A Progressive Foreign Policy for Africa

For too long, military force and myopic power plays have dominated US foreign policy toward Africa. We need an entirely different approach — one that allows ordinary Africans the space to build a more just and democratic continent.

A protester chants and raises the peace sign above a sit-in on May 2, 2019 in Khartoum, Sudan. (David Degner / Getty Images)

Africa, the world’s second-largest continent in both size and population, rarely receives coverage in the mainstream US press. It is only when the US president dismisses African countries with a vulgarity, or tells an elected representative who happens to be Somali-American to “go back” to where she came from, or when American soldiers die in unfamiliar places that Washington’s Africa policy attracts even fleeting attention.

Negative myths and stereotypes abound. To many in the corporate media, the word “Africa” conjures up images of a continent in crisis, riddled with war and corruption, imploding from disease and starvation. Africans are regularly blamed for their plight, with few in the halls of power understanding the role the US government and its allies have played in generating and perpetuating many of the challenges facing the African continent today — and even fewer accepting US responsibility for righting the wrongs.

US Africa policy, developed in this context, has been marked by militarism and misunderstanding. It has failed to identify the true factors that undermine human security and offered wrong-headed solutions that often exacerbate the problem. If greater peace and justice are to be achieved on the continent, the United States’ posture toward Africa must be fundamentally transformed, with the rights and well-being of ordinary people the primary objective.

The Historical Backdrop

Some popular portrayals of Africa contain a grain of truth. Poverty, corruption, and violent conflicts have indeed devastated a number of African countries. Yet many of the continent’s woes are rooted in colonial political and economic practices, in Cold War alliances, and in attempts by powerful countries to shape African political and economic systems during the decolonization and post-independence periods.

During the Cold War, dictators, warlords, and insurgents supported by the United States and other Western powers manipulated local ethnic, political, and religious tensions for their own ends. When the Cold War ended, the West severed ties, and many of these strongmen were overthrown. Other opportunists, including international terrorist networks, filled the power vacuums. Outsiders again stepped in, both politically and militarily. Although the conflicts of the post–Cold War era emerged from local issues, external interventions altered their dynamics and rendered them more lethal.

The United States was at the forefront of these interventions, both during the Cold War and in its aftermath. Regardless of the administration, Washington’s chief Cold War concern was combatting “communism.” US policymakers tended to view conflicts in incipient African nations through an East-West lens. As a result, they commonly ignored local circumstances, undermined progressive nationalist movements and states, and backed pro-Western autocrats, like the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, who were repressive and undemocratic. Under the guise of fighting communism, they attacked African movements that refused to settle for a post-independence order that left colonial-era social and economic structures intact.

Since the end of the Cold War, US administrations have reached for other rationales to justify intervention. In some cases, they have professed to be responding to instability, at times claiming their goal is to protect civilian lives. In other instances, particularly since the September 11 attacks, they have insisted they are waging a “war on terror.” A catch-all category embracing diverse opponents of often repressive regimes, the “terrorist threat” has been repeatedly invoked by African governments who have then used US military aid against political rivals and civilian populations.

The US counterterrorism agenda has not been a boon for ordinary Africans. Concerns for basic human rights and broader forms of human security (health, education, employment, environment, civil liberties) have faded into the background, overshadowed by the new terrorist bogeyman. Regions deemed to be the most strategically important have taken priority over others, however destitute. Safeguarding access to energy resources and strategic minerals, strengthening the hand of the military, and boosting allies in the war on terror have become primary goals.

Far from promoting peace and stability, this militaristic posture has more often buttressed repressive regimes, sharpened local conflicts, and undermined prospects for regional peace.

Libya and Somalia

The cases of Libya and Somalia illustrate the point well.

Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s longtime autocratic leader, was a Cold War foe of the United States — a strongman whose anti-imperialist rhetoric, along with the presence of Soviet military advisors, had convinced Washington he was a Soviet proxy. The United States attempted, unsuccessfully, to thwart his regional influence and undermine his government. After the Cold War, however, Libya and Western countries found common cause in their mutual hostility toward violent extremist organizations that threatened their power and interests. Gaddafi began to cooperate with the West on counterterrorism issues.

In 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, Libyans protesting the government’s abuses launched an all-out rebellion against the Gaddafi government. Gaddafi’s foreign allies abandoned him and threw their support to a provisional rebel government. As the Libyan leader turned his military against rebel and civilian strongholds, the United Nations authorized a NATO-led military intervention — officially to safeguard civilians, but with Gaddafi’s ouster as its unspoken objective. When a US drone and a French warplane fired on Gaddafi’s convoy, Libyan rebels were able to capture and execute the fleeing ruler.

The toppling of Gaddafi created a power vacuum that fostered civil war and terrorist infiltration, with disastrous regional ramifications. Violent extremists moved into the void, and the country descended into war. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State profited from the chaos, turning Libya into a new beachhead for African operations. Meanwhile, Libyan-trained fighters and weapons released from Gaddafi’s stockpiles flooded the region, fueling insurgencies in North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn, and the Middle East.

Somalia is another cautionary tale. As with Libya, US military intervention — often in alliance with other governments and international institutions — has provoked decades of instability and a terrorist insurgency.

After the Cold War, Western powers abandoned the Somali strongman Mohamed Siad Barre, whom they no longer needed as a regional policeman. Warlords and militias vied for power, state institutions and basic services crumbled, the formal economy ceased to function, and southern Somalia disintegrated into fiefdoms ruled by rival warlords and their militias. War-induced famine, compounded by drought, threatened the lives of much of the population.

