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Less is More: A New Strategy for US Security Assistance to Africa

RESEARCH Report by Elizabeth Shackelford , Ethan Kessler , and Emma Sanderson
US troops participate in a military exercise with African allies

The US strategy toward Africa today is neither effective nor sustainable. It’s time to flip the script.

US policy in Africa has for too long prioritized short-term security to the detriment of long-term stability by prioritizing the provision of military and security assistance. This is done in hopes that partner countries will use this capacity to suppress radical groups at home and reduce the likelihood that they will spread disorder in the region or create threats to US interests at home and abroad. Yet, this strategy has neither produced security in Africa nor reduced threats to the United States and its interests. Washington should rein in its use of security assistance with partners that fail to demonstrate commitment to the reforms necessary to build long-term stability.

Partnerships and military assistance with illiberal, undemocratic countries have delivered little, if any, sustainable security improvements, and in many cases have prompted further instability and violence by building the capacity of abusive security forces. They have also provided harmful associations between the US government and the abuses committed by those we arm and assist. Since terrorism in Africa poses a low threat to US national security interests, there is no justification for focusing on short-term security issues at the cost of good governance, rule of law, and other factors that contribute to long-term stability. The costs of doing so are increasingly being recognized, with Congress today more likely to apply existing legal provisions to end security cooperation with abusive regimes. But these interventions typically come too late and are too inconsistent to influence behavior of illiberal regimes. A more systemic approach is needed to break the pattern of poor outcomes. 

The rise of great-power competition exacerbates the risk that the US national security establishment will double down on its security cooperation strategy in the region out of concern that doing otherwise would leave a vacuum that America’s competitors might fill. In reality, however, the argument for being more selective in distributing security assistance is even stronger with the return of great-power competition, as values and reputation become increasingly important in attracting support for the United States over other great powers.

Security and military assistance will continue to play a role in the region. However, the United States would be better off being more deliberate and cautious, only pursuing it after completing a holistic assessment of the potential impact of such assistance on governance, human rights, and broader stability. Security assistance can and must be more closely scrutinized with enhanced US government oversight tools to ensure it does not undermine governance and stability, and Washington should be more willing to choose different tools when shaping relationships with weak partners, to condition assistance to ensure it does not facilitate bad outcomes, and to cut it off when partner countries use it to abuse civilians.

While US strategy toward Africa has brought some discrete, concrete gains—most clearly in the fields of health and humanitarian relief—US efforts to expand democracy and secure peace and stability across the continent have proven elusive. This is because America’s pursuit of these two goals have often been at odds with one another. Washington’s tendency to provide security assistance to questionable African partners in the war on terrorism has undermined democratic progress. Security assistance has promised to defeat violent nonstate actors and the threat they pose to regional stability and vital US interests. Yet, in a story often repeated across the continent, this assistance has instead helped prop up abusive security forces that Washington views as essential partners.

The US approach to Africa today is neither effective nor sustainable. It’s time to flip the script. Instead of prioritizing security partnerships, 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. Rather than presume that security assistance will enhance stability and increase our influence, the US government should recognize that security assistance in the hands of weak, fragile, or illiberal states is innately risky. Accordingly, it should use security assistance sparingly and only after assessing that the benefits, should they be attainable, are likely to outweigh the long-term costs. With the rise of great-power competition as Washington’s primary focus comes a risk that the national security community will be tempted to expand security assistance with players it hopes to keep on-side, absent considerations of negative impacts. This is precisely why revisiting the approach to security sector assistance (SSA) in Africa is so critical now, and why the United States needs better guardrails in place to ensure SSA is only utilized when and where it will serve US interests in the long run.

This report focuses on the provision of security sector assistance. It proposes a path to fewer security partnerships on the continent and more restrained use of security assistance as a tool of influence generally, which would reduce unintended negative impacts on long-term stability while facilitating more productive partnerships overall that better serve the wider range of US interests. This path would require dramatically reducing military engagement and other support for authoritarian and illiberal actors but would retain space for ongoing humanitarian, development, and public diplomacy activities even in those states. It would acknowledge that the United States faces national security threats in Africa, but those threats are in fact low and not urgent enough to categorically justify short-term security actions at the cost of long-term progress towards greater stability.

The US approach to Africa today is neither effective nor sustainable. It’s time to flip the script.

The 9/11 attacks were a unifying driver of a counterterrorism-first approach that relegated democratic values to the backburner. The approach presented here, on the other hand, emphasizes these values in US foreign policy choices on the continent in recognition of the role they play in facilitating long-term stability, and does so primarily by ensuring that the United States doesn’t undermine them directly. Prioritizing a “do no harm” approach through more restrained use of security sector support would provide the space needed for US efforts to support democracy, governance, rule of law, and human rights to succeed, rather than stacking the deck against them.

Some administration officials insist that the urgent need to compete with China and Russia provides no space for considerations of governance, democracy, and human rights,1  but President Joe Biden’s framing of great-power competition today as an ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies makes the hypocrisy of boosting undemocratic powers even more obvious and costly. Propping up unjust and abusive regimes in the name of the liberal world order only undermines America’s broader interest in promoting and building more reliable democratic partners worldwide.2  If US partnerships in Africa continue to openly clash with its stated values, the United States will find it harder to make the case that these values are the foundation of better national outcomes for all of its partners.

