By, With, and Through: Securing US National Interests in Africa

By: Doug Livermore, Columnist

Photo Credit: Author, Northern Mali (2011)

President Donald Trump’s recently released annual budget request, characterized as a “hard power” budget, emphasizes military spending over diplomatic and developmental aid.[i] As such, there is a perceived risk that the United States’ new foreign policy will de-prioritize our engagement with Africa, which accounts for much of the potential cuts. Rather, the United States should increase and better synchronize efforts to engage with African partners to professionalize their militaries and improve governance to preempt the emergence of crises with global implications. It is in the United States’ interests to stay engaged. Increases in trans-regional violent extremism, outbreak of humanitarian crises, and refugee flows have all brought African security challenges to Europe and the United States. In the next five years, Sub-Saharan Africa will see the world’s largest population growth which, when combined with a “cooling” of geopolitical and economic trends, will likely only exacerbate current conditions.[ii]

To date, US security policy in Africa has focused on combating violent extremism by enabling African partners, and this must remain an important priority for future American engagement. Many parts of Africa are severely afflicted with systemic instability, which creates ungoverned spaces in which violent extremist organizations (VEOs) such as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic State in Libya, the Islamic State in West Africa and Boko Haram (BH), have flourished.[iii] In response, the Department of Defense engages in widespread Security Force Assistance (SFA) efforts to train, advise, and assist African militaries to better address their internal security challenges. These efforts are best exemplified by the FLINTLOCK special operations exercises conducted every year between US, European, and African partners.[iv] As an instrument of “hard power”, it is likely that SFA will continue to be a focus of US engagement in Africa. However, it is important that this not be the primary or only manner in which the United States pursues its national objectives in Africa.

In addition to SFA, US engagement in Africa must focus on improving local governance to mitigate the conditions that breed emerging security threats. Many fragile states in Africa suffer from systemic governance issues, including limited administrative capacity to serve the needs of their citizens, endemic corruption, and an inability to respond to emerging security challenges.[v] Mali and Nigeria both illustrate this problem. The failures of the Malian and Nigerian central governments to effectively control territorial space, transparently manage development investment, or even acknowledge minority perspectives, all facilitated the incubation of VEOs.[vi] Once these VEOs emerged, both governments lacked the means to effectively counter the threat, leading to a rapid descent into chaos. These conditions brought about the rise of AQIM in northern Mali and BH in northern Nigeria in 2012.[vii] In both cases, prior US focus on SFA with local militaries was not matched with similarly robust engagement to improve governance in the “under-governed” or “ungoverned” spaces far from national capitals.

To address these issues, President Barack Obama initiated the “Security Governance Initiative” (SGI) in 2014, a whole-of-government approach to help African partners tackle the underlying issues that facilitate the emergence of security challenges.[viii] In the last two years, the program has seen measurable success laying the groundwork upon which larger stability efforts might be built.[ix] However, President Trump’s budget request, which proposes slashing 28% of the Department of State’s (DoS) funding, raises reasonable concerns that the DoS might reduce support for African engagement.[x] Perhaps prophetically, the current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, testified before the Senate in 2013 that, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately […] The more we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”[xi] Echoing Secretary Mattis, the United States must continue to fund the SGI and support DoS programs that preemptively address the underlying causes of African instability.

Africa faces several challenges in the coming years, and many stem from ineffective security institutions and weak or nonexistent governance. The US interagency has the tools to help address these shortcomings and empower our African partners to meet their internal security threats. But this requires sustained support and synchronization across the US interagency community. There will be powerful incentives to reduce such engagement, particularly if funding for “soft power” is reduced as President Trump has proposed. This would ultimately undermine US interests in Africa, worsen conditions regionally, and perpetuate the very conditions that contribute to so much of the unrest in the first place. If the United States wishes to maintain its place as a world leader and wisely secure its own interests, it must stay decisively engaged in Africa.

[i] Dan Merica, “Trump’s ‘hard power budget’ increases defense spending, cuts to State Dept, EPA,” Cable News Network, March 16, 2017, accessed April 6, 2017,

[ii] “Global Trends: The Next Five Years – Sub-Saharan Africa,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, accessed March 29, 2017,

[iii] Carlotta Gall, “Jihadists Deepen Collaboration in North Africa.” The New York Times, January 1, 2016, accessed April 6, 2017,

[iv] “Plans set for Flintlock 2017 exercise,” U.S. Africa Command, January 17, 2017, accessed March 28, 2017,

[v] John Bugnaki, “Critical Issues Facing Africa: Governance and Corruption,” American Security Project, August 4, 2014, accessed April 5, 2017,

[vi] Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, “Africa’s radical groups exploit ungoverned spaces,” al-Jazeera America, March 10, 2015, accessed April 6, 2017,

[vii] Robert Windrem, “U.S. Aims to Root Out ‘Ungoverned Spaces’ as Hotbeds of Terrorism,” National Broadcasting Company News, August 23, 2014, accessed April 5, 2017,

[viii] “FACT SHEET: Security Governance Initiative,” The White House, August 6, 2014, accessed March 28, 2017,

[ix] “An Update on the Security Governance Initiative,” The White House, March 2, 2016, accessed April 6, 2017,

[x] Dan Merica, “Trump’s ‘hard power budget’ increases defense spending, cuts to State Dept, EPA,” Cable News Network, March 16, 2017.

[xi] Dan Lamothe, “Retired generals cite past comments from Mattis while opposing Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts,” The Washington Post, February 27, 2017, accessed April 7, 2017,

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