Rethinking U.S. Africa Policy Amid Changing Geopolitical Realities

Since 2020, Africa has seen more political unrest, violent extremism, and democratic reversals than any other region in the world. A wave of coups has washed across the Sahel and West Africa, leaving authoritarians in power in numerous countries. In addition, the continent has served as a stage for the escalating great-power competition between China, Russia, and the United States. U.S. engagement with Africa has long been deprioritized in Washington, with successive administrations devoting scant attention and resources to advancing democracy and resolving conflicts. Thus far, the Biden administration has maintained this pattern, which reflects the persistent tension between an interests-based and values-based U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, there are a few actions the United States can take to reinvigorate democracy and stabilize the region, such as emphasizing development and diplomacy over military responses and stepping up cooperation with allies and partners to reduce the influence of China and Russia.

Ongoing instability in the Sahel — involving worsening insurgent violence, deepening great-power competition, and frequent coups — is exposing weaknesses in U.S. Africa policy.1 In fact, nearly four years into what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called an “epidemic” of coups,2 the United States and its closest Western allies and regional partners still lack a coherent and coordinated strategy to defend democracy in Africa without sacrificing security interests and geopolitical influence. Whether and how to engage with post-coup regimes in Africa exemplifies the enduring friction between a values-based and an interests-based U.S. foreign policy.

Widespread democratic backsliding could have long-term and lasting geopolitical and security implications for the region and for the United States and its allies, who are quickly losing their influence on the continent. Historically, strategic priorities elsewhere have drawn Washington’s attention away from Africa, resulting in minimal engagement with the region. As such, U.S. Africa strategy has not received the attention and resources needed to manage deteriorating political and security developments on the continent. America’s current Africa policy is being overtaken by events and is ill suited to adequately address the coup pandemic. Years of counter-terrorism work on the continent are going by the wayside, along with strategic partnerships and relationships built over decades of evolving engagement, due to the coup pandemic and new state leaders being less willing to host Western counter-terrorism forces.

In this article, we outline what we see as the main challenge for U.S. Africa policy today — which we call the Africa policy trilemma, or the difficulty of simultaneously promoting democracy, combatting violent extremism, and engaging in great-power competition. This trilemma echoes Cold War dilemmas, but with counter-terrorism supplanting combatting local communist forces. We argue that Washington must learn from its mistakes during the Cold War, particularly the tendency to separate democracy promotion from security interests and sacrifice the former in the name of the latter. In an era of great-power competition with authoritarian rivals, the United States should bolster efforts to promote democracy and economic prosperity. Prioritizing more diplomacy and development could help to prevent the growing militarization of U.S. Africa policy seen in recent years.

This article proceeds in three sections. First, we review recent governance, security, and geopolitical developments across Africa. The second section examines the history of U.S. Africa policy and engagement related to democracy promotion, counter-terrorism, and great-power competition. We conclude with a number of policy recommendations the United States could adopt to reinvigorate Africa policy to better enable democratization in the future.
Democratic Decline in Africa

Africa has suffered more democratic decline than any other region of the world since 2020.

For a time, Africa appeared poised to become a showpiece for freedom’s “inevitable” worldwide progression after the Cold War.3 In the first two decades after the Cold War, many African countries caught the third wave of democracy.4 From 1975 to 2014, the number of African countries democratizing exceeded those autocratizing, with the peak wave of democratization occurring in the early to mid-1990s.5 As a result, the share of African states that are “closed autocracies” (the least democratic regime type, according to the Regimes of the World classification) fell from over 60 percent in 1988 to 11 percent by 2007. By contrast, whereas fewer than 4 percent of African countries could claim to be democracies in 1988, nearly 40 percent could by 2016.6