Others assert that the Departments of Defense and State are already taking governance and democracy seriously under the “three Ds” of diplomacy, development, and defense. This mantra recognizes that military solutions alone are insufficient to address underlying challenges to long-term stability. But in reality, US foreign policy remains militarized thanks to the gross disparity in resources and personnel, as well as a culture across the US national security establishment that puts greater stock in security solutions than soft power tools.  

America doesn’t have to outdo China or Russia in every country if its partners benefit from better economic and security outcomes and demonstrate the strength of a democratic and rule-of-law system. The current approach makes that harder, as our partners have not seen security improvements but have seen democratic backsliding. Consider Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, all of which have seen increased violence and coups following two decades of post-9/11 US security cooperation. The best the United States can hope for under the status quo is to have more unstable and increasingly dangerous states backing its positions at the UN General Assembly instead of backing China and Russia. That outcome isn’t worth the cost.

US-Africa policy today has been heavily shaped by America’s global war on terrorism. In this war, preventing terrorist attacks was the overarching priority and security sector assistance (SSA) significantly increased, becoming America’s tool of choice to support its partners in Africa. SSA includes everything from transfers and sales of military equipment and weapons to combat training, military education, and building defense institutions.1  This policy sounds logical: train and equip other militaries so they can do the fighting and the United States doesn’t have to. In practice, however, this approach has had mixed results at best. 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.2

This should not be surprising given the results from a similar approach during the Cold War, when the United States prioritized preventing the growth of Soviet influence over stability and effective governance, which ultimately helped fuel violence and long-lasting instability.3  Washington seems on track again to justify a similarly destabilizing approach in the name of great-power competition.

Although SSA tends to be most effective in more-developed countries with good governance,4  in Africa, the United States uses it extensively in countries where governance is poor. This is typically where the greatest need appears, as weaker states generally pose higher risks of insurgency and violence. But once that assistance is provided, the United States has little control over how it is used, and beneficiary governments often use those capabilities to oppress and terrorize portions of their population, frequently targeting minority groups not connected to those in power. This, in turn, helps foment violence and instability. Research confirms that violence, oppression, inequity, and discrimination committed by state security services and other state-sanctioned violence can be structural or proximate drivers of increased political violence and conflict.5  Thus, rather than reduce violence, this go-to tool proves counterproductive to stability goals by undermining democratic progress and enabling human rights violators instead.6

In this way, US support can unintentionally exacerbate economic and social drivers of terrorist recruitment. Even the second Bush administration recognized this fact, although its strategy did not give this concern significant weight. As the 2002 National Security Strategy stated, “Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.”7  Biden’s National Security Strategy similarly states that countering terrorism “necessitates addressing the root causes of radicalization by leveraging U.S. and partner efforts to support effective governance, promote stabilization and economic development, and resolve ongoing conflicts.”8  A 2017 United Nations report drew on hundreds of interviews with Africans who had joined extremist groups and found that 71 percent of them said they joined because of “government action,” such as the killing or arrest of a family member or friend.9  Government action against extremists by regimes with little concern for their people can fuel the resentment driving the extremism in the first place.

Indeed, these security partnerships often increase the risk to US interests, such as embassies and US citizens living abroad, because America’s engagement in counterterrorism campaigns makes them a target for groups committing terrorism. Reducing engagement would, therefore, likely reduce the desire of African nonstate groups to harm US interests, even if those groups maintain their grievances against their own governments. While reducing US engagement with certain counterterrorism partners may increase the short-term risk of violence, it would also disentangle America from campaigns that put US interests at risk.10

A recent comprehensive study of post-Cold War US security assistance to Africa was unable to find any robust statistical relationship between SSA and political violence in Africa (an indicator approximating stability). Although certain SSA programs may provide stability gains, the available data is not detailed enough to make even these judgments confidently. So, even the most detailed research cannot demonstrate that SSA is achieving its main goal.11

More scrutiny and better monitoring and evaluation of the outcomes and impact of SSA is clearly needed if this tool is to be used more effectively to achieve better outcomes.

America’s Counterproductive Counterterrorism Campaigns in Action

There are numerous examples of unproductive or counterproductive US security partnerships on the continent. Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Ethiopia are all instructive, where close partnerships and significant support failed to prevent or end the terrorist threat that US assistance was meant to combat, facilitated abusive behavior by the partner country’s military, and ultimately contributed to greater instability in the long term. These case studies are briefly summarized below and described at greater length in the appendix.

The United States brought Burkina Faso into its Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership to build up its counterterrorism capabilities in 2009, in an effort to prevent the emergence of terrorism in the country before it faced any specific threat. US national security interests in Burkina Faso were tangential at best, and the country at the time enjoyed relative peace and stability. In about a decade, US security assistance to Burkina Faso increased from approximately $200,000 a year to over $16 million and facilitated a growth in military capacity without correspondingly strengthening civilian oversight institutions. 

The hefty influx of military support did nothing to address growing grievances that ultimately helped extremist groups gain a foothold, coming across the border from Mali and spreading across the north. The government responded with ruthless counterinsurgency tactics aimed largely at the country’s Fulani ethnic minority, which was already suffering neglect. This response and a broad failure to address citizen needs helped drive local recruitment to the extremist cause, building up the ranks of the very groups that US assistance was meant to help defeat. US training, weapons, and intelligence strengthened Burkina Faso’s military; however, that strength ultimately exacerbated the problem the United States hoped to prevent in the first place. Today, the country remains racked by terrorist and security force violence and, following two coups in the past two years, lacks even a pretense of democratic or popular rule, raising the question of what the United States has to show for more than a decade of intervention that was meant to prevent this outcome.

