Biden’s Africa Policy Trilemma

12 October 2023, 1121 EDT

Ongoing instability in the Sahel – involving worsening insurgent violence, deepening great power competition, and frequent coups – is exposing weaknesses in U.S. Africa policy. In fact, three years into what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called an “epidemic” of coups, the United States and its closest allies in the region still lack a coherent and coordinated strategy to defend democracy in Africa without sacrificing security interests and geopolitical influence.

The 2020s have been a very bad decade for democracy in much of Africa.

As the Economist recently noted, “You can now walk across nearly the widest part of Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, passing only through countries that have suffered coups in the past three years. But it would be unwise—you might well be kidnapped.” According to the Colpus dataset, since 2020 military coups have toppled democratic or civilian governments in seven countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Sudan).

In a speech to other world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly last month, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke passionately about the need to defend democracy around the world, especially in West and Central Africa. The United States, Biden declared, stands “with the African Union and ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] and other regional bodies to support constitutional rule. We will not retreat from the values that make us strong. We will defend democracy.”  

But days earlier, Washington struck a deal with Niger’s new military junta – which in late July toppled Mohamed Bazoum’s democratically-elected government – to resume operations out of the U.S. drone base at Agadez. Though U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed Bazoum’s government as “a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation” when he visited Niamey in March, the U.S. did not declare a coup in Niger until 10 October, hesitant to trigger cuts in foreign aid, especially military aid and training critical to countering terror in the Sahel. Even with the declaration, U.S. troops will remain and drone operations will continue.

America’s Africa policy lacks a coherent strategy for “democratic competition.

The Biden administration’s commitment to democracy in Africa is bumping up against other policy goals. In fact, U.S. Africa policy now faces a kind of trilemma: promote democracy, counter terrorism, and/or compete with major power rivals for influence. The U.S. wants to do all three (and more) but in practice has only been able to do at most two at the same time. Condemn or sanction juntas in Niamey or Bamako, for example, and it will spell the end of U.S. security cooperation and give an opening to Russia’s Wagner Group to make further inroads in the Sahel. The U.S. has 1,100 troops deployed in Niger to support counter-terrorism operations. But failure to name and oppose anti-democratic coups undermines U.S. democratic credentials.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, published last August, says almost nothing about how to promote democracy or deter and reverse coups in the region, saying only that the U.S. will condemn coups (it hasn’t always) and engage in dialogues. Without a roadmap or clear set of principles, U.S. policymakers are reacting ad hoc to each coup. The result is hesitation, paralysis, and inconsistency. For example, although coup leaders from Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea were denied invitations to attend the US-Africa Leaders Summit last December, Mahamat Déby, who seized power in Chad in April 2021, was invited.

U.S. Africa policy now faces a kind of trilemma – promote democracy, counter terrorism, and/or compete with major power rivals for influence

Washington is also not navigating the trilemma in the same way as its closest ally in the region, France. Since 2013, Washington has worked closely with Paris in the Sahel to provide transport, aerial refueling, and intelligence. France has strongly condemned coups in the Sahel, leading to diplomatic fallouts between France and the new military juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The latter signed the Alliance of Sahel States for mutual defense on 16 September, a dagger pointed directly at ECOWAS, which has pushed for a restoration of democracy in these states. On 27 September, France agreed to withdraw its ambassador and troops from Niger (some 1,500 troops in the country aren’t actually expected to pull out until the end of the year). Washington remains in country without its most crucial Western ally. Washington needs to coordinate more with France so future agreements enable continued work toward the shared security objectives.

The U.S. can’t sacrifice development and democracy to conduct full-spectrum competition.

Africa is no strategic backwater, but has become a site of great power competition as Russia and China seek friends and influence on the continent as part of a broader “struggle for the Global South.” French influence in Francophone Africa, in gradual decline for years, has nosedived.

Meanwhile, China has made great inroads on the continent. China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, and reportedly wants a military base in West Africa to gain a military foothold on the Atlantic coast. Suspicious of Western efforts to promote democracy, China has a history of not seeing coups in Africa as a threat to its interests. Today, it continues to try to build its influence with new juntas and protect interests under the Belt and Road Initiative.

There are no easy or quick solutions to Biden’s Africa policy trilemma, but hard choices need to be made and priorities set and clarified

Russia, too, is seizing on instability and coups to increase its influence. In 2018, the Wagner Group moved into the Central African Republic. Few noticed. Even as Wagner’s presence in Africa grew, no clear policy or resources to contain it emerged. Now, the new Mali-led Sahel alliance is “a vehicle for Russian influence in the heart of Africa.” Before his death, Yevgeny Prigozhin, then head of the Wagner Group, hailed Niger’s coup and offered Wagner’s services.

As geopolitical pressure intensifies in the region, the U.S. faces some of the same cross-pressures that it faced during the Cold War, when it also had an uneven track record of defending democracy from coups. We are in fact seeing renewed a classic Cold War debate concerning whether the U.S. should have “double standards” for dictatorships that share security or geopolitical interests. During the Cold War, this meant tolerating right-wing dictatorships whose collapse might empower communists. Today in Africa, the worry is similar: not tolerating pro-U.S. military juntas may undermine U.S. security interests or empower anti-American forces.

In the first 10-20 years of the post-Cold War period, international pressure was more effective in making coups rarer and in pressuring military juntas to restore civilian rule quickly. With the recent decline of anti-coup norms, coup plotters today recognize “the West is no longer the only game in town.” They no doubt see a more permissive environment to make coups stick.

No wonder none of Africa’s new military juntas are relinquishing power. In the latest example, on 25 September Mali’s junta, citing “technical reasons,” delayed the transitional presidential election scheduled for February 2024 and also refuses to hold legislative elections. The primary tool used to counter recent coups to date – limited ECOWAS sanctions and suspended African Union memberships – isn’t working. And the new Sahel alliance makes any threatened ECOWAS-led military intervention a risky endeavor threatening broader regional conflict.

There are no easy or quick solutions to Biden’s Africa policy trilemma, but hard choices need to be made and priorities set and clarified. The Trump administration tried to reduce Washington’s footprint on the continent, both economically and militarily (for example, ordering U.S. troops to withdraw from Somalia in December 2020). But disengagement won’t make the trilemma go away—though it will likely make the security situation more perilous.

If anything, the U.S. and its allies need to do more, not less. Though Biden announced additional humanitarian aid for the region last December and promised to visit Africa in 2023, the U.S. needs more diplomatic engagement and commitment to economic statecraft in Africa (not just aid dollars, but investment and trade deals) to have a chance of ameliorating today’s trilemma, nudge military juntas to quickly restore democratic rule, and promote democratic competition.

Sticks alone aren’t working; credible commitments to carrots for democratization just might, while at the same time not driving coup regimes into the hands of Russia or China. Rather than just a strategy of containment, the U.S. should consider a Kennedy-style “alliance for progress.”

In short, the U.S. must rebalance and reinvigorate Africa policy to reduce the yawning gap between its rhetorical commitment to democracy and its non-actions responding to coups.

The U.S. must find a broader set of ways of demonstrating to our African allies, and the African people, that Washington is a dependable democratic advocate and preferred security partner.