After years of committing vast resources to missions that have met with strategic frustration and disappointing outcomes, Western nations have become considerably more hesitant to deploy large numbers of troops abroad to combat terrorist groups in partner nations. While drawing down commitments in Afghanistan and the Sahel, they have increasingly sought new tools to achieve foreign policy objectives in weakly governed spaces. One such tool is security force assistance (SFA), which relies on comparatively small deployments of specialized units to create sustainable local counterterrorism capabilities by building up partners’ militaries.
This new focus on SFA is reflected in growing investments in sub-Saharan African militaries, especially in East Africa and the Lake Chad basin where Islamist extremist groups are active. From 2015 to 2020, the United States provided over $4.8 billion in SFA to sub-Saharan Africa. The largest recipients were Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, South Sudan, and Niger.
My research suggests that the United States is investing in poor partners. The vast majority of these large SFA recipients are repressive, heavily coup-proofed, authoritarian regimes. By strengthening their coercive capabilities the United States is alleviating pressures for political reform and aggravating popular grievances—contributing to long-term poor governance and worsening violence.
With Friends Like These
The United States’ key partners in Africa are dictatorships. Presidents Paul Biya of Cameroon and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda have been in office since the 1980s and maintain an iron grip on power. In April 2021, after three decades of rule, Chad’s President Idriss Déby died on the battlefield. The military stepped in, ignored constitutional succession procedures, and installed his son in what has been called a “dynastic coup.” Freedom House consistently gives both Somalia and South Sudan abysmally low scores for civil liberties and political rights.
Niger and Kenya look more promising—but are still struggling to make the transition to democracy. In March 2021, Niger transferred power from one democratically elected leader to another—for the first time in its history—and survived a failed military coup attempt in the process.
Kenya has held competitive elections, with real alternation of power between political parties since 2003. But Kenya also has a poor human rights track record, especially around elections. Current President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto were both accused by the International Criminal Court of orchestrating the 2007 ethnic violence that claimed over twelve hundred lives. They evaded prosecution by allying together on a single ticket and then, once in office, allegedly interfering with the investigation and disappearing witnesses.
The United States, in other words, is predominantly building up the military capabilities of authoritarian governments in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dictators live in the shadow of violence. They face the constant threat of overthrow, especially by military coup. To guard against this threat, dictators extensively coup-proof their militaries.
My research focuses on one such coup-proofing tactic: ethnic stacking. Ethnic stacking occurs when leaders strategically recruit and promote members of their own ethnic groups into the armed forces to bolster loyalty. Sometimes this only affects key command-and-control positions or the upper ranks of the officer corps. Other times leaders ethnically stack all the way down to the rank and file.
I have recently collected comprehensive data on such ethnic stacking practices across all African leaders, from independence to 2018. More than half of African autocrats ethnically stack their militaries. Even autocracies, such as Gabon under Ali Bongo Ondimba and Côte d’Ivoire under Félix Houphouët-Boigny, that appear ethnically inclusive on the civilian side—with diverse cabinets, legislatures, and bureaucracies—still often ethnically manipulate security institutions.
These militaries are designed to loyally serve the dictator—to keep him in power. Indeed, leaders with ethnically stacked security forces stay in power over 50 percent longer than those with diverse forces.
Of the top seven sub-Saharan African recipients of US SFA, five have ethnically stacked militaries. The current leaders of both Kenya and Uganda only stack key command-and-control positions, leaving most ranks diverse. In Cameroon, Biya recruits members of his ethnic group, the Beti, extensively throughout his presidential guard and the army officer corps. In both Chad and South Sudan, ethnic stacking extends down to the lowest ranks of ordinary soldiers.
The other two countries, Somalia and Niger, are grappling with legacies of ethnic stacking that still impact their civil-military relations. In Somalia, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who governed the country from 2012 to 2017, is from the Hawiye clan. He presided over much of the construction of the new Somali National Army, which has predominantly been recruited from three subclans of the Hawiye from the Banadir region. His successor as president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, comes from a different clan, the Marehan Darod, and has had to cope with a potentially hostile army. Just last week, Mohamud was reelected to the presidency.