About 1,500 miles southeast of Burkina Faso is Cameroon, another country whose terrorist threat initially came from across its border, in this case from Nigeria to the west. US support, again, focused on external risks without considering the impact of boosting an abusive security service. US-affiliated troops in Cameroon have tortured and killed civilians in brutal counterterrorism campaigns to the north, including at a base they shared with US special operations forces. As these abuses came to light, the US government investigated but continued its assistance to Cameroon’s forces. While regional Islamic extremist group Boko Haram was significantly weakened during this time, the region’s overall stability was not improved, since the continued lack of a strong state presence spurred the rise of Islamic State-West Africa, which today exceeds Boko Haram’s strength and violence.

Meanwhile, Cameroon launched a separate and unrelated campaign against the country’s culturally distinct, marginalized Anglophone regions following protests and a brutal crackdown by the government against those regions, enabled in part by US SSA. Cameroon’s future is uncertain, but it is no more stable today than when the United States ramped up its assistance in 2014.

Across the continent in the Horn, Ethiopia paints a bleak picture too. Though Ethiopia faced no terrorism at home, it became a key partner in US efforts to combat the increased influence of Islamic actors in Somalia. For decades, the United States provided security assistance to Ethiopia’s autocratic government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented only a small ethnic minority that benefitted disproportionately from the country’s economic growth.

Years of government abuse and growing public discontent came to a head in 2018 when the TPLF was pushed from power by a coalition that promised reform and change, headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The United States embraced Abiy heartily and unconditionally to win his trust, ignoring signs that he was leading his country to war against the TPLF. Although the United States would soon cut off some assistance in response to growing atrocities in the war, the damage was already done. Thanks to decades of US support, both the TPLF opposition and the remaining Ethiopian military were well armed for the fight. The central government largely defeated the TPLF and reached a peace deal to end the fighting, but Ethiopia remains fractured and at risk of further violence, as numerous ethnic groups vie for power and revenge after decades of repression boosted by US support. Somalia next door continues to fight a terrorist insurgency, and regional stability is at even greater risk than it was pre-US intervention.

A counterterrorism-focused foreign policy has not served US interests in Africa well, so it’s time to change course. The recommendations given here align US interests in long-term stability with a realistic understanding of the risks and limits of security assistance. They also align with a broader consensus developing within US foreign policy circles that America’s counterterrorism approach in Africa has not been effective. But the US government lacks the tools and data necessary to assess the utility and soundness of current and future security assistance programs, so it risks continuing to default to the same playbook in the future with current security partners as well as other countries in the region.

America has national security interests in greater political stability in Africa, but its security concerns in Africa are in fact limited and indirect. This means the United States doesn’t have to fixate on short-term security needs, so it can choose to forego security cooperation where it risks worsening outcomes and instead tailor engagement with countries across the continent based on what has the best potential for promoting long-term stability and prosperity.  

The United States Has Real but Limited National Security Interests in Africa

The first step in determining how the United States should approach Africa policy is to assess the nature of US national security interests on the continent. Africa’s resource wealth and growing population indicate its global significance will increase in the decades to come, but it will remain a lower-priority region to US foreign policy than Asia, Europe, or the Middle East, where the United States faces more direct security threats (consider China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran). US financial and political means to engage with the continent are therefore limited and should be utilized deliberately. Accordingly, the US government must closely monitor whether its counterterrorism and security efforts are achieving their intended goals or leading to negative unintended outcomes. This would represent a refreshing break from policy during America’s global war on terrorism.

Despite an overarching focus on counterterrorism over the last two decades, in absolute terms, the risk of Africa-based terrorists threatening the United States is very small. No African terrorist group has demonstrated both the capability to strike the US homeland and the drive to do so. Improved US intelligence capabilities and security practices since the 1998 African embassy bombings and the September 11, 2001, attacks have made it extremely difficult for any terrorist group to strike the US homeland or other vital US interests.1  This means America’s limited resources for the continent need not be focused on short-term security priorities, leaving ample opportunity to enhance the prioritization of governance and other long-term interests.

The United States, however, does stand to benefit from more prosperous and stable states and regions in Africa in the long run. Greater stability and prosperity would ameliorate long-term drivers of mass migration, terrorism, and nonstate criminal groups, which can threaten global trade flows, US interests, and allies abroad. This suggests that US security cooperation across the continent should focus on the governments that seek to effect greater stability and prosperity themselves, as these are the most likely to be effective in achieving better security outcomes.  This would ensure the United States gets the most benefit from the necessarily limited resources and focus available for countries in Africa in the grand scheme of US foreign policy. It would not preclude the use of other types of assistance, including development and humanitarian support, which should be the primary tools for engagement in the most fragile states, as they do not risk the same unintended negative stability impacts that security assistance can.