In 1992, the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of a US-led multinational military task force to ensure that humanitarian relief could be delivered. The following year, another UN mission, also spearheaded by the United States, permitted military personnel to forcibly disarm and arrest Somali warlords and militia members. As the United States embroiled itself in Somalia’s civil war, it generated enormous hostility within the civilian population. When US Special Operations Forces attempted to capture key militia leaders in October 1993, and Somali militias shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, angry crowds attacked the surviving soldiers and their rescuers. Eighteen US troops and some one thousand Somali men, women, and children were killed in the ensuing violence.

The United States and the UN hastily withdrew from Somalia, and the turmoil intensified. Islamist groups gained widespread popular support by providing essential social services and courts that enforced law and order. The United States, which viewed all Islamists as a threat, worked with Somali warlords and neighboring Ethiopia to oust them. The result was an anti-foreign backlash and the transformation of al-Shabaab, originally a youth militia that defended the Islamic courts, into a violent jihadist organization that quickly gained the backing of al-Qaeda. As al-Shabaab took control of large swaths of central and southern Somalia in 2007, the UN and the African Union intervened, neighboring countries interceded to push their own agendas, and al-Shabaab extended its targets to include them.

Today, the Somali government, weak and beholden to outsiders, has little internal support, and al-Shabaab continues to wreak havoc in the country and the region.

What Do Ordinary Africans Want?

What can we learn from Libya, Somalia, and the recent history of other African countries? Most important, contrary to popular US stereotypes, religion and ethnicity are not the root causes of African conflicts. Deeper structural inequalities are at work: poverty, underdevelopment, and the devastating impact of climate change. The encroaching desert in Darfur (western Sudan), which has pitted herders against farmers in the struggle for water and usable land; governmental neglect and the drying up of Lake Chad, which sparked the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria; and the destruction of the fishing industry by foreign trawlers, which led to piracy off the coast of Somalia and contributed to conflict elsewhere, are cases in point.

Since the early 1990s, African pro-democracy movements have demanded better education, employment, health care, clean water, sanitation, electricity, and roads, along with programs to rehabilitate rank-and-file fighters and counter future violent extremism. They have insisted on the need for responsive, democratic governments that respect the rule of law, eliminate corruption, and address climate change, pollution, and the inequitable distribution of resources. They have called for an end to harsh counterinsurgency campaigns and to the impunity of military and police personnel who have engaged in human rights abuses.

History has shown that there will be no peace if these underlying grievances are not addressed, domestic and foreign militaries continue to victimize local populations, and dysfunctional states fail to provide basic services. These concerns are long-standing, and there are no easy fixes or short-term solutions. Fundamental political, economic, and social transformations will take decades.

The Basis of a Progressive US Africa Policy

The first step in framing a progressive and effective US Africa policy is to determine what does not work. Past interventions have been deeply flawed and often counterproductive. The seduction of quick military fixes has left policymakers blind to underlying political, economic, and social grievances. And in the aftermath of military campaigns, the powers that be have rarely addressed the deeply rooted local problems that sparked the conflicts in the first place.

Counterterrorism operations have been especially catastrophic. Government actions in insurgent areas have brutalized civilians, and externally directed drone and missile strikes have killed countless unarmed non-combatants. Rather than improving the situation on the ground, such encounters have, in some instances, increased local support for reactionary insurgencies. Foreign-led victories over guerrilla fighters have generally been short-lived. Scattered by powerful military forces, insurgents have tended to regroup in new areas and shift their tactics to focus on soft targets, placing civilians at even greater risk.

Political interventions have also been flawed. In many cases, powerful countries and international institutions have brokered peace accords, organized elections, and granted political, economic, and military support to new regimes. The success of these peace accords depends on the degree to which all parties to the conflicts and representative civil society organizations are engaged in the process from start to finish. Agreements imposed from above or outside, with little buy-in from relevant groups on the ground, are the least likely to succeed. Yet defective accords are more often the norm than the exception. Few give voice to popular organizations, and even fewer integrate these constituencies into discussions from beginning to end.

Finally, recent history demonstrates that if peace agreements are to bear fruit, important parties must not be silenced or sidelined. This means, for instance, that Islamists who are willing to work within the democratic process must be allowed to do so. If they are not permitted to participate, to take office after winning elections, or to govern without special constraints, many will reject the systems that are rigged against them. Some will seek rectification in violent extremism. Citizens who are abused or neglected by their governments or who seek a semblance of order and security where none exist may respond to extremists’ appeals.

The truth is, we know what does not work. Foreign support for repressive governments, military strikes that kill civilians, and commercial engagement with corrupt governments and enterprising warlords all perpetuate violence and instability on the continent. We need a different approach.

Toward a More Just Africa

What should US progressives advocate going forward? How can we ensure that US policy toward Africa is rooted in a concern for economic and social justice and respect for democracy and human rights?

First, we should back progressive endeavors and organizations in Africa that represent the majority of inhabitants (agricultural cooperatives, trade unions, women’s and youth organizations) and address the grievances that spring from poverty and inequality as well as the conflicts that result. Second, the US government and nongovernmental organizations should provide resources to support local peace initiatives that include all affected parties. Key actors should not be sidelined. Third, international peacekeeping forces that are deployed to monitor and enforce peace accords should not include parties that were participants in the conflicts — i.e., that provided resources, personnel, or assistance to any party to a conflict, or who stand to benefit from the continuation of the conflict or from other violations of the peace settlement.

Finally, we should press for US and multilateral initiatives that promote democracy, human rights, and economic, environmental, and climate justice. After years of disastrous policy, the 2020 elections provide an opening to push for such an approach — one that allows ordinary Africans space to build a more equitable, stable, and democratic continent, free from outside military interventions and foreign-supported strongmen.