In Niger, the core of the army was long dominated by westerners and especially the Djerma. The army has slowly been diversifying since reform agreements were reached back in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the current elected president—an easterner from the minority Diffa Arabs—survived a failed coup attempt by western soldiers on the eve of his inauguration.
Bolstering Capabilities, Helping Dictators Stay in Power
SFA to such ethnically stacked militaries strengthens the repressive capabilities of the state, especially against ethnic groups broadly excluded from state power. Units trained and equipped by the West may initially support Western interests and be deployed against common threats, such as al-Shabaab or Boko Haram. Yet these enhanced units will always be a tempting resource for the dictator to use to suppress mass protests or rebellions, which often arise in authoritarian contexts of ethnic exclusion and discrimination.
In Cameroon, for example, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom have invested resources in the Rapid Intervention Battalions (BIR)—an elite unit trained in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism tactics to further the fight against Boko Haram in the far north of the country near the Nigerian border. But when the Anglophone Crisis erupted in 2017, in which violent separatism proliferated after the government repressed mass protests against increasingly harsh language policies, Biya quickly redeployed military forces south—including parts of the BIR. They have now become embroiled in repression against the Anglophones, often conducting operations jointly with the army and gendarmes, and have been identified as culprits in widespread human rights abuses.
By strengthening the repressive capacity of dictators, SFA inadvertently undermines domestic pressures for better governance while creating new grievances. This serves to simultaneously prop up dictators while fueling violence in the very places where improved governance is most needed.
In effect, the United States is trading short-term tactical gains in the fight against terrorism for an overall downward spiral of instability.
What Is to Be Done?
The United States should be more selective in its local partners. It should resist the temptation to prop up flailing authoritarian regimes with ineffective, ethnically stacked militaries, poor governance practices, and terrible human rights records.
This is not an easy choice where extremist groups are active. It may come with real costs as these groups gain ground and undermine government stability, at least in the short term. But if the goal is promoting long-term peace and stability across Africa, then security assistance measures today shouldn’t inadvertently fuel tomorrow’s rebellions.
Rather than try to militarily defeat terrorism in Africa through such dodgy partners, the United States could pivot to a strategy of containment. The United States has a range of tools—mostly financial and intelligence-based, and including international collaboration in freezing assets, monitoring air travel, preventing money laundering, disrupting social media and web content, and digitizing border-crossing management—to disrupt the ability of these groups to organize attacks and project power beyond the territories they control. These are tools that the United States can use without strengthening the coercive power of some of the continent’s worst dictators.
The United States can also shore up good governance and military capabilities in more promising neighboring states—especially democracies or liberalizing governments that are more inclusive and more competent. The United States should help protect them from regional disorder while enhancing their ability to intervene in local trouble spots.
Ghana, Senegal, and Benin, for example, are all relatively stable democratic countries and leading voices in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS has repeatedly used its collective military forces to preserve regional stability, including through traditional peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia as well as missions enforcing election results in Gambia. ECOWAS also has an active counterterrorism agenda, including combating money laundering and terrorist financing.
The member states of ECOWAS—and Ghana, Senegal, and Benin in particular—have deep interests in stabilizing neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. Yet they all struggle with limited resources and financing. The United States could direct more security force assistance their way—without any of the negative repercussions of investing in dictatorships.
Kristen A. Harkness (@HarknessKristen) is a senior lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Davies, US Navy
A "context," within which such things as security force assistance (etc., etc., etc.) might be viewed currently, this would seem to be needed; this, so that we might be able to more intelligently consider various questions of importance before us today. Here is an effort in providing this such all-encompassing context:
1. The context within which such things as security forces assistance (etc., etc., etc.) might be viewed today, this is the context of what we might call the problems relating to "modernization and development." As to this such context, consider the two quoted items provided below:
First, from Samuel P. Huntington's famous book "Political Order in Changing Societies" (therein, see Page 41):
“The apparent relationship between poverty and backwardness, on the one hand, and instability and violence, on the other, is a spurious one. It is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder. If poor countries appear to be unstable, it is not because they are poor, but because they are trying to become rich. A purely traditional society would be ignorant, poor, and stable.”