Better Governance as a Better Path to Long-Term Stability

Greater stability and prosperity depend on populations being satisfied with the existence and fair distribution of economic opportunity, resources, and justice within their societies. Legacies of colonialism, weak state power and corruption, and the unequal distribution of resources, public infrastructure, and power based on clan, ethnicity, or religion are among the biggest obstacles to realizing equality, prosperity, and justice in many countries across Africa. 

These dynamics fuel migration and community violence, and drive people to create and join extremist and criminal organizations, all of which drive instability and impede commerce and economic growth. This, in turn, deepens enmities and weakens investment, fueling further destabilization. Climate change is creating new challenges while exacerbating all of these factors with increased competition over ever-more-limited resources and means of survival.2

What US strategy often characterizes as security solutions cannot address these underlying factors. When implemented abusively, these “solutions” often exacerbate them. They also often occur alongside investments in civilian institution building and democracy promotion programs, in recognition of the limitations of security solutions. Yet much of this investment is short-term relief aid that helps prevent unnecessary suffering but does little to strengthen durable civilian governance. And even relatively small amounts of security assistance can shift civil-military relations dramatically in states that have weak state institutions to begin with.3  The end result is that fragile civilian institutions remain weaker than security institutions and unable to effectively govern them. This undermines civilian-led democratic progress in addressing the underlying grievances.

History has shown that providing military assistance to fundamentally broken governments fails to improve national security.

Only good governance can effectively address these grievances and risk factors, which is why good governance is the foundation for long-term stability. Some observers have proposed a greater emphasis on security sector governance. One recently argued that Washington should focus more on “fostering civilian control and responsible use of force within Sahelian militaries.”4  While this could make direct security assistance more effective and less risky, it is only one part of the solution since a more effective security sector still cannot address the underlying grievances that fuel insurgency. Better civilian governance is an essential element of long-term stability that a more effective military cannot replace. History has shown that providing military assistance to fundamentally broken governments fails to improve national security.5

Strengthening abusive security services poses a risk to civilian institutions and democratic progress. A strategy that acknowledges that and seeks to do more good than harm to governance overall would facilitate greater engagement with African states that demonstrate the political will to enhance stability through effective civilian-led governance. It would also require reducing and conditioning engagement—including disengagement, if needed—with regimes that do not.

Urgent and specific counterterrorism, great-power competition, or other security imperatives may sometimes change the balance of considerations, raising other priorities above America’s long-term interests in boosting better governance. But these decisions should be made deliberately on a case-by-case basis, borne out by the facts at hand and a genuine cost-benefit analysis of the competing interests in the long-term. Such an approach would inevitably result in far fewer cases of US interest weighing in on the side of boosting the military capacity of illiberal regimes.

Prioritizing Better Governance in Practice

This report asserts that the United States can better pursue its national security interests over time simply by being more restrained in its use of SSA across Africa. But doing so will also create more opportunity and space to make progress on better governance using other foreign policy tools. This approach would entail investing more in the parts of the US foreign policy establishment that address governance issues, which means investing more in development and diplomacy. It would also require a recognition that improvements to governance and democratic progress are generational changes, so these investments must be made with modest expectations of near-term impact.

Among other duties, diplomatic personnel identify political and conflict risks and provide information to policymakers to help them better decide how to approach and engage effectively with political players, which is essential for assessing political will and obstacles to progress. Development programs, such as those under the US Agency for International Development, can specifically target the underlying grievances that help fuel extremism and insurgency directly by improving the provision of healthcare and education across rural areas, and investing in entrepreneurialism, credit access, better agribusiness techniques, and market access, for example. They can also work with government institutions to improve their ability to respond to developmental and emergency needs. Diplomats and development workers are better suited for a strategy that aims to resolve governance failures above all else, so addressing funding and staffing shortfalls for civilian foreign affairs programs would be an essential part of shifting the US government’s approach to Africa.

Though governance and development are stated priorities in the current US approach to Africa, they are far too frequently overshadowed and undermined by an excessive and misdirected focus on building up partner countries’ military capacity with SSA. As one example, development and diplomatic personnel often lack the resources on the ground to monitor projects and political developments across a country, or to engage in sufficient outreach to build public goodwill and influence. Defense and security sector colleagues do not face the same restrictions and thus are often more frequently encountered by members of the public and government alike.

The recommendations of US civilian personnel in Africa often overlap with broad goals of democratizing Africa. This is unsurprising, since democratic processes are typically best suited to ensure more equitable access to economic opportunity, wealth, and justice between competing subnational groups—improving stability, which promotes US strategic goals. This doesn’t mean, however, that the United States should pursue democratization efforts in all countries, as efforts to change distributions of power can foment conflict if those holding power are hostile to such initiatives.

For example, autocratic rule is so entrenched in some countries as to be irreversible except by force. In such cases, democratization policies targeting state actors and institutions are unrealistic and ineffective. In these cases, limiting engagement with the government to what is absolutely necessary is typically the best path, since strengthening autocratic governments undermines US interests in the long run. Consider Eritrea, which is led by one of the world’s most autocratic regimes. The US policy of minimal essential engagement remains the best approach since it is not in US interests to further strengthen that regime, yet direct action to undermine its central authority would likely just destabilize the region further. 

