REVIEW: Article

Security Challenges and Opportunities in the New Africa

The first US-Africa Leaders Summit that took place in August, the largest gathering of African heads of state and government ever convened by an American president, was an unprecedented display in Washington of the “new Africa”—increasingly characterized by political openness, better governance, buoyant economic growth, and self-confidence—that the Obama administration’s 2012 US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa rightly characterized as “more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular.”

This perspective on Africa represents a tectonic shift from the one which predominated less than two decades ago, when the Pentagon’s strategy document for the continent declared there to be “very little traditional strategic interest in Africa” and that “America’s security interests in Africa are very limited.” In fact, if, in such a brief time period, the consensus among US policymakers went from a nearly total disavowal of any significant national interests in Africa to such an embrace of the continent’s geopolitical importance such that, under a Republican administration, a unified combatant command, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), was established and, under its Democratic successor, the biggest single American diplomatic effort to engage African leaders, the recent US-Africa Leaders Summit, was undertaken, it is because Africa itself has changed considerably, largely for the better.

At the end of the Cold War, all but a literal handful of the continent’s states were ruled by one-party—if not one-man—regimes. Up to 1990, with the exception of the state presidents of the apartheid regime in South Africa, exactly one African head of state—Somalia’s Aden Abdulle Osman Daar back in 1967—had ever left office through electoral defeat and only three others—Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania—had retired voluntarily. In contrast, by the turn of the century, virtually every African state had opened up at least some space for political competition and many have subsequently become full-fledged democracies with regular peaceful transfers of power between governing parties and their opposition, with some countries experiencing such transitions multiple times in recent years.

Africa’s economic progress during that time has been even more impressive. Today the continent is home to seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world this decade. While, admittedly, the starting points for some African countries are relatively low and, in some of them, much of the boom has been driven by fickle demand for their commodities, a significant proportion of the growth is nonetheless due to deeper, long-term trends, including demographics (e.g., by 2050, one in four workers in the world will be African; the world’s fastest-growing urbanization rates means lower basic infrastructure costs and concentrated consumer markets) and technology (e.g., the rapid expansion of mobile telephony and Internet usage growth rates five times global averages over the last decade). Where African countries used to be written off as “risky” bets or thought of only as sources for raw natural resources, robust GDP growth rates coupled with improved regulatory and commercial environments have made the continent an increasingly attractive place to do business. Not surprisingly, a major component of the recent Summit in Washington was the daylong US-Africa Business Forum during which a number of American firms—including IBM, GE, Coca-Cola, Marriott, and Blackstone—announced multi-million and even multi-billion dollar deals with African partners.

Although the story of Africa is increasingly one of economic dynamism—driven, in part, by political reform and improvements in governance—there are very real security, humanitarian, and developmental challenges which remain to be confronted and which the United States has a stake in helping to tackle.

The potential for Africa’s poorly governed spaces to be exploited to provide facilitating environments, recruits, and eventual targets for terrorists and other non-state actors has long been recognized. As the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America noted, “Weak states…can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.” With the possible exception of the wider Middle East (including Afghanistan and Pakistan), nowhere did this analysis seem more applicable than Africa where, as the document went on to acknowledge, regional conflicts arising from a variety of causes, including poor governance, external aggression, competing claims, internal revolt, and ethnic and religious tensions all “lead to the same ends: failed states, humanitarian disasters, and ungoverned areas that can become safe havens for terrorists.”

The attacks by al-Qaeda on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998—as well as the countless attacks that have followed, most of them targeting Africans—focused the world’s attention on the deadly reality of the terrorist threat in Africa, as did the “rebranding” of Algerian Islamist terrorist organization GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, or the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) as “the Organization for Jihad in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb” (also known as “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” or AQIM) and the ongoing activities of various militant Islamist movements in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic, including al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked group designated a “foreign terrorist organiza­tion” by the US State Department in early 2008. Despite some success in turning the tide against both groups, the fight is far from over. As underscored by an AQIM splinter group attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in January 2013 that left at least 39 foreign hostages dead and al-Shabaab’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013 that left more than 67 dead—to say nothing of the September 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which ultimately cost the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomatic and intelligence officials—violent extremists continue to demonstrate their destructive capabilities across the African continent. Given how many of these groups increasingly interact with each other, terrorism will likely remain one of the top security challenges in Africa for the foreseeable future.

