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The US is no saviour of the Sahel

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Displaced people fleeing from Boko Haram incursions into Niger line up at a World Food Programme and US Agency for International Development food distribution centre at the Asanga refugee camp near Diffa in 2016. The US policy towards Africa has always been more focused on preventing Russia’s and now China’s growth on the Continent than on the Africa’s development. and it is unlikely the US will “flip this script”, the writer says. – Picture: AFP

By Kim Heller

The strong presence of US security forces in the Sahel, particularly over the past two decades, is indicative of its immense interest and investment in the region, and the Continent.

It is estimated that the US has provided well over $3 billion (almost R54 billion) worth of military aid, counterterror operations and security assistance programmes to Africa over the past twenty years.

In Sahel, terrorism continues to tear the region apart. Threats to country and regional security are omnipresent and the safety of citizens an everyday concern. Under the guise of a mission to end the “war on terror” across the globe, the US has positioned itself as a saviour of Sahel in its fight against the Islamist militancy in the region.

According to the Security Assistance Monitor, during the period from 2001 and 2021, Niger received $259.51 million in security assistance from the US while Mali received $207.05 million, and Burkina Faso $73.8 million.

During the same period, military training was given to 17,643 trainees in Niger, 10,115 in Chad, and 9,645 in Mali. But despite its heavy investment and talk of being a ready and able superhero against terrorism, the US has not helped arrest terrorism in the region.

Elias Yousif, a research analyst with the Stimson Centres’ Conventional Defence Programme, wrote in August 2023 that the assistance by the US has not resulted in “commensurate improvements in the security landscape or acted as an effective bulwark against civil-military strife”.

He writes how terrorism related activity in the region has not fallen but rather increased by “more than 2.000 percent over the last fifteen years”.

Yousif, contends that the “rhetorical and political emphasis that Washington has placed on counterterrorism” has not only overshadowed significant humanitarian and development investments but elevated the “political saliency” of military leaders over civilian leaders.

Yousif’s postulates that US security assistance could potentially have benefitted military officers culpable in human rights transgressions and coup activity.

The Global Terrorism Index 2023, produced by the Institute for Economic & Peace (IEP) reports that the Sahel is the epicentre of terrorism. Of all Sahel countries, Burkina Faso and Mali are most effected by terrorism.

The Sahel accounted for more terrorism deaths in 2022 than South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Of all terrorism related deaths across the globe in 2022, 43 percent were in the Sahel.

Five years earlier, Sahel accounted for just 1 percent of terrorist deaths globally. Given this alarming statistic, it is not surprising that the US has been given its marching orders by Niger and Chad.

The $100 million US base in Niger, with its highly powerful drone and surveillance scope, shut down after the Niger government requested that US troops exit the country. Chad followed closely on the heels of Niger, and US troops are no longer welcome in this country. This has left the US desperately seeking a new home for security and surveillance

Top defence chiefs from over thirty African countries met in Botswana in late June 2024 to discuss issues of security and stability on the Continent. The 2024 African Chiefs of Defence Conference, which was co-hosted by the United States, took place at a time when the world power is losing presence and power in Africa.

It is reported that over the past ten years, Russia has finalised close to twenty military agreements with African countries. While Zimbabwe, who was not invited to the conference, has not signed a military agreement with Russia, the President of the country, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has recently expressed some interest in such an alliance with Russia.

Marine Corps General Michael Langley, commander of the US Africa command confirmed at the Conference that the US is on track to withdraw from Niger. Langley claimed that Africa is less safe after the troop withdrawal.

He said that with the exit of US and French troops from the Sahel, the area has seen an increased number of extremist groups which “thrive in the areas of instability such as weak governance that lays themselves vulnerable for ungoverned populations of regions across an entire coast of West Africa”.

But US security related involvement in Africa has failed to bring about stability. A 2023 report from the NPO, Chicago Council on Global Affairs is illuminating. Titled Less is More: A New Strategy for US Security Assistance to Africa, the report suggests that the US’s Africa policy, which prioritises the provision of military and security assistance could jeopardise longer-term, sustainable stability.

The report points to how US policy and practice in Africa has not helped to strengthen security in Africa or reduced the threat of terrorism and instability. The report notes that terrorist violence on the Continent has increased 300 percent over the past decade, with the bulk of violence in the Sahel and Somalia, the two areas that have seen the greatest concentration of US security assistance on the Continent.

The report warns against the US doubling down on its security co-operation strategy in the region “out of concern that doing otherwise would leave a vacuum that America’s competitors might fill”.

Russia is growing its influence on the Continent. It has reported to have deployed military or security contractors to 31 African countries and weapons systems to a further 14. China has a naval base in Djibouti and is set to increase its presence in West Africa.

The authors of the report say that the US approach to Africa today is neither effective nor sustainable, and that “It’s time to flip the script”. Instead of prioritising security partnerships, they recommend that the United States should boost the most promising democracies and economic partnerships and focus on countries whose governments demonstrate the political will necessary to foster long-term stability through improved governance”.

The report says that the US government should recognise that security assistance in the hands of weak, fragile, or illiberal states is innately risky.

At the 2024 African Chiefs of Defence Conference, Langley spoke of how the US would be engaging with countries to identify their needs and discuss enduring solutions. Langley spoke of the US’s 3D approach – Diplomacy, Defence, and Development. He said African nations, including those in the Sahel, have approached the US for discussions on security. Interestingly one such country is Libya, which has had a historically turbulent and traumatic relationship with the US.

Across the Sahel, economies are in dire straits, poverty is rife, access to food and water is inadequate. Together with internal strife and weak governments, this provides a good breeding ground for political instability, coups and terrorism. The Global Terrorism Index found that most terrorist activity occurs along borders where government controls are weakest.

Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Angola. Speaking in Cape Verde Blinken said, “The United States is committed to deepening, strengthening and broadening partnerships across Africa.” He said, “Our futures are linked, our prosperity is linked, and African voices increasingly are shaping, animating and leading the global conversation.”

But as is characteristic of the US the real fixation is on the growing influence of Russia in key strategic geographies. The Biden administration has accused Russia of causing instability in Africa, and China of eyeing Africa as a place where they will wage a battle against the US-led “rules-based international order”.

The US policy towards Africa has always been more focused on preventing Russia’s, and more recently China’s, growth on the Continent than on the stability and wellbeing of Africa. It is unlikely that the US will “flip this script”.

With Russia entering Niger and Chad, a possible US watchtower in other parts of the region could well swell rather than tame conflict and terror. For now, Africa remains an outpost for the US to fights its global battles.

* Kim Heller is Political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

** This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.

*** The views expressed in this article are the writer’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The African