In some countries, direct democracy promotion might be unrealistic in the near term, but political will for better governance and greater inclusion might be present and worth fostering nonetheless. In such cases, an interest in long-term stability might caution against rushing to hold elections, for example, as elections themselves can be manipulated, corrupted, or used to stoke conflict. In many fragile states, generational change is the best opportunity for durable stability, so the United States has an interest in maintaining a presence and building relationships with those political, technocratic, and civil society actors who offer promise for a better future, even if their influence remains limited today. Educational exchanges, civilian institution building, and public diplomacy outreach promoting US values are all low cost and low risk investments that could pay dividends in the future. But it remains essential in these countries that the United States ensures that its assistance does not stack the deck against progress for better governance in the name of stronger security infrastructure. Wherever the United States seeks to provide SSA, it should use that assistance as leverage to promote and enhance better governance for better long-term-stability.

Many disputes within and between African states will ultimately still be hard to resolve, thanks in large part to the haphazardly drawn borders and legacies of injustice that emerged from European colonialism. In some regions, a state may be so weak that resolving political issues, even with democratic means, is infeasible in the near term. Traditionally, US policy has responded to these situations by doubling down on security assistance in an effort to overcome civilian shortcomings. 

But in practice this has built up security services at the expense of civilian institutions. In turn, this has reinforced barriers to the emergence of democratic champions, within or outside government, frustrating the desired end of more representative and inclusive governance, which holds greater potential for long-term stability. Stronger, more-legitimate civilian governments are the only safe bet for stability in the long term. This is why ending military support for regimes that neither serve the long-term interests of their people nor align with US values should be the rule instead of the exception.

To facilitate this approach and an enhanced focus on governance first requires Congress to reassert its oversight role over SSA programs. This requires expanding tools available for evaluating the likely impact of security assistance programs at the outset, and making better use of existing tools to rein in assistance to abusive governments sooner, more predictably, and more robustly. Congress can and should reclaim its authority by closing loopholes in the Leahy Laws, which are designed to prevent the US government from providing military assistance to foreign security services that violate human rights, and by expanding their mandate to cover entire governments when appropriate, rather than being limited only to  specific, identified military units. Congress should also invoke other authorities under the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to reevaluate security partnerships on a country-by-country basis.

But these congressional tools alone are insufficient. For example, in response to military coups in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso in the last three years, Congress implemented “Section 7008” holds on US security assistance, demonstrating a willingness to prioritize governance.6  In these cases, the holds came too late to prevent significant harm to local populations at the hand of local security forces or undemocratic military takeovers. Congressional restrictions on SSA are also not imposed nearly consistently enough, making US intervention unlikely to change partner behavior.7  Better efforts and more resources to measure the potential and actual impact of SSA and monitor governance and stability indicators in partner countries are needed. Without these tools, the United States will remain largely unable to discourage coups and other actions that trigger instability in partner countries. And absent a more institutionalized process for tracking and responsibly shaping SSA, Washington will likely be tempted by the pressures of great-power competition to waive coup-related holds liberally and otherwise use security assistance irresponsibly.

Operationally, an approach that prioritizes governance would put more emphasis on ensuring informed decisions on the front end about whether and what type of SSA can be effectively offered without undermining institutions or human security, and more routine monitoring of impact. This would require the State Department to develop a stronger, in-house capacity to monitor human rights violations by partner governments, supplemented by directives to train and focus members of the intelligence community to do the same. The US government should also collect more, and more precise, data on the impact of SSA programs to enable systematic risk assessments for future programs. Too often, the likely downsides of SSA are ignored because country-specific data on outcomes from other programs is unavailable.  

Lastly, Washington should reorient its SSA through multilateral, regional organizations wherever possible. This helps boost regional organizations that often have greater leverage on target governments and better understanding of the transnational threats they face, and it can provide the US government more bandwidth to prioritize other concerns in its bilateral dealings. Moreover, Washington should prioritize nonmilitary assistance focused on improving economic opportunity, civilian governance, and democratic institutions in lieu of military assistance in many cases.

Shifting America’s strategy in Africa to one that prioritizes governance over counterterrorism will change the balance of America’s activities on the continent, but it will not harm US interests. This section addresses the most consequential concerns regarding potential tradeoffs.

Loss of Influence

Gaining influence with important partner nations is one of America’s primary stated reasons for providing SSA to African countries.1  Even if target countries don’t achieve better security outcomes, this influence is meant to help the United States shape actions abroad that serve US national interests.

This assumption doesn’t pan out in practice though, even with close counterterrorism partners. SSA programs routinely fail to persuade partner militaries to abide by rule-of-law or democratic norms.2  Indeed, there is little evidence that this support translates into much influence on the receiving country at all. Of course, influencing partner countries to improve their governance is sometimes not even a goal of US security assistance. For example, US security assistance to Israel and Egypt is largely aimed at keeping peace between the two, so Washington has tolerated illiberal policies by both partners.

US assistance fails to influence partners in Africa in part because their interests and ours are not necessarily aligned, and the United States, in most cases, takes no steps to change that through routine use of conditionality. Instead, US SSA programs rely almost exclusively on persuading partners to change their behavior willfully rather than using conditions with tradeoffs to press change. This helps head off allegations of imperialism and coercion, but it also tends to neutralize any influence Washington’s assistance might otherwise render.3

The problem with persuasion is that it presumes that what US assistance aims to achieve is in the US partner’s self-interest. Security assistance implementers and advisers work to build trust and rapport with the security partner in hopes that this will make them more amenable to advice and suggestion.4  If it is not in the partner’s interest to cooperate, however, then other incentives are necessary.

