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Refining American Strategy in Africa

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz.

February 2000

76 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author provides a broad overview of the African security environment as a basis for recommendations on the refinement of American strategy in that region. He assesses both the opportunities for positive change which exist today, and the obstacles. While only Africans themselves can determine the future of their region, an American strategy which discourages proxy aggression, encourages private initiatives in the economic and political spheres, and uses the U.S. military, particularly the Army, to engage its African counterparts could pay great dividends.

American defense strategy calls for using the military to help shape the global security environment, preempting and deterring conflict and building regional mechanisms for security. This is a particularly wise approach to Sub-Saharan Africa.


Amani iwe kwenu. This Swahili benediction, which means "may peace be with you," is an appealing thought but remains only a dream for Sub-Saharan Africa. At the beginning of the 21st century, that region is characterized by increasing violence and instability as governments, facing the pressures of globalization and the information revolution, lose the ability to control pent-up discontent. In states with relatively strong economies and civil societies, this has sparked pressure for increased government accountability and popular participation. In less resilient states, the devolution of state power has led to collapse, fragmentation, and violence. Some, like Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, tumbled into near-anarchy. Others have spent years trying to wrest control of their hinterlands from rebel warlords. As a result, Africa entered the 21st century the most war-torn region on earth.

Facing thunderstorms of violence and diminishing interest by outside powers, Africa's leaders have attempted to forge some sort of new, post-Cold War strategic framework. This has renewed the search for "African solutions to African problems." Because of the great value that African culture places on collective action, the most tangible gains have come from building on existing structures. Regional economic organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and, to a lesser extent, the East African Community (EAC) have assumed security functions, in part to compensate for the weaknesses of the continent-wide Organization of African Unity (OAU).

But every step forward brings one backwards. At the same time that the region's leaders attempt to build a new strategic framework, they seem to have lost any inhibition on intervention in neighboring states. The old dictum that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" dominates the security policy of African states. Proxy conflict is the coin of the realm. And security policy—like politics in general— remains personalized. Animosities among the region's leaders shape the strategic environment as much as national interests. Positive and negative trends in Africa remain locked in a fragile counterpoise. In coming years the continent could go either way, slipping into greater violence or slowly moving toward greater stability. For the United States, this creates a moment of opportunity when wise strategy could bring great benefits.

Admittedly, Africa is a not a top priority for the United States. The 1998 National Security Strategy of the United States lists Africa last among the world's regions. This is not coincidence. As a 1995 report by the Department of Defense notes, "America's security interests are very limited." The tendency is thus to relegate Africa to the periphery of American strategy, to accord it our second-best efforts, or to ignore it entirely. But to do so risks letting substantial opportunities fade away. This would not be wise. After all, the United States does have strategic concerns in Sub-Saharan Africa. Serious transnational threats emanate from the region including state-sponsored terrorism, narcotics trafficking, weapons proliferation, international crime, environmental damage, and pandemic disease. Nigerian organized crime groups are heavily involved in the global heroin trade, and South Africa, Ghana, and Côte d'Ivoire are becoming important transshipment points for drugs. And Africa is the scene of recurrent humanitarian disasters, often as a result of armed conflict. To ignore them detracts from the humanity of all who have it in their power to respond, and pushes the sort of world order that Americans seek a little further away. In addition, economic opportunities in Africa are growing. By volume, about 14 percent of U.S. crude oil imports come from Africa (compared to 18 percent from the Middle East). While U.S. exports to Sub-Saharan Africa account for less than 1 percent of U.S. exports, they do exceed those to the former Soviet Union and currently account for 100,000 U.S. jobs. Direct investment is also increasing.

This suggests that the United States should remain engaged in Africa but do so in a way that generates the maximum effectiveness from every effort. Clearly promotion of political and economic reform must be at the center of American policy. But security cannot be overlooked. Democracy and development require security which is in short supply across Africa. To assist African states in building a more secure region, the United States must promote improved civil-military relations, help with the professionalization of African militaries, and assist with the construction of regional structures to prevent or resolve conflict. This is a tall order. The American public and its elected leaders have little understanding of or concern for Africa. Those who craft and implement American policy face a constant struggle to sustain interest and obtain the resources necessary to influence the region. This means that the maximum impact must be derived from every program and effort: American strategy in Africa must be both creative and careful. The Clinton administration has laid the foundation for success. To seize the region's opportunities, this must now be refined. The U.S. military— particularly the Army—can play a vital part.

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