Author: Judd Devermont
Affiliated organization: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: June 24th, 2021
U.S. policy is caught between two subregions and three priorities in West Africa. The United States has enduring interests in both coastal West Africa and the Sahel, as well as a renewed commitment to countering violent extremism, checking authoritarianism, and challenging malign Chinese and Russian activities and influence. It is a task unequal to current levels of resources, staffing, and senior-level engagement.
Since the 2000s, and especially after the 2012 coup in Mali, the United States has increased its security, development, and humanitarian engagement in the Sahel. Yet worrying security trends in coastal West Africa are spurring a recalibration and pivot to more populous countries,1 which lie along critical Atlantic Ocean shipping lanes and are the source of some $4 billion in two-way trade with the United States. Similarly, while the U.S. government has expanded its focus on preventing and countering violent extremism from the Sahel to coastal West Africa, it is under new pressure to address democratic backsliding and respond to threats posed by Chinese and Russian activities and influence in both subregions.
There is a path forward. Since the United States cannot pick and choose between subregions and priorities and expect to make sufficient progress to advance key U.S. objectives, it will have to play it smarter. It should lean into the reality that there is significant convergence and interdependence between the Sahel and coastal West Africa and that it is foolhardy and inefficient to address these key challenges separately. To advance U.S. priorities, the United States should elevate policies and programs that simultaneously tackle the forces underpinning democratic backsliding and the drivers of violent extremism, as well as limit openings for malign Chinese and Russian influence in coastal West Africa and the Sahel.
A Growing To-Do List
The evergreen challenge of tough tradeoffs and limited resources has made policy choices regarding subregion prioritization stunningly difficult. The U.S. government, according to the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, is confronting “a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency,” as well as rising nationalism and growing rivalry with Beijing and Moscow. It does not—and arguably never did—have sufficient resources and staffing to respond to the enduring and emerging threats in West Africa. According to the 2016 State Department Inspector General report, the Bureau of African Affairs has “profound” difficulties filling overseas positions, and many of its country desks are “thinly staffed.” Similar constraints exist in other U.S. departments and agencies, as well as in U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which according to its 2019 posture statement, “does not have an abundance of dedicated assigned forces” and lacks consistent resources to advance its mission in the region.
Indeed, the scale of the security threats and humanitarian needs in the Sahel and coastal West Africa have grown significantly in recent years, precluding easy answers about U.S. policy and resource allocation.
To make matters worse, both subregions are facing a precipitous decline in democracy and human rights while attracting more interest from U.S. adversaries, such as China and Russia. This confluence of challenges is a further strain on U.S. government response, spurring debates about core U.S. interests in the region.
The Next Sahel Fallacy
The policy tug-of-war between the Sahel and coastal West Africa has in part contributed to a problematic framing of the threat’s source, trajectory, and strategic significance to the United States. There has been a tendency to cast coastal West Africa as the “next Sahel,” a region on the verge of implosion. In April, U.S. AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend warned that the Sahel’s “burning embers are dancing on the roofs of the littoral states, but they haven’t caught fire yet.” He added that “for once, I would like to get ahead of the house being on fire.” This portrait of potential transmission from the Sahel to coastal West Africa—repeated by diplomats, practitioners, and journalists—unhelpfully favors policies and programs that intend to inoculate border regions and replicate unsuccessful security strategies used in the Sahel. It is not only inaccurate, but it sets up the two subregions as foils, promoting containment in the Sahel and emphasizing prevention in coastal West Africa.
A problem over there
The inclination to see the Sahel’s insecurity as spilling over and into coastal West Africa spurs policies that harden borders, increase military information-sharing between countries, and target ethnic groups that traverse both subregions, such as the Fulani (known as Peul in Francophone countries). It downplays coastal West African political, social, and economic risk factors, arguing instead for a “firebreak across the Sahel.” It also suggests that the most significant threats reside in areas contiguous with the Sahel, which has been proven untrue. Indeed, in 2016, extremists attacked the coastal resort town of Grand Bassam in Cote d’Ivoire. The following year, the U.S. embassy in Senegal warned of a potential terrorist activity in Dakar and barred U.S. staff from staying at seaside hotels for the next two months.
More of the same
As long as the Sahel is regarded as the main vector of instability, the inclination will be to reproduce the same policies and programs in coastal West Africa. This suite of tools includes security sector strengthening and training, information sharing between neighbors, and limited economic and political engagement. There may also be an impulse to back new regional bodies, such as the Accra Initiative. This framing tends to heighten the perception of the threats posed by terrorists, while downplaying how states and communities have contributed to insecurity. Moreover, it has not produced positive results in the Sahel and is likely to be unsuccessful in coastal West Africa; in 2020, AFRICOM told the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General that violent extremist organizations have been neither contained nor degraded in the Sahel and Lake Chad region.