For example, many of the largest recipients of US SSA have weak political and military institutions and are governed by leaders who have little interest in improving institutional efficacy, since that could put their own personal power at risk.5  This makes it unlikely that simple persuasion will be effective.

That’s where conditionality comes in. Carrots and sticks credibly promised and threatened can change the calculation for the leadership in partner militaries and governments. For example, leaders who are motivated to maintain political power might not want a stronger and more effective military that could impede their own power. But if those same leaders need US intelligence and security assistance to stay in power, they might be more amenable to prioritizing institutional reforms the United States promotes.6

The United States, however, has repeatedly demonstrated that it will continue to provide assistance despite bad behavior that undermines other US interests. This means America is failing to use the leverage SSA is meant to provide, significantly reducing its utility to US national security interests.

During a March 2020 hearing of a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, David Hale, under secretary of state for political affairs, captured the reluctance of the US government to resort to cutting assistance. When asked by then-Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, “If [partner] governments are not punishing their troops when they commit atrocities, should we withdraw our aid?” Hale replied, “I think we need to have a strategy to try to prevent us from reaching that consequence.”7  Unfortunately, US partners recognize this lack of enthusiasm for punishing bad behavior and use it to their advantage.

US policymakers use public and private statements, training, institution building related to accountability mechanisms, and capacity building within civil society in an attempt to create better outcomes.8  But none of these efforts outweigh the harm caused by military capacity in the hands of actors who lack the political will to institute governance improvements and the rule of law.

Changing America’s approach could provide other avenues for enhancing influence though. Divesting from repressive governments would boost US credibility by reducing the divide between US rhetoric and practice regarding democracy. Given the Biden administration’s focus on aligning democracies against nondemocratic threats, that credibility is essential. Partnering with autocracies may sometimes be necessary for achieving essential national security goals, but the US image and soft power suffer for it, as it makes the US position of the solidarity of democratic nations seem hypocritical. When it isn’t essential, America can and should avoid doing so.

The United States has the tools to make these decisions and has used them in the past.9  In 2014, the Obama administration chose not to deliver military helicopters to Nigeria’s army after it conducted mass killings of civilians in its campaign against Boko Haram, and in 2015 it suspended some SSA to Burundi due to human rights abuses as well.10  But far more often, partner abuses are ignored or met only with public or private statements, thus reinforcing the sense in recipient states that such behavior is acceptable or without consequence.

Although it goes against America’s instinct for intervention, walking away from repressive partners will be a net positive for US policy.

Weakened Position in Great-Power Competition

The resurgence of great-power competition as a driving force in today’s foreign policy environment further exacerbates the fear of losing influence in Africa. This is fostered by China’s rise and Russia’s increased aggression and enhanced efforts to gain client states globally. In a flashback to the Cold War, countries are increasingly expected to pick a side in what will ultimately shake down to a numbers game on the floor of the UN General Assembly.

But great-power competition is no excuse for continuing security assistance to bad actors. China’s strength in Africa comes from diplomatic engagement, investment in infrastructure, trade, and increased physical presence, with an eye toward establishing a long-term position to enable Beijing to continue harvesting the resources it needs back home. China takes its diplomatic engagement with Africa seriously. Every Chinese foreign minister for the last three decades has taken his first foreign trip to Africa. China has hosted China-Africa summits regularly for nearly two decades, has more embassies and consulates than the United States, and hosts more African students than the United States.11

Chinese foreign direct investment to Africa has grown for 25 years at an average compound rate of 18 percent. By 2016, it was the largest exporter to Africa. Since 2010, one-third of Africa’s power grid and infrastructure has been financed and constructed by Chinese state-owned companies.12  By comparison, US trade with Africa dropped by 49 percent from 2011 to 2021.13

China’s approach seems to be delivering. While Washington prioritized military engagement, Beijing doubled down on economic engagement and investment, and the latter seems to have generated significantly more influence. Since 2001, China has secured a 78 percent increase in voting alignment in the UN General Assembly for African countries toward its positions. During that same period, Africa voting alignment with the United States dropped by about 8 percent.14  The United States tends to characterize China’s economic actions in Africa as exploitative, often referring to them as “debt diplomacy,” but even in a worst-case scenario, China offers investment that African countries struggle to secure elsewhere. 

China’s military presence on the continent is limited to its naval base in Djibouti and UN peacekeeping missions, though it has exported weapons and has some private military and security contractors on the continent. China’s contractors are primarily deployed to protect Chinese infrastructure projects or mining facilities. Beijing generally steers clear of SSA missions beyond arms sales, and its military engagement has not been linked to violence against civilians, either directly or through partner militaries, or to other destabilizing offenses.15

Great-power competition is no excuse for continuing security assistance to bad actors.

