy of decentralization of aid efforts, enabling local NGOs to tailor their approach to specific conditions in their areas. During his current, ongoing visit to Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, and Gabon, the king is exporting these “development technologies” to his southern neighbors through 500 partnership agreements covering health, infrastructure development, governance, and education. The nature of these agreements may be gleaned from a couple of the projects undertaken in 2014. Last year, Morocco worked with its partners in Mali to build a perinatal clinic. In Ivory Coast, Morocco helped develop a fishing village in the municipality of Attécombé, and build 5,000 classrooms for primary schools.
The government efforts and the private sector have the potential to work together in the area of economic development. Through more than 20 visits to African countries over the past two years, the king has established partnerships between Moroccan and African state institutions and companies to kickstart the process. One of the pillars of this outreach has been the Moroccan Phosphate Company (OCP), now a key player in agricultural development — and, by extension, food security — throughout the continent. For example, a Moroccan-Gabonese partnership seeks to manufacture, by 2018, more than 2 million tons per year of fertilizer for African farmers. In implementing such projects, Morocco routinely taps large communities of its own expatriates who have long been ingrained in mercantile life throughout the continent: They know the local languages and cultures and have established goodwill with their counterparts, both on the local and national levels.