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Niger Aftermath Highlights Need for Stronger African Policy

Niger Aftermath Highlights Need for Stronger African Policy

By Carolyn Kenney and John Norris

Malian soldiers, part of a joint military force, the G5 Sahel, patrol central Mali’s border zone with Burkina Faso and Niger earlier this month. The five-nation international force plans to activate 5,000 military, police and civilian troops by March 2018 in two battalions each from Mali and Niger and one each from Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.
SourceDaphne Benoit/AFP


Because we need guns, as well as inspired diplomacy.

By Carolyn Kenney and John Norris

Carolyn Kenney is a policy analyst for national security and international policy at American Progress, and John Norris is a senior fellow and executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at American Progress.

Congressional hearings recently delved into last month’s attack on a joint patrol in a Nigerien village near the border with Mali. American special forces troops and Nigerien soldiers were ambushed by Islamic State militants, resulting in the tragic deaths of five Nigerien soldiers and four U.S. servicemen. Details of the ambush are still emerging, and the administration’s rationale for having troops there and the specifics of what went wrong remain troublesomely opaque. 

Stepping back from the immediate controversies and the fact that patrols like this were also conducted under President Obama, we believe the engagement provides an opportunity to examine a current lack of stated U.S. policy toward Africa. While using counterterrorism forces to fight off Islamic militants can be very useful for the U.S. security portfolio, a counterterror push without a broader political, diplomatic and economic strategy for U.S. relations with such a diverse continent will have limited returns.

Continuing on this road could be deeply corrosive to U.S.–Africa relations.

President Trump has yet to define a specific set of policies toward Africa. Headlines have focused on his poorly received jokes or that infamous bungled reference to Nambia. But other U.S. officials have also missed opportunities: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, backed out of a high-level meeting with the chairperson of the African Union, Moussa Faki, after inviting him to Washington. And other actions, like placing Chad, a critical U.S. counterterrorism partner, on the latest travel ban owing to a passport paper standards glitch, are both unfortunate and easily avoidable. The White House also still has a number of critical diplomatic and official posts related to Africa to fill, and no one has been appointed to head the Africa Bureau at the State Department. Only five ambassadors have been confirmed to the 54 posts in Africa.

Continuing on this road could be deeply corrosive to U.S.–Africa relations, which would be a lost opportunity in that Africa promises to be one of the most dynamic export markets in coming years. The U.S. partnership has always been valued on the continent, in part because it wasn’t driven by lingering colonial motives.


We hope U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s visit to the continent brings some clarity, though a lack of critical staff and the prospect of deep diplomatic and development budget cuts will make this difficult. The president’s proposed budget, if passed, would cut aid to Africa by almost $3 billion, including for life-saving antiretroviral drugs.

The events in Niger, meanwhile, underscore that the U.S. military is playing an expanding role on the continent. Our concern? That this approach will become the administration’s preferred vehicle for carrying out policies in Africa. While U.S. military engagement with African counterparts is important and necessary, it is no substitute for a coordinated approach to trade, economic development, building peace and forging alliances.

Some sensible first steps? The White House should quickly move to nominate and confirm competent Africa specialists for key positions at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. There also should be an integrated look at threats emanating from Africa, as well as the region’s enormous potential, followed by the devising of concrete steps to encourage African leaders to reduce trade barriers on the continent and with the United States as well.

We realize that engaging with the continent requires pragmatic approaches and that some important allies in the region have a long road ahead to become more democratic and accountable. Having a more coordinated, coherent approach to Africa is essential in helping make sense of not only the threats we face, but the opportunities we can’t afford to neglect.

* This article mistakenly referred to Nigerians, rather than Nigeriens.

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