Russia’s engagement in Africa is far more transactional and controversial, focusing heavily on mercenary activity. Russia has deployed military or security contractors to 31 African countries and weapons systems to 14. It has provided arms or training to Nigeria and Cameroon after human rights violations led Western countries to limit assistance.16  These actions help entrench autocratic governments across the continent, which risks continued instability and buys votes against US policies in the UN and other multilateral fora. The Wagner Group, a private Russian mercenary organization with close ties to the Kremlin, is increasingly the face of the Russian state in Africa. It is engaged in paramilitary activity, extraction of resources and minerals, and disinformation campaigns fomenting anti-Western sentiment across more than a dozen African countries.17

When the United States makes the case to African governments and people that Russia and Wagner do not offer a solution for them, it routinely focuses on Wagner’s abuses and failure to adhere to rule of law, ethics, or human rights.18  US efforts to instill human rights and accountability in our training programs and to speak out against abuses are still far better than the Russian approach, which dismisses them entirely and directly commits violations. But if America stakes its case on the cost of Russia’s abuses, it must take them more seriously in its own efforts too. In an ideological struggle with Russia, the US government cannot leverage its values on one hand while neglecting them on the other. More hypocrisy in our approach to Africa only does more damage to our political goals there. Furthermore, if US values are reflected in its partnerships, China and Russia lose the ability to leverage American hypocrisy in their own partnerships.

The concern in Washington is that disengagement with key African states would create a vacuum that Moscow or Beijing would fill. In a redux of the Cold War, many advocate for increased US aid to and engagement with African states mainly to prevent them from aligning with US adversaries.19

But ineffective US policy has already helped create that opening, and a reactive foreign policy in Africa is a recipe for continued failure. Not all partners equally benefit US interests, particularly since engagement alone does not equal influence.

US security assistance policy during the Cold War focused exclusively on alignment and failed to consider governance or other state values. This approach led the United States to facilitate and prop up abusive authoritarian regimes with consequences that continue today. For example, the United States launched a covert program against Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and provided extensive support to Joseph Mobutu, the army chief of staff who carried out a coup and ruled the country ruthlessly for three decades until his ouster in a civil war in 1997. The country has remained violent and unstable since. In 1980, the United States also backed a coup in Liberia simply because the brutal and corrupt coup leader, Samuel Doe, was willing to cut ties with the Soviet Union.20  Doe’s brutal rule led the country to a lengthy and costly civil war.

The renewed focus on great-power competition risks luring America into a similar posture and further worsening domestic stability in countries we assist. The United States cannot seek to beat out Russia and China by maintaining low standards; instead, it should carefully avoid using arms sales and military assistance to win the allegiance of countries that have poor governance and human rights records and lack significant strategic value.21

The best way to enhance US influence on the continent is bilateral engagement designed to match US interests and comparative advantages to the needs of specific African states. This is one area where US values bring an added advantage given the popularity of democracy and human rights in local populations, but it would require deeper engagement in areas where China has taken the lead in recent years, like educational exchanges, public diplomacy, and diplomatic presence.

The knock-on effect of Chinese or Russian influence could merit special consideration in some instances, and these should be taken on a case-by-case basis with careful review of the costs and benefits at issue. For example, reports of a potential Chinese naval base in Equatorial Guinea on Africa’s Atlantic coast raise a high-priority case that might merit a different calculation for engagement on the continent. Equatorial Guinea’s autocratic government certainly does not align with interests in stability or US values, but preserving US freedom of navigation in the Atlantic Ocean may require offering Malabo incentives to prevent Beijing from acquiring a naval base there.22  The Democratic Republic of the Congo is also gaining importance, as it produces 70 percent of the world’s cobalt and is also rich in lithium, both key components for the batteries essential to the world’s shift away from fossil fuels.23  China has already secured significant mineral rights in this large, unstable state in Central Africa. This will inevitably factor into Washington’s response to challenging elections in late 2023 as well as increasing violence in the east of the country. Washington’s ultimate decision on how to engage with these countries should be based on more than just short-term considerations, however.

The United States would be best served by focusing on its partnerships with Africa’s leading successful and democratic states. Doing so would enhance the US image on the continent and help insulate Washington from charges of hypocrisy, which have historically followed US engagement with autocratic leaders in Africa. Even though this approach may thin out the total number of close US partners in Africa, quality matters over quantity. The cost of doing so would be minimal and outweighed by the gain for US credibility. 

Loss of Counterterrorism Capabilities

Many advocates of SSA believe reducing it will hinder America’s ability to protect itself. But SSA has failed to reduce the terrorist threat in Africa, and the United States has better tools to address terrorism directed at the United States or vital US interests.24  Although Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates have been able to conduct direct attacks on NATO allies and inspire attacks inside the United States after 9/11, these were by-products of regionally specific factors that were exacerbated by American actions, such as radicalism in the Middle East,25  and large civil wars involving organized extremists in Iraq and Syria.26  Islamic State affiliates in Africa, in contrast, have not demonstrated an interest in attacking the United States directly or have been incapable of overcoming homeland security measures by the United States or its NATO allies in order to pose a direct threat.

Of course, US policymakers should not assume that the risk of terrorist threats to the homeland from Africa will necessarily remain low. But even so, military tools are not historically effective in rooting out terrorist threats, so leading with security sector assistance to enhance partner militaries to fight terrorism is not actually a sound approach to addressing terrorism risks that arise. Military responses have only successfully destroyed terrorist groups in about seven percent of cases historically, whereas a combination of policing, intelligence, and political inclusion to address underlying grievances has succeeded far more often.27

US intelligence and internationally coordinated law enforcement efforts would continue to monitor the world for potential threats and cooperate where necessary to address specific incidents. But the best way to ensure that the risk stays low is to cultivate long-term political stability in Africa, and this is best achieved with strategies that address root causes of terrorism rather than focusing on the organizations and people that commit it.28

The absolute risk posed to commerce by African nonstate actors can also be addressed by other, more effective means. While instability in Somalia exacerbated piracy in the early 2010s, for example, NATO countries engaged directly in counter-piracy operations to deter and disrupt pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa, almost entirely eliminating the piracy threat, while commercial interests took their own steps to manage risk exposure.

