Security assistance in Africa needs an industrial boost

Ethiopia’s civil war with its Tigray population is now a national emergency. Violence escalated so severely last week that the U.S. Department of State advised all Americans to leave the country using “commercial options”— a sign that the local embassy might not be able to support their exit.

Reports of concentration campsmass starvation and ethnic cleansing are common. It is noteworthy, then, that Ethiopia received more than $1 billion in foreign aid from the United States last year — more than any other African country except Egypt. Sadly, these tragedies are not isolated events.

Over the last year, Africa experienced four successful military coups, two intensifying civil wars, the slaying of a president and numerous humanitarian crises. While the United States continued its strategic pivot from Middle East terrorism to competing with Chinathousands of Africans were killed by violent extremists.

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As a result, the overwhelming majority of U.S. aid to countries such as Ethiopia goes to emergency response efforts designed to bolster the security sector and react to crises, not necessarily prevent them. This means that infrastructure development, education, governance and other “soft power” initiatives combined amount to less than the emergency response budget.   

Since 2001, the national security policies of Western powers such as France, Britain and the United States toward Africa have relied heavily on limited counterterrorism efforts and low-profile security cooperation activities. One might refer to these as “over the horizon” strategies. 

Prior to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden pledged to remain focused on terror groups that U.S. Africa Command recently assessed as global threats, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya. The presence of roughly 6,000 U.S. troops on the continent means that the Department of Defense is uniquely positioned to assist in these efforts, particularly with its special operations teams and newly formed adviser units. But security assistance alone is not a panacea for Africa’s challenges. 

The 2017 deaths of four special operations soldiers in Niger stirred an uproar in Congress that put American forces and their effectiveness in Africa under a microscope. That scrutiny was amplified in January of last year when al-Shabaab extremists attacked a small military airbase in Kenya, killing three Americans and destroying several aircraft.

By the end of 2020, President Trump ordered the removal of all troops from Somalia, though air strikes there have not ceased under the Biden administration.   

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Security cooperation in Africa continues to encounter challenges not with the capability of U.S. forces sent there but with the capacity of the host nation to translate military gains achieved through its foreign advisors into long-term economic and political stability. Killing terrorists briefs well in meetings, but it does little to erode the institutional frameworks that give extremist organizations their legitimacy, such as government corruptionlack of infrastructureideological indoctrination and fragile political and military systems. Crafting effective approaches to security assistance in Africa demands fresh thinking about the nature of public-private partnerships there.  

During his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy in July, Brookings Institution senior fellow Landry Signé highlighted Africa’s tremendous untapped economic potential. The continent witnessed a 300 percent increase in trade over the last decade and is projected to generate an estimated $16.12 trillion in consumer and business spending by 2050. The U.S. government’s Prosper Africa initiative aims to capitalize on this growth, but more programs that cross the public-private sector divide are needed.  

Sub-Saharan Africa alone is projected to have more than 600 million mobile phone subscribers by 2025 — nearly twice the population of the United States. While cell phones were almost nonexistent in Africa only 20 years ago, mobile technologies now produce 8.6 percent of the region’s GDP, demonstrating remarkable potential for employment and economic growth. Chinese telecom agencies, such as Huawei, have seemingly cornered this market in Africa, and major U.S. corporations are taking notice. 

Google’s announcement last month that it plans to invest $1 billion into Africa’s technology infrastructure – to include the installation of undersea cables – coincided with the company expressing renewed interest in the Pentagon’s cloud computing contract. This opportunity should raise eyebrows in Washington. Until recently, U.S. tech giants were rather hesitant to invest not only in defense projects but also in a continent that by 2050 could hold a quarter of the world’s population. 

China, on the other hand, has pledged billions in infrastructure projects across Africa over the next 10 years through its audacious Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013. As U.S. exports to Africa decreased by 66 percent over the last 15 years, China’s increased by 233 percent, making it the continent’s top trade partner. This allows China to pursue low-risk-high-reward policies that are woven into the long-term political and economic fabric of its African client states. Beijing’s soft power approach deserves more attention, considering the Biden administration’s interim national security strategic guidance and the U.S. government budget for 2022 both prioritize competition with China.   

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As the strategic landscape shifts to the Pacific, certain budgets tighten and the United States is forced to restructure its priorities, Congress will have to answer tough questions related to its investments in Africa. If not tailored properly by broader partnerships and aggressive industrial development, America’s security efforts in many African nations run the risk of becoming a microcosm of its policies in Afghanistan: a series of impressive tactical victories culminating in strategic failure.   

Capt. Michael P. Ferguson is a U.S. military officer, author and analyst with decades of operational experience throughout Southwest Asia, Africa and Europe. He frequently contributes national security content for various outlets. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect official positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. government.