“The many questions surrounding the death of American service members in Niger show the urgent […] to have a public discussion about the current extent of our military operations,” U.S. Senator Tim Kaine said on the killing of four U.S service members in the Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger, and with it the need for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) for Africa in October 2017. While the sentiment Senator Kaine expressed was towards providing safety in overseas operations for servicemen, the overarching idea of discussing, and perhaps rethinking, counter-terrorism operations is necessary.
Since 9/11, the United States has utilized a tremendous amount of military force to combat terrorism abroad. With so much brute force, one would imagine that the threat of terrorism would dampen. Unfortunately, terrorists continue to survive – not only in the Middle East, but in Africa, too. Violent events linked to Islamic extremist groups in Africa increased by an estimated 38% over the past year. The question becomes, however, what exactly is the U.S. doing to try and stop terrorists in Africa?
The answer is essentially the same thing the U.S. has done for decades: military intervention via Special Forces, and airpower. In the cases of Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, military force via drones and small Special Forces operations demonstrably don’t solve the problem – they only mitigate problems and yield short-term results. Africa will be no different, if the U.S. engages in the same strategies. The U.S. must now operationalize a new multilateral strategy – engaging in coordinated statebuilding with the African Union to establish oversight in ungoverned regions, while also stabilizing and investing in economic sectors – in order to see long-term stability in the African region.
Terror in Africa: Where is it?
There are multitude of terrorist organizations operating in Africa right now. These groups include Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and affiliates, and the Islamic State, just to name a few. But what’s most interesting is where they are situated in Africa.
In the current day and age, Africa is a continent full of political struggles. For instance, Libya has struggled since the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s in 2011. In particular, economic sectors have slowed down, thousands of civilians have died, and there are three different governments competing for power as of now. Libya is not the only nation-state to have such issues, however. Somalia is another example of a country full of political turmoil; there is a civil war in Somalia stemming back to the early nineties. Many countries in Africa currently face some sort of political struggle, and because there is no reconciliation within countries between governing factions and fighters, there usually is no proper governance over that country’s territory.
Regions that are ungoverned overlap with terrorists’ areas of operation. Ungoverned regions are ample breeding grounds for terrorist groups to operate, recruit, and cause further chaos. It’s not enough to simply be ungoverned, however. There are characteristics that make certain ungoverned territories in Africa more enticing for terrorists. One characteristic is the ability for terrorists to easily blend in with the population. Another characteristic is the lack of infrastructure, such as roads. But it isn’t just ungoverned regions that perpetuate terrorist attacks in Africa – it’s also economic factors.
Ungoverned territories also exacerbate economic poverty because there are usually few jobs, infrastructure or services. This gives terrorists a means to recruit; Boko Haram, for example, recruits people by offering funds for financial endeavors, offering physical safety, or telling people to join in exchange for not stealing their money.
There is a huge overlap between areas of terrorist activities, economic poverty, and ungoverned regions. With all of this in mind, though, it becomes clear as to how and why the U.S. should re-strategize. By only striking terrorists with direct action via Special Forces in ungoverned and impoverished areas, the root problem is never addressed. Terrorists will continue to emerge in areas with low-standards of living because there is opposition in the form of civil or military authorities. Moreover, a majority of the population lives in rural areas, which also happens to be areas that are ungoverned. As long as these rural areas stay impoverished and ungoverned, people will always be more inclined to join terrorist organizations because they provide some form of security – whether financial or physical. Therefore, it becomes evermore prudent to develop new strategies that are multi-pronged – to include military engagement, as well as political and economic efforts.
Tackling the Ungoverned Regions
Currently, there are no policies set in place by the Trump Administration to establish proper governments in Africa. Instead, the Trump Administration has opted for more military strikes and greatly reduced funding for State Department, USAID, and Peace Corps. This is a mistake that will only exacerbate the problem of terrorism in Africa. It greatly hinders progression towards establishing oversight in ungoverned territories. The U.S. needs to reposition its policies, not towards more military engagements, but towards more diplomatic means, a shift that over 100 former military admirals and generals stand by.
But the path in which the U.S. can begin diplomatic efforts to help these countries take control over their ungoverned territories is difficult, especially given the fact many countries don’t know where to begin in establishing coherent governance, and the African Union doesn’t provide a decent framework to help these countries establish governance. The AU’s foundational organs were inspired by the European Union; however, unlike the latter, the AU is not as successful. The AU has a policy in which it does not interfere with members’ internal affairs. In other words, trying to enforce peace within the African Union is almost impossible with the current framework in place.
A viable framework needs to be set in place for African countries to establish governance, which will allow for proper oversight in ungoverned territories. On the political front, the U.S. must be a key player in helping countries in Africa find a path to governance. In that front, Africa would greatly benefit by having the United States play a role as a facilitator in the African Union. Diplomacy and good relations are key in this effort, so the U.S. should refund the State Department adequately and offer assistance and/or advice to different countries of the AU, and eventually call for a U.S.-led summit to try to establish proper governance in regions. This will provide a start to how countries can build an efficient and stable government.
Addressing the problem, however, will require more than just a summit or advice from the U.S. on how to properly communicate within the African Union. In order to really establish proper governance, basic services and infrastructures need to be put in place. Ungoverned regions are enticing because they lack these basic things, which allows terrorists to roam free. The U.S. and allies need to begin to funding infrastructure projects — such as building roads, establishing electrical plants, and instating health and other social services — in Africa. Indeed, rather than putting all the money towards direct action in Africa, the U.S. could begin using that funding for infrastructure projects, which could yield results of better oversight of ungoverned regions.