A Unified Theory of Everything
The United States needs to be smarter—rather than going smaller—in addressing these three objectives in coastal West Africa and the Sahel. The United States has significant interests in both subregions, and its efforts should be tied in both subregions should be tied more closely together. Moreover, it is equally unwise to export ineffectual policies and programs from the Sahel to coastal West Africa. The key is prioritizing lines of effort that respond to local dynamics and simultaneously tackle the drivers of extremism and democratic backsliding.
The inclination to see the Sahel’s insecurity as spilling over and into coastal West Africa spurs policies that harden borders, increase military information-sharing between countries, and target ethnic groups that traverse both subregions, such as the Fulani (known as Peul in Francophone countries)
Diplomatic messaging from the international community also needs to be consistent. While there is less immediate overlap, this approach has the potential to constrain the malign activities of U.S. adversaries. As it rebalances its policy approach and assistance in West Africa, the United States may want to turn to its African, foreign, and multilateral partners to lead on other engagements, including strengthening military capabilities. It will be imperative to ensure the United States and its partners avoid undercutting one another, especially when it comes to confronting democratic backsliding. It will require special attention to craft careful, consistent messaging to prevent further challenges to coordination, as partners rush in to address insecurity and governance issues. Finally, the U.S. government should put diplomacy at the heart of its response, speaking truth to power and demonstrating the fortitude to adjust and curtail programming at critical junctures.
When individuals perceive that there are no formal or informal processes to register concerns, ask for redress, and receive a just settlement, it opens the door for violent extremists to proffer themselves as alternatives to the state. In Mali, for example, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wall Muslimin (JNIM) has started to mediate disputes, embedding itself within communities. Moreover, courts that fail to enforce laws and ensure accountability for high-level bribery and other official misconduct enable rulers to tighten their grip on power and leverage Chinese and Russian activities for professional and personal goals. The United States should prioritize policies and programs focused on rule of law, justice, and dignity to deepen resilience and inoculate West African citizens from negative influences. It can build on recent exercises with Sahelian police and judicial authorities to prosecute terror cases by expanding assistance to support functioning courts in civil and criminal cases. Investment in informal and traditional justice mechanisms is particularly crucial where the reach and trust of the state are limited.
Government corruption—while not unique to the Sahel and coastal West Africa—underpins the expansion of violent extremism and fosters an environment where autocratic leaders and U.S. adversaries can advance their agendas. Corruption is one of the factors that gives rise to extremism. For example, Human Rights Watch says that Sahelian extremist groups have concentrated recruitment efforts among Fulani by exploiting community grievances over public sector corruption. It is not surprising that Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Togo are at the bottom of Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index. Moreover, Chinese companies have used corruption to win key contracts in the region, especially in the mining and energy sectors.
The United States should prioritize policies and programs focused on rule of law, justice, and dignity to deepen resilience and inoculate West African citizens from negative influences. It can build on recent exercises with Sahelian police and judicial authorities to prosecute terror cases by expanding assistance to support functioning courts in civil and criminal cases
The U.S. government, following Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement to “fight corruption, which stacks the deck against us,” should make anticorruption a core priority across the Sahel and coastal West Africa. It should applaud efforts to bring corrupt officials to justice and pay special attention to private sector graft, including fishing trawlers and transportation cartels.
Partnering with Key Players
The United States cannot respond to these challenges alone. If the U.S. government prioritizes certain policies and programs, it will need to coordinate its domestic and foreign partners to reinforce specific initiatives and take the lead on others. The U.S. government should uplift local democratic institutions, media houses and outlets, and community activists who have the ability to sway their publics and effect favorable policy outcomes. It will also be essential to de-conflict and ensure foreign governments are not working at cross-purposes.
Act local, think global
The United States tends to primarily concern itself with presidential polls, devoting less attention to broader democratic processes or impactful local and legislative elections. Chad has delayed its legislative elections six times since 2015, and it took Guinea over a decade to hold local elections. If the U.S. government doesn’t focus on the local level, it will find itself in a losing battle at the national and regional level. If the United States misses the context behind some of these trends and struggles to identify and support potential partners—including civil servants—it is likely to struggle to muster the requisite credibility and influence to respond effectively. Relatedly, the Biden administration should elevate and integrate African issues at its forthcoming Summit for Democracy, providing a platform for civil society activists and doing more to address the region’s purchase of surveillance software and its propensity to cut off internet access to suppress dissent and obfuscate election chicanery, as has happened in Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Togo.
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