Congress Must Reject the Militarization of US Africa Policy

By Adotei Akwei, Africa Advocacy Director

The continuing militarization of US Africa policy has finally been put in the spotlight with the deaths of four servicemen in Niger in October. Both the White House and the Pentagon vowed to get to the bottom of what happened and Congress belatedly asserted it badly needed oversight mandate.

What was missing was a discussion about the long-term strategy to defeat armed extremist groups in West Africa, whether relying solely on the security forces in the region makes sense and whether re-prioritizing support for rule of law, good governance and human rights is not called for.

On the security side at the end of October Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the United States was going to contribute an additional $60 million to the five-nation counterterrorism task force comprising of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Over the last weeks there have revelations about the extensive military footprint of the US military, clams of surprise from Congress over the size of that foot print along with alarming analysis of the unanticipated negative repercussions of that presence. In addition to the five countries in the counter terrorism task force, the US military is also providing significant support to the security forces of Nigeria and Cameroon. At the beginning of December, the government of Niger granted the United States permission to arm its drones dramatically expanding the US military’s reach and role in the region.

There are already serious concerns with how the US military are conducting their operations on the ground as well as the performance of their military partners. The Trump administration has repeatedly stated its intention not to handcuff the military in their fight against armed groups and it has acted on those promises for example easing restrictions on who the military can kill and loosening human rights criterion that in the past would have barred security assistance to foreign security forces implicated in the commission of human rights abuses.

The military partners that Africa Military Command (AFRICOM) is “building capacity” for have an alarming human rights record and benefit from entrenched cultures of impunity. In July, Amnesty International reported about widespread, systematic torture of alleged members of the armed group Boko Haram by Cameroon’s elite security force with many of the incidences taking place in locations where US military trainers are known to be present.

In 2015 AI released an equally damning report about torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial executions by the Nigerian military, also against persons they suspected of being Boko Haram members or supporters. AI estimated that between 2012 and 2015 the Nigerian military were responsible for the deaths of over 7,000 people.

Building competent, professional militaries in the region is not even in question as it is fundamental to stopping the horrific attacks of the armed groups. But building professional militaries cannot be done without building effective institutions that enforce transparency, accountability, human rights and a country’s laws. Those institutions also need to effectively provide social services. This is where Secretary Tillerson and his colleagues in AFRICOM are failing to learn from their past.

Most of the partner governments in the region are clamping down on the media, civil society and other voices they declare to be threats to national security or allege are linked to terrorism. Giving the partner military forces in the region more money to buy more guns and inflict scorched earth style tactics on the local population while democracy, human rights and rule of law are gutted is either short sighted or it is mercenary as creates an endless dependency on more and more security assistance.

The United States and other donor governments need to make sure that the assistance they provide does not contribute to human rights violations and that it strengthens respect for and compliance with human rights standards by including credible transparent vetting and incorporating human rights and International humanitarian law modules, possibly scenario-based, in their training to national security forces and ensuring follow-up. At the same time Congress must ensure that the US invests in and supports institutions that build and maintain good governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law and it must support civil society organizations financially and politically.