Next, from our very own Joint Publication 3-22 Foreign Internal Defense; therein, see Chapter II, "Internal Defense and Development Program," and Paragraph 2, "Construct:"
a. "An IDAD (Internal Defense and Development) program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place." (Item in parenthesis above is mine.)
(Note that, in both items presented above, the "context," one might suggest, is one of [a] "modernization and development" and [b] the problems relating thereto.)
2. Another way of looking at this "context," this is via an understanding of the "costs" — and "burdens" — of such things as the promotion of capitalism, globalization and the global economy — as discussed in the two quoted items that I provide immediately below:
First, from the book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century,” by Robert Gilpin; therein, see the very first page of the very first chapter — the Introduction chapter:
“Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions. … (These) threatened individuals, groups or nations (in turn) constitute an ever-present force that could overthrow or at least significantly disrupt the capitalist system.” (Items in parenthesis above are mine.)
Next, from Walter Russell Meade's "Foreign Affairs" — the Mar-Apr 2017 edition — article entitled “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order:”
“In this new world disorder, the power of identity politics can no longer be denied. Western elites believed that in the twenty-first century, cosmopolitanism and globalism would triumph over atavism and tribal loyalties. They failed to understand the deep roots of identity politics in the human psyche and the necessity for those roots to find political expression in both foreign and domestic policy arenas. And they failed to understand that the very forces of economic and social development that cosmopolitanism and globalization fostered would generate turbulence and eventually resistance, as ‘Gemeinschaft’ (community) fought back against the onrushing ‘Gesellschaft’ (market society), in the classic terms sociologists favored a century ago.”
3. Last, it is exceptionally important that we come to understand that this "context" is, in fact, of a "perennial" nature — that is, it occurs and recurs throughout modern history — as discussed below:
From Jerry Z. Muller's book: "The Mind and The Market: Capitalism in Western Thought;" therein, see the chapter on Friedrich Hayek:
"All in all, the 1980s and 1990s (and, indeed, the 2000s and 2010s also — book was written in 2000) were a Hayekian moment, when his once untimely liberalism came to be seen as timely. The intensification of market competition, internally and within each nation, created a more innovative and dynamic brand of capitalism. That in turn gave rise to a new chorus of laments that, as we have seen, have recurred since the eighteenth century: Community was breaking down; traditional ways of life were being destroyed; identities were thrown into question; solidarity was being undermined; egoism unleashed; wealth made conspicuous amid new inequality; philistinism was triumphant.” (Item in parenthesis above is mine.)
As Jerry Z. Muller notes immediately above, the "context" within which the U.S./the West, and indeed the rest of the world also, finds itself in today, this is an exceptionally well-known and thus an extremely familiar "context" — one that has, in fact, occurred and recurred since at least the 18th Century.
Accordingly, what can be learned from a study of the history of "modernization and development" (and the problems relating thereto) — and from a study of the history of "the promotion of capitalism, globalization and global economy capitalism, globalization and global economy" (and the problems relating thereto) — which would help us with our questions today and going forward — such as, those relating to "the future of security force assistance?"
Now let's discuss security force assistance — in Africa and elsewhere — using the "context" that I provide in my initial comment above. Here goes:
Context (writ small):
From the perspective that I provide at my initial comment above, one comes to understand that security force assistance is designed to "maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place." (See the quote from our Joint Publication 3-22 Foreign Internal Defense at item No. 1 above). This, in an environment in which the "creative destruction" requirements of capitalism demand constant and never-ending change; a phenomenon which, in turn, constantly and never-endingly "threatens traditional social values, beliefs and institutions." (See my item No. 2 above. From THIS such perspective to view and understand such things as "terrorism," and political gamesmanship, in the Middle East, in Africa and even in the U.S./the West today?)
Africa and elsewhere:
Given this requirement — in Africa and elsewhere — to "maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place," how is this best achieved? By the U.S./the West providing SFA to dictators? By the U.S./the West limiting SFA to only those leaders who embrace market-democracy?
In consideration of item No. 3 of my initial comment above, what does history — since at least the 18th Century — tell us is the best way to proceed?