Closely related to terrorism is the danger posed by the lack of effective sovereignty that bedevils some African governments. In some cases—Mali, where ethnic Tuareg fighters trying to carve out a separate homeland in the country’s north unwittingly precipi­tated the overthrow of the constitutional government and the takeover of more than half of national territory by AQIM and aligned Islamist movements (both of which setbacks were reversed following a French-led military intervention in 2013), and Nigeria, where militants from the extremist Boko Haram sect have seized control of a remote area roughly the size of the state of Maryland along the country’s borders and used that enclave to launch assaults not only against government forces in that country, but also cross-border raids into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, are examples that come to mind—the challenge emanates from insurgents seeking, however unrealistically, to overthrow established regimes or carve out new polities. More often, the threat is criminal in nature, whether in the form of piracy and other brigandage or in that of trafficking, human or material. While the Somali piracy threat has been heavily diminished—the Somali coast experienced 15 incidents in 2013, down from 75 incidents in 2012 and a peak of 237 incidents in 2011—due to the ramped-up presence of armed guards on ships, international naval patrols, and, perhaps more marginally, the influence of the government reestablished in Mogadishu thanks to the efforts of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which have been heavily backed by the United States and the international community, attacks on commercial shipping have been on the uptick in the Gulf of Guinea. Moreover, West Africa has seen an explosion in drug trafficking, both for transshipments towards Europe and other destinations and, even more worrisome, for local consumption. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo recently teamed up to produce a report that estimated the scale of the cocaine trade through West Africa alone amounted to more than $1.25 billion per annum—a sum that dwarfs the combined state budgets of several countries in the sub-region—and warned that it “undermines institutions, threatens public health, and damages development efforts.”

Across Africa, poaching is yet another phenomenon that is fast evolving beyond being a challenge to conservation efforts, but rather a veritable threat to peace and security. Studies have exhaustively documented how armed groups ranging from rebels in Mozambique to al-Shabaab in Somalia to fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and the remaining fighters in his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to Séléka militiamen in the Central African Republic have systematically exploited weak governance and porous borders to carry out their grisly trade, increasingly in partnership with organized criminal networks. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, noting that “illegal ivory trade may currently constitute an important source of funding for armed groups,” has warned that “poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security” in Africa.

While these are technically security challenges, they cannot be addressed except in an integrated fashion, with solutions that embrace a broader notion of human security writ large—encompassing social, economic, and political development—which, often enough, also must transcend national and other artificial boundaries. Nevertheless, the core security dimension remains and cannot be ignored. The 2010 version of the National Security Strategy emphasized the need to “embrace effective partnerships” in Africa and, indeed, a growing number of African countries—Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda are among those who stand out—have improved the professionalism of their armed forces and subsequently have taken the lead in regional peacekeeping and other security efforts. Since 2005, more than 248,000 African troops have benefited from training provided through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, primarily funded by the State Department’s Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI). Moreover, AFRICOM, together with the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development and other government agencies, has been increasingly adept in bringing an integrated “3D” (diplomacy, development, and defense) approach to some of the continent’s complex challenges—a good example being the Trans-Sahara Counter­terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) that embraces eleven countries in northwest Africa (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal and Tunisia).

Amid all these challenges, however, opportunities persist. In the course of preview­ing the recent Summit, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield emphasized that it was “a reaffirmation of the United States’ ongoing commitment,” one that stretches back to the swift recognitions accorded during the independence period and is still visible in the largest network of diplomatic missions on the continent. And, indeed, in the course of the gathering, President Obama announced a whole series of new American commitments. While, in keeping with the Summit’s emphasis on investing in Africa’s future, having to do with building infrastructure, spurring economic growth, reducing poverty, and promoting trade, there were also initiatives to address the ongoing security challenges, including a new African Peacekeep­ing Rapid Response Partnership to build the capacity of African militaries to respond to emerging conflicts and a new Security Governance Initiative to help an initial six countries (Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia) develop comprehensive security sector governance and accountability mechanisms. A number of bilateral accords were also finalized, including the US-Morocco Framework for Cooperation aimed at developing Moroccan training experts as well as jointly training civilian security and counterterrorism forces with other partners in the Maghreb and Sahel regions and authorization from the government of Niger for the establishment of a second hub in the country’s remote north for surveillance drones to track Islamist fighters moving across the continent as well as the arms flows out of a war-torn Libya that, more and more, is beginning to resemble Somalia.

Wrapping up the Summit, the President observed that “even as Africa continues to face great challenges we’re also seeing the emergence of a new, more prosperous Africa.” Not only because US citizens and businesses hope to join with their African counterparts in grasping the continent’s burgeoning opportunities, but because it is indeed in America’s strategic interests, the United States needs also to work closely with its African partners in managing the challenges and overcoming the threats to security which otherwise block the path to an incredibly promising future.

Issue Date


Director, Africa Center, The Atlantic Council