Washington, DC — On 25 September 2023, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed reporters in Nairobi, Kenya. He was in the country during his first official visit to Africa for meetings with African leaders, including Kenyan President William Ruto and Cabinet Secretary of Defense Aden Duale.
Speaking about the ongoing crisis in Niger, he said “While we give diplomacy a chance, we will also evaluate any future steps that would prioritize both our diplomatic and security goals.” He declared that Washington had “not made any significant change to our force postures and . . . we really want to see a diplomatic solution, a peaceful end” to the ongoing crisis in Niger.
Earlier, during a meeting in Washington with President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique on 22 September 2023, Secretary Austin noted that “across the continent, we’ve seen autocrats undermine free and fair elections and blocked [sic] peaceful transitions of power. When generals overturn the will of the people, and put their own ambitions above the rule of law, security suffers, and democracy dies.” He went on to say that “As a Biden administration strategy for sub-Saharan Africa notes, effective, legitimate, and accountable militaries and other security forces are essential to support open, democratic, and resilient societies and to counter destabilizing threats. Or to put it more bluntly, militaries exist to defend their people and not to defy them. And Africa needs militaries that serve their citizens and not the other way around.”
And on 27 September 2023, in remarks Austin made in Luanda, Angola, he observed that “other countries may see African countries as proxies or even pawns,” but the United States wants “to move forward together, through growing partnerships rooted in mutual cooperation and mutual respect.” Thus, “our outstanding U.S. Africa Command, led by General Michael Langley, provides a range of support to our partners in Africa, and that includes professional military education, capacity-building, counterterrorism, logistics and much, much more.”
But, he insisted, “we also take a broader view of security. You know, it’s always easier to stamp out an ember than it is to put out a blaze, so we’re doubling down on conflict prevention, especially through the U.S. strategy to prevent conflict and to promote stability. We’re working with seven African partners to find creative ways to prevent conflict before it starts and to invest in locally-led solutions to buttress lasting peace.” He declared that “the United States will never take your partnership for granted. The people of Africa deserve to chart their own sovereign paths. And so we aren’t asking African countries to choose any side other than their own.”
Secretary Austin’s trip to Djibouti, Kenya, and Angola followed the wake of the coup in Niger and the expulsion of French counter-insurgency troops. In the aftermath of the coup, American military personnel stationed in Niamey, the capital of Niger, were moved to Base 101, the base near Agadez modernized by the Americans at an estimated cost of $110 million to serve as a base for intelligence and surveillance operations using drones and to support counter-insurgency operations by Nigerian soldiers.
In addition to in the Sahel, the Biden administration faces serious and escalating crises elsewhere in Africa: The continuing security crisis in Nigeria; Sudan’s civil war; ethnic violence in the Ethiopian provinces of Tigray and Amhara; and the deteriorating security situation in Somalia.
The United States is not in retreat in Africa; Washington is committed to holding the line against violent extremist organizations and global rivals: Russia and China. The key role that Africa plays in America’s struggle to assert and maintain its global hegemony means that Washington will stay on the same course it has pursued for years. But the question remains: can the US military hold the line in Africa, and should it keep pursuing a strategy that relies on the use of military power and that has proven both futile and counterproductive for the United States.
The United States has been promising for years to treat African countries as partners, and has disavowed any desire to make them choose between the United States and its global rivals. And it insists that democratic government, the protection of human rights and international law, military respect for civilian rule, and a better life for the people are its goals in Africa. But Africans have heard this all before. The Biden administration has to do more than just “evaluate” its military operations in Africa; it has to bring them to an end.
Daniel Volman is the Director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, DC (www.africansecurity.org) and a specialist on US national security policy toward Africa.