Biden’s new Africa strategy promises democracy while countering Russia and China

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: US – Africa: Evolving relations

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Monday, 29 August 2022 10:30, updated on Monday, 10 October 2022 17:24
Joe Biden addresses a civil society forum during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington
Joe Biden, then US Vice-President, addressing a civil society forum during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington August 4, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Africa has long played a secondary role in US defence planning, a sideshow theatre characterised mostly by reactive crisis response. No longer, say Biden officials.

The Joe Biden administration has committed to reframing the continent’s importance to American national security interests, embracing Africa’s economic dynamism while vowing to work “by, with and through” African partners to promote civilian-led, non-violent approaches to conflict resolution whenever possible.

The new focus is spelled out in a new National Defense Strategy that the Biden administration shared with Congress back in March.

While the document is classified, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Chidi Blyden summarised its security priorities regarding Africa in 12 July testimony before the US Senate.

These include:

  • Countering violent extremist organisations (military jargon for terrorist groups);
  • Strengthening allies and partners to support “mutual security objectives” on the continent;
  • Strategic competition with US “adversaries” – namely Russia and China.

Sahel shift

No region better exemplifies the multi-pronged US approach than the Sahel.

The semi-arid zone stretching from Mauritania to Chad is home to the world’s “fastest growing and most-deadly terrorist groups,” according to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, accounting for more than a third of terrorism deaths worldwide in 2021.

With rising insecurity fuelling a rash of military coups and al-Qaeda-linked groups increasingly threatening coastal states along the Gulf of Guinea, the Biden administration has prioritised good governance to help break the cycle of violence.

“These groups jeopardise stability, democracy, and peace, which further provides opportunities for extremism to proliferate, creating a vicious feedback loop that is fuelled by a lack of good governance and human rights accountability,” Blyden told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“When governments struggle to maintain security, deliver essential services, uphold humanitarian principles, or even provide economic opportunities and conflict environments, conditions are ripe for (violent extremists) to exploit and appeal to vulnerable and unprotected marginalised populations”, she continued.

Shadow of Afghanistan over Sahel

Unmentioned but implied in her remarks is the disastrous 20-year US intervention in Afghanistan, where Taliban forces easily overwhelmed government forces after American troops pulled out the last summer.

“As we have seen in other key theatres,” Blyden said, “failing to understand root causes at local levels and understand our partners, and especially their will to fight, can have significant consequences.”

In response, the Biden administration has announced several adjustments since taking office.

Back in January, the State Department announced it was seeking full US membership in the Sahel Alliance, a regional partnership launched by European countries to help coordinate aid as the international community shifts from counterterrorism to institution-building.

On 1 April, the White House launched the implementation of the US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability with a focus on seven at-risk countries in Africa, including five countries in coastal West Africa (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Togo) along with Libya and Mozambique.

The stated goal is to “chart a new path toward positive results that strengthen democracy, rule of law, security, good governance, gender equity and equality, health, education, and respect for human rights all aligned to fuel reservoirs of peace, strength and recovery and extinguish potential discord before it is sparked.”

Security for the sake of security does not lead anywhere.

Meanwhile, the new US Strategy for Africa, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken released during his third trip to the continent in early August, vows to denounce military coups and human rights violations as well as corruption in the armed forces.

“Effective, legitimate, and accountable militaries and other security forces are essential to support open, democratic, and resilient societies and to counter destabilizing threats, including in Africa,” the strategy states.

The new Africa strategy is a “welcome” shift that – if done right – can help the US rebuild trust on the continent and reclaim its brand as a promoter of freedom, says Mvemba Dizolele, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and a veteran of the US Marine Corps Reserve.

“Security for the sake of security does not lead anywhere,” Dizolele tells The Africa Report. “When we talk about security, often, we talk about the failure of security. In the Sahel, we’re talking about how the social contract has failed. The populations are not free, they’re not safe, they’re not being protected by the government.”

Geopolitical rivals

Internal tensions in the US approach abound, however.

In Chad, for example, the State Department has declined to label President Mahamat Idriss Déby’s rise to power a coup. But the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, disagrees. He has been holding up US security assistance – much to the Pentagon’s chagrin.

“While Chad remains one of the most capable partners in the region and N’Djamena is the new host of the G5 Sahel Headquarters, ending US security cooperation has affected our bilateral engagement,” Blyden testified before Menendez’s committee. “The United States has the potential to provide meaningful security cooperation to train Chad’s military and civilian services, especially given its role as a troop contributor in UN and regional peace operations.”

Blyden also praised Chad for being one of only six African countries to endorse Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council following its invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow’s influence on the continent is a prime concern for the US, particularly the presence of Kremlin-backed Wagner Group mercenaries that have been accused of fueling regional instability through human rights abuses while promoting anti-western rhetoric.

While keen to avoid dictating which countries Africans can work with, the new Africa strategy makes it clear that the US hopes to be the continent’s partner of choice.

“In line with the 2022 National Defense Strategy,” it states, “the Department of Defense will engage with African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative (Chinese) and Russian activities in Africa.”

Less China focus?

While former President Donald Trump had been explicit about the confrontation with Beijing in legislation around Africa, the latest policy documents mention China as little as possible.

This has not convinced everyone. The new strategy’s strong emphasis on democracy and governance rankles Li Wentao, notes Eric Olander at the China Global South Project.

Li, a researcher at the African Institute of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations who echoes Beijing’s objection that this is part of the White House’s ongoing effort to divide the world into democracies and autocracies. He links the democracy theme to the Colour Revolutions in Europe and alludes to US hypocrisy on the issue given its own “democratic regression.”

With the fallout from Moscow’s invasion exacerbating food insecurity on the continent, Russia earns seven mentions in the Africa strategy compared to just three for China. Still, the administration remains concerned about Beijing’s role in Africa, from rare earths mining to growing defence ties.

In February, the US dispatched Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee along with officials from the White House and the Pentagon’s Africa command (AFRICOM) to Equatorial Guinea amid reports that China wants to establish a military base on the Atlantic coast.

Meanwhile, the autonomous state of Somaliland has been dangling the prospect of a US base in Berbera to counter rising Chinese influence in the region as it builds the case for US recognition.

Back to Africa

Somaliland’s long-shot bid comes amid a surge in US interest in the Horn of Africa.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has announced $1.3bn this year as a historic drought threatens the lives of more than 18 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. The Department of Defense announced in May that it was sending several hundred US troops back to Somalia to help combat a resurgent Al Shabaab, reversing President Donald Trump’s decision to pull them out in 2020.

Since then, AFRICOM has disclosed several air strikes against suspected terrorists in support of the Somali government.

The US counter-terrorism approach “has removed high-value targets, disrupted plots to attack our interests, and invested in the civilian and military capacity of key partners to degrade the threat,” the new US Africa strategy states, “but the threat posed by terrorism and other forms of violent extremism continues to demand our attention.”

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