Once these infrastructure projects are established, police and judicial officials can begin to mobilize in these areas; crops and other tradeable items can easily be moved from region to region, electricity and water can begin flowing into these regions, and people may be able to see doctors and receive social services. Funding infrastructure projects also exert soft power over African countries, which is exactly what China is doing. If the U.S. can establish soft power over African countries, this allows for a better position in which the U.S. can play the role of a facilitator in the AU. In other words, by investing in Africa’s prosperity, the U.S. can exert greater influence.
Establishing better economic prosperity?
Two of the major economic powerhouses of Africa are Nigeria and South Africa. Other African countries have smaller domestic economies. Any economic plan, however, needs to benefit all African countries – not just these two. By improving economic stability throughout the region, militant groups, such as Boko Haram, will be less able to recruit the disaffected and disenfranchised. Moreover, improved economic stability will likely result in superior infrastructure and thus governance. The U.S. can assist, given its economic power.
The U.S. can further open its market to African exports. Under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, adopted in 2000 by Congress, the U.S. and Africa enjoy some trade. However, there are limiting factors right now: over 90% of exports from Africa were oil and/or energy related in 2017. The U.S. needs to help Africa in diversifying its markets and not be so reliant on oil and energy. Oil trade isn’t sustainable in the long-term. Therefore, the U.S. should begin looking into infrastructure projects in Africa, or perhaps other industries aside from oil and energy. Trade diversification is also hurt by similar industries across state lines; many countries in Africa produce the same goods; Kenya, for instance, exports a lot of coffee, but so do Uganda, Rwanda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and Mali. As a result, Africa’s economy is not very competitive, and foreign countries may be more inclined to trade with the African country who has the cheapest commodities.
Certain countries in Africa are currently trying to diversify their trade by implementing export processing zones. EPZs are areas where goods can be loaded, manufactured, and exported. EPZs are special because they encourage diverse products to be produced and exported, and brings in potential foreign investment from multinational companies while offering jobs to locals. Mexico’s model is quite salient; over 30% of Mexico’s exports are from sites that produce textiles and clothes, which account for over $5 billion U.S. dollars. But Africa isn’t doing well in maintaining its EPZs, and scholars attribute this to a variety of reasons, such as inadequate infrastructure (such as lack of roads) or lack of investors. The U.S. needs to begin looking at such EPZs and begin investing through government business enterprises. Because EPZs tend to have labor-oriented production services, the U.S. could look into outsourcing production in other countries in an effort to improve domestic services while reducing costs. For instance, Amtrak, a quasi-government owned railroad service, could begin investing in EPZs to produce better and safer equipment for trains. Not only would this benefit the United States via the outsourcing of labor via cheaper labor costs but it also allows a direct way for the U.S. to get involved in EPZs.
The U.S. could also try to encourage private sector companies in an effort to invest in EPZs. During the Bush and Obama Administrations, there were offices dedicated to private sector outreach. Within these offices, diplomats of the State Department set out to negotiate with private sector leaders and create ways to forward public diplomacy initiatives, such as countering violent extremism, promoting education, or strengthening economic prosperity in the world. While the Trump Administration does have a similar office, the Office of Global Partnerships, it is underfunded. And in order to ensure that there is a more secure Africa with the current funding right now, it is estimated that State Department will need to build and expand nearly 2,000 public-private relationships. This is a task that will be difficult because of how underfunded and limited in resources the State Department is. If the Trump Administration is serious about attaining a more prosperous Africa and thwarting the spread of terrorism, there needs to be a stronger utilization of this office with greater resources, which can therefore allow for greater influence of private sectors to potentially invest in African EPZs or engage in regional economic prosperity otherwise.
Critics argue that the human capital is low in Africa, and while that is true, there are several countries that show promise — particularly Ghana, Rwanda, Cameroon, and Mauritius. Still, many African countries’ human capital lag behind due to low literacy rates and lack of education. The most viable solution to that is through the Trump Administration’s Office of Global Partnerships. This office’s predecessors have had investments in promoting education, and the Trump Administration should reconsider such investments in Nigeria, Mali and Libya, where terrorist are most active. This will allow for greater literacy and education amongst the population, which will provide greater human capital.
With an increase of people working, this creates higher levels of income, and people with higher levels of income may be less inclined to join terrorist networks. As an example, Boko Haram won’t be able to use the excuse of “funding/providing income” to Africans if the people are already making a sustainable income for themselves. Of course, poverty levels may still be high, but the point is that people will have some sort of work to be able to sustain themselves long enough to defer from promises that terrorists can’t keep.
By becoming more involved in the economic sectors of Africa, we cultivate interdependence. With further interdependence comes increased relations both militarily and politically, which is exactly what the U.S. needs to do. The process of helping African countries develop economically will be long — but it a necessary endeavor to ensure people do not join terrorist groups.
A Way Ahead
A new strategy of tackling on ungoverned territories while also bolstering economic sectors in Africa must be employed by the U.S. government. Africa is still a developing continent overall, and it is within U.S. interest to steer it in the right direction, lest the threat of terrorism continue to expand further. Moreover, the U.S. has been engaged in a war on terrorism for 17 years now, and the current tactics of military engagement show no end in sight. The use of just Special Forces on the ground is not the best way to combat terrorism. If anything, they scare people as much as terrorists do. That is why the United States needs to come at the issue from another angle — wherein people can actually begin to thrive, not just survive. This means governments must regain their territory from terrorists; people must be able to have an income and work; people must have access to health and other public services; people need to be able to travel on real roads.
The fight against terrorism in Africa is still in its early stages. But the U.S. can prevent it from going any further if it learns that not all battles need to be fought with soldiers. The U.S. need not repeat the mistakes it did in the Middle East. These methods, if instated, will begin to reform Africa for the better and discredit terrorist organizations in the region.