This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The growing importance of Africa to U.S. policy

A soldier wears a button bearing the image of coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo with the words 'President, CNRDRE,' the French acronym of the ruling junta, as he stands guard at junta headquarters in Kati, outside Bamako, Mali in April, 2012. Photo: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File

Last week, the Mali government requested an International Criminal Court probe into atrocities in the uncontrolled northern part of the country. The northern armed groups are accused of committing rape, mass killings and using child soldiers.

It’s easy to think of Mali as another example of how messed up Africa can be at times. But Mali is also an example of how well-intentioned U.S. policies don’t always work out as planned. It also can help us understand how the U.S. can engage more positively with Africa as a whole.

For several years, Mali has been the recipient of U.S. Security Assistance. This means U.S. personnel have been training the Malian military, as well as funding other programs to support various civil society and humanitarian programs. This assistance, however, did not result in a terribly effective military or a terribly competent government, and Bamako’s efforts to respond to the Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north had flagged. March’s coup d’état reflected the military’s frustration with how incapable the government was of stemming the northern rebellion.

After the coup, the U.S. immediately suspended aid to the government, and with parts of the country in chaos, news from Mali remains grim. What happened?

The situation in Mali represents the limits of U.S. assistance programs. In Africa, U.S. assistance has focused on building partnerships with local governments to help achieve certain security goals: securing a territory, pacifying an insurgency, and so on. In some cases, like in Somalia, that partnership program has been effective at responding to violent Islamist movements. In Mali, that partnership program did not help the government become effective or stable.

My think tank, the American Security Project, recently hosted Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), who spoke about how the U.S. engages with Africa. Rep. Smith focused his comments on the need for partnership across the continent.

“Africa is rich not just in resources but in human resources,” he said. Because of that, the focus needs to be on developing African human capital – building their ability to secure and develop themselves and to thrive on their own.

From a security perspective, Rep. Smith also spoke about how partnerships allow the US to engage with a country’s security challenges at low cost. In his view, partnerships work as force multipliers that enable the US to achieve security goals at a lower cost and with fewer US troops than previously thought. “We are past the point in history,” he said, “where a foreign military can impose itself on a country and succeed. It just doesn’t work.”

While that makes a lot of sense, partnership does have its limits. One of the limits is how partnership programs work with an oppressive government. Both Uganda and Ethiopia are key players in the struggle to secure Somalia, but both governments also face accusations of human rights abuses. Freedom House notes that Uganda has engaged in a vicious crackdown on gays and lesbians while restricting press freedoms. Human Rights Watch routinely publishes reports about Ethiopia’s non-democratic government, as well as its restrictions on media and free speech.

Rep. Smith admitted it’s not easy to balance the need for security and the need for good governance and justice. But it’s important to try anyway; having the connection with governments through security partnerships gives a venue for diplomats and other officials to nudge local countries in the right direction. Though it won’t be perfect, or even 100 percent effective, it’s better than lecturing them from afar and hoping things change.

And along the way, of course, the U.S. gets help going after terrorists. Groups such as al-Shabab in Somalia or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb may be concerned mostly with local matters, but the instability they foment can spread easily and disrupt the entire region if left unchecked. It’s also not always clear when a local insurgency suddenly develops a global focus — such as when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen began, seemingly overnight, to try to attack targets in the U.S.

In many ways, Africa is the last frontier in foreign policy. It is a continent of such enormous potential and enormous challenges that everyone seems to be scrambling to see what they can get out of it. The U.S. has the opportunity to get involved without being exploitative. Unfortunately, the Chinese resource extraction model has echoes of European colonialism about it, and local populations are rarely enthused at what results (witness China’s $3.5 billion ghost town it built outside of Luanda, Angola).

The key to non-exploitative engagement, however, is three fold: adopting a long-term mindset, investing in the economy, and creating security. The current partnership plans help to create security in some cases but don’t in others. Fewer policies in Africa have a long-term goal in mind aside from vague intentions to make recipient countries better. Lastly, there remains little investment by U.S. companies into African development for a number of reasons, including concerns over security and corruption.

Either way, one thing is certain: there is tremendous interest in what’s happening in Africa. Some places show remarkable promise, even if others present challenges to stability and development; this is where the real innovation, and perhaps failure, will lie.



  • Hal

    Yeah, way to go PBS. Yeah, that’s what America needs ‘more’ involvement in Africa, and even ‘more’ aid that we can’t afford.  Let’s not forget the millions of Africans that will then want to come here, because they feel they are ‘owed’ something or they’ll want ‘political asylum’ , or it’s too hot in Africa,..or any of a dozen other reasons.

    “Africa is rich not just in resources but in human resources? Human resources in Africa? Really? What that really means - another immigration nightmare that will bring us even closer to societal collapse. Great plan.
    China is getting pretty heavily involved in Africa – let’s see how many Africans that the Chinese will feed and then adopt. Liberal media has made it impossible for America to do anything but lose in Africa. We don’t need any more help from the left,..thanks, but no thanks. 

    How’s that African immigration working out in Europe?  No thanks PBS – keep your selfdestruction to your ‘self’.

  • Norm1000

    America has to stop playing world cop PERIOD.

  • Gustavo Corral

    Let me make a few points and establish some bases : 
    1) If you make “incapable government” as justification for revolution, you will have more. Conversely, some governments are ineffectual; in these unstable governments need to establish the requirements on governments that you will support. 
    2) The time to make the decision on what type of government you want to support ( e.g. one that respects free speech, basic freedoms, etc. ) is at the beginning. Don’t make the mistake of supporting bad governments for strategic reasons. Their hand is not that strong; so don’t freak out about terrorism ( it was communism 40 yrs. ago ) and bargain for the end you want. 
    3) But also understand human nature : democratic presidents are not warlords and vice-versa. There is a place for both in this world, but what do you do with the warlord after he’s won the war ? 
    4) Extractive industries have been labeled as “exploitive”. Yet what industry would you recommend for a country with no infrastructure ( power, water, roads ). In agriculture they have to compete with other regions where the climate is better as is the access to capital. Extraction can form the basis of an economy if it is coupled with value added businesses.