The US policy approach to Africa has failed to deliver increased security, democracy, and prosperity and will continue to fail if security sector assistance remains America’s default tool. The first step to a better approach is to stop assuming that more security assistance delivers better outcomes and instead recognize the risks inherent in security assistance unless certain conditions are met.

Military action might suppress the problem of terrorism, but it will not relieve the underlying conditions that feed it. Only improved governance can address these grievances, which means good governance is the foundation for long-term stability. Militarily backing partners that exhibit autocratic or abusive behavior often exacerbates these conditions, raising questions about what America’s goals are for security cooperation in these countries. And the United States currently lacks the data needed to evaluate the success or failures of past security cooperation or to determine optimal conditions for using it responsibly in the future.

Poor governance often comes down to institutional weakness or a simple lack of political will that guns and money will not fix. Accordingly, Washington should pursue security partnerships more deliberately and cautiously.

This means being accountable for the impact of security assistance over the long term and relying more on non-security tools to help move the needle toward our long-term security interests.

These concrete steps can help transition our approach and reduce the unintended negative consequences of unaccountable security support:

  • Develop robust and well-resourced in-house human rights vetting and monitoring and evaluation capacity inside the US State Department.
  • Require a full and systematic risk assessment for all new or planned SSA programs to consider potential impact on long-term US interests, such as governance issues that impact political stability, including anti-democratic tendencies, ethnic conflict exacerbation, inequality of resource distribution and government services and accountability of the security services. Provide annual assessments for multiyear programs.1
  • Build in more consistent, extensive, and precise data collection from SSA programs to measure impact on local populations, institutions, public perceptions of government institutions, and other measures that affect peace and security.
  • Train and engage the intelligence community in tracking and reporting on human rights violations to contribute to the body of knowledge that can inform SSA decisions and provide early warning of destabilizing behavior that can lead to conflict.
  • Close loopholes in Leahy Laws that enable workarounds on legal prohibitions to providing security assistance to units found to violate human rights, and expand prohibitions to apply to the institution and government level for weapons and equipment sales.2
  • Encourage members of Congress to invoke Section 502b of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to prompt reevaluation of partner countries receiving US security assistance and ban US assistance on a country-by-country basis. No member of Congress has used their power under Section 502b to request a report on security assistance partners from the State Department since 1976, and to date no Congress has voted on a Section 502b joint resolution of disapproval.3
  • Pursue more security sector support through regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States in lieu of direct country support where leadership is weak and civilian protections questionable.
  • Prioritize the provision of nonmilitary assistance to address underlying causes of violence, instability, and extremism, including governance, civilian institutional capacity building, and economic growth development.
  • Where security partnerships are not warranted by an assessment of the full range of risks, maintain a diplomatic and development presence focused on soft-power engagement that reiterates America’s commitment to democratic values and enhancing prosperity, such as increased use of educational exchanges, public diplomacy outreach, and healthcare and education development.

Appendix: Case Studies

The following case studies are instructive examples of unproductive or counterproductive US security partnerships on the continent. In Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Ethiopia, security sector assistance failed to prevent or end the terrorist threat that US assistance was meant to combat, facilitated abusive behavior by the partner country’s military, and ultimately contributed to greater instability in the long term.
 Supporters of Capt. Ibrahim Traore parade wave a Russian flag in the streets of Ouagadougou
Burkina Faso: If It’s Not Broke, Don’t Break It A military strengthened by American training, weapons, and intelligence helped create the very problem US assistance was meant to prevent.
Cameroon soldiers stand guard at a lookout post as they take part in operations against the Islamic extremists group Boko Haram
Cameroon: Which War Are We Fighting? US security assistance meant for counterterrorism efforts is also implicated in the government’s war against Anglophone separatists.
 Ethiopian government soldiers ride in the back of a truck on a road in the Tigray region
Ethiopia: Propping up One Strongman after Another America’s unconditional security sector assistance has helped facilitate Ethiopia’s violent responses to opposition.
About the Authors
Elizabeth Shackelford
Former Senior Fellow, US Foreign Policy
Council staff Elizabeth Shackelford
Elizabeth Shackelford, a former career diplomat who served the US Mission to Somalia and the US Embassy in South Sudan, focuses on building awareness and understanding of a "restraint" approach to foreign policy, which seeks to limit the use of force to core US security interests and favors diplomatic engagement.
Council staff Elizabeth Shackelford
Ethan Kessler
Former Research Associate
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Ethan Kessler joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 and was a research associate in the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy.
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Emma Sanderson
Communications and Research Assistant, US Foreign Policy
Emma Sanderson headshot
Emma Sanderson joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 as a communications and research assistant on US Foreign Policy. In this role, she supports and conducts original research, analysis, and writing focused on the "restraint" approach to American foreign policy, which seeks to limit the use of military force to the defense of core US national security interests.
Emma Sanderson headshot

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