After years of devoting vast resources to missions that have met with strategic frustrations and disappointing results, Western nations have become considerably more hesitant to deploy large numbers of troops overseas to fight terrorist groups in partner nations. . While reducing their engagements in Afghanistan and the Sahel, they have increasingly sought new tools to achieve foreign policy goals in weakly governed spaces. One such tool is Security Force Assistance (SFA), which relies on relatively small deployments of specialized units to build sustainable local counterterrorism capabilities by strengthening partner armies.
This new focus on the SFA is reflected in growing investments in sub-Saharan African armies, particularly in East Africa and the Lake Chad Basin where Islamist extremist groups are active. From 2015 to 2020, the United States provided more than $4.8 billion in AFS to sub-Saharan Africa. The main beneficiaries were Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, South Sudan and Niger.
My research suggests that the United States invests in poor partners. The vast majority of these major TFA beneficiaries are repressive authoritarian regimes, highly resistant to coups. By strengthening its coercive capabilities, the United States dampens pressures for political reform and aggravates popular grievances, thereby contributing to long-term poor governance and escalating violence.
With friends like these
The main partners of the United States in Africa are the dictatorships. Presidents Paul Biya of Cameroon and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda have been in power since the 1980s and maintain an iron grip on power. In April 2021, after three decades of rule, Chadian President Idriss Déby died on the battlefield. The army intervened, ignored constitutional succession procedures and installed his son in what was called a “dynastic coup”. Freedom House consistently gives Somalia and South Sudan extremely low scores for civil liberties and political rights.
Niger and Kenya seem more promising, but still struggle to make the transition to democracy. In March 2021, Niger transferred power from one democratically elected leader to another – for the first time in its history – and survived a failed military coup attempt in the process.
Kenya has held competitive elections, with real alternation of power between political parties since 2003. But Kenya also has a poor human rights record, particularly around elections. Current President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto have both been accused by the International Criminal Court of orchestrating the 2007 ethnic violence that left more than a thousand people dead. They escaped prosecution by joining forces on a single ticket and then, once in office, allegedly interfered with the investigation and caused witnesses to disappear.
In other words, the United States primarily builds the military capabilities of authoritarian governments in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dictators live in the shadow of violence. They face the constant threat of overthrow, especially by a military coup. To guard against this threat, dictators largely shielded their armies from coups.
My research focuses on one such coup protection tactic: ethnic stacking. Ethnic stacking occurs when leaders strategically recruit and promote members of their own ethnic groups into the armed forces to build loyalty. Sometimes this only affects key command and control positions or higher ranks in the officer corps. Other times, the leaders ethnically stack up to the bottom.
I recently collected comprehensive data on these ethnic stacking practices across all African leaders from independence to 2018. More than half of African autocrats ethnically stack their armies. Even autocracies, such as Gabon under Ali Bongo Ondimba and Côte d’Ivoire under Félix Houphouët-Boigny, which seem ethnically inclusive on the civilian side – with various cabinets, legislatures and bureaucracies – still often manipulate security institutions in ethnic ways.
These armies are designed to loyally serve the dictator – to keep him in power. Indeed, leaders whose security forces are ethnically stacked stay in power more than 50% longer than those whose forces are diverse.
Of the top seven Sub-Saharan African recipients of the US SFA, five have ethnically stacked military personnel. The current leaders of Kenya and Uganda only stack key command and control positions, leaving most ranks diverse. In Cameroon, Biya massively recruits members of his ethnic group, the Beti, through his presidential guard and the corps of army officers. In Chad and South Sudan, the ethnic stack extends to the lowest ranks of ordinary soldiers.
The other two countries, Somalia and Niger, grapple with legacies of ethnic stacking that still impact their civil-military relations. In Somalia, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who ruled the country from 2012 to 2017, is from the Hawiye clan. He presided over much of the building of the new Somali National Army, which was mainly recruited from three Hawiye sub-clans in the Banadir region. His successor to the presidency, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, comes from another clan, the Marehan Darod, and had to face a potentially hostile army. Just last week, Mohamud was re-elected as president.
In Niger, the core of the army has long been dominated by Westerners and especially the Djerma. The army has slowly diversified since reform agreements were reached in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the current president-elect – an Arab minority oriental from Diffa – survived a failed coup attempt by Western soldiers on the eve of his inauguration.
Building capacity, helping dictators stay in power
The SFA to such ethnically stacked armies enhances the repressive capabilities of the state, especially against ethnic groups largely excluded from state power. Western-trained and equipped units may initially support Western interests and be deployed against common threats, such as al-Shabaab or Boko Haram. Yet these reinforced units will always be a tempting resource for the dictator to use to quell mass protests or rebellions, which often arise in authoritarian contexts of ethnic exclusion and discrimination.
In Cameroon, for example, the United States, France and the United Kingdom have invested resources in the Rapid Intervention Battalions (BIR) – an elite unit trained in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism tactics. to advance the fight against Boko Haram in the far north of the country. country close to the Nigerian border. But when the Anglophone Crisis erupted in 2017, in which violent separatism proliferated after the government cracked down on mass protests against increasingly harsh language policies, Biya quickly redeployed military forces south, including parts of the BIR. They have now become embroiled in the crackdown on Anglophones, often carrying out joint operations with the army and gendarmes, and have been identified as guilty of widespread human rights abuses.
By bolstering the repressive capacity of dictators, the SFA inadvertently undermines domestic pressures for better governance while creating new grievances. This simultaneously serves to prop up dictators while fueling violence where improved governance is most needed.
In effect, the United States is trading short-term tactical gains in the fight against terrorism for an overall downward spiral of instability.
What is there to do?
The United States should be more selective in its local partners. It should resist the temptation to prop up beleaguered authoritarian regimes with inefficient and ethnically stacked armies, poor governance practices and terrible human rights records.
This is not an easy choice where extremist groups are active. This can incur real costs as these groups gain ground and undermine government stability, at least in the short term. But if the goal is to promote long-term peace and stability across Africa, then today’s security assistance measures should not inadvertently fuel tomorrow’s rebellions.
Rather than trying to defeat terrorism in Africa militarily through such dubious partners, the United States could turn to a strategy of containment. The United States has a range of tools – primarily financial and intelligence-based, and including international collaboration on asset freezes, air travel monitoring, money laundering prevention, media disruption social media and web content and the digitization of border crossing management – to disrupt the ability of these groups to stage attacks and project their power beyond the territories they control. These are tools the United States can use without bolstering the coercive power of some of the continent’s worst dictators.
The United States can also build good governance and military capabilities in more promising neighboring states, especially democracies or liberalized governments that are more inclusive and capable. The United States should help protect them from regional disorder while strengthening its ability to intervene in local trouble spots.
Ghana, Senegal and Benin, for example, are all relatively stable democratic countries and dominant voices within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS has repeatedly used its collective military forces to preserve regional stability, including through traditional peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as missions enforcing election results in The Gambia. ECOWAS also has an active counter-terrorism program, including the fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
ECOWAS member states – and Ghana, Senegal and Benin in particular – have deep interests in stabilizing neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. Yet they all struggle with limited resources and funding. The United States could direct more security force assistance to them, without any of the negative repercussions of investing in dictatorships.
Kristen A. Harkness (@HarknessKristen) is a senior lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
Image Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Davies, US Navy