In recent years, however, an autocratic counter-wave has washed over Africa. According to the Sweden-based V-Dem project, democracy has suffered more in Africa than any other world region since 2020. The share of autocratizing countries in Africa rose from less than 5 percent in 2008 to over 30 percent in 2020, while the share of democratizing countries fell from 20 percent in 2014 to only 7 percent by 2020. Since 2020, there has been a marked decline of electoral democracies and a re-emergence of “closed autocracies,” with the latter now ruling one-fifth of African states.7 By 2023, half of the continent’s population lived under autocratic rule according to Freedom House, a Washington, DC–based nonprofit group, while only 7 percent lived in “free” countries.8

Democracy faces challenges across the continent, but the areas that have slid the most toward autocracy in recent years are northern Africa, the Sahel, and, to a lesser extent, western Africa. In 2023, the west and the south were the most democratic regions in Africa, with average electoral democracy scores around 0.5 on a scale of 0 to 1 (with 1 being the most democratic). By contrast, average electoral democracy scores were only 0.34 in central-east Africa, 0.29 in the Sahel, and 0.28 in northern Africa.9

Between 2013 and 2023, electoral democracy scores increased in 17 of Africa’s 54 countries but declined in 37 countries. The biggest democratic declines over this decade were in Burkina Faso, which saw its electoral democracy score fall by 0.4, followed by Libya (-0.35), Tunisia (-0.29), Mauritius (-0.27), Niger (-0.24), and Comoros (-0.23). Coups in 2022 caused the declines in Burkina Faso, as did a July 2023 coup for Niger. Libya has been mired in civil war since the Arab Spring. Tunisia, the only democratic success story to emerge from the Arab Spring, saw those gains reversed since President Kais Saied’s takeover in 2021.10 Flawed elections and corruption have characterized the more gradual democratic backsliding in Mauritius and Comoros.11

Despite the rash of coups, support for democracy among the public remains high but has weakened.

The triggers for what Nigerian President Bola Tinubu called “autocratic contagion” in the Sahel and west Africa have been coups, which have made a comeback in Africa since 2020 after years of decline.12 According to the Colpus dataset, nine successful military coups have struck Africa since 2020.13 Of these, three toppled democratic governments — in Mali (2020), Burkina Faso (2022), and Niger (2023). Two coups were designed to ensure the survival of autocratic rule and block democratization — in Chad (2021) and Sudan (2021). Another two coups ousted autocrats — an aspiring autocrat in Guinea (2021) and an established one in Gabon (2023) — only to install new authoritarian regimes. Two more reflected splits among coup factions — in Mali (2021) and Burkina Faso (2022). There have been an additional five coup attempts in the region since 2020, including one in April 2023 that brought Sudan’s rival coup factions to civil war.14

Since 2020, virtually all coups have taken place within a so-called coup belt across the Sahel and west Africa. The August 2023 coup in Gabon was the lone exception (see figure 1). As The Economist recently noted, “You can now walk across nearly the widest part of Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, passing only through countries that have suffered coups in the past three years. But it would be unwise — you might well be kidnapped.”15

Figure 1: Geographic distribution of coups in Africa in 2020–23

Despite the rash of coups, support for democracy among the public remains high but has weakened.16 According to Afrobarometer, an independent research network based in Ghana, nearly 70 percent of survey respondents across 34 African countries preferred democracy to any other system of government. Large majorities in most countries also still reject military and one-party rule across the continent — only in Burkina Faso do most respondents favor military rule.17 Yet support for democracy has dropped in some countries. For example, between 2014–15 and 2021–22, support for democracy fell by 36 percent in Mali, 26 percent in Burkina Faso, 21 percent in South Africa, and 15 percent in Guinea.18 Meanwhile, perceptions of corruption by elected officials and rising armed conflict have led opposition to military rule to soften in the region,19 especially among youth. In 2021–22, only 38 percent of Africans said they were satisfied with the way democracy works in their country, down from 46 percent in 2014–15.20

Popular support for transparent elections remains strong across Africa. Three-quarters of respondents to Afrobarometer’s 2021–23 survey believed elections were the best method for choosing state leaders. However, support for elections has fallen in some places over the past decade such as Tunisia and Burkina Faso. At present, only Lesotho lacks a solid majority that supports elections.21 National elections occurred in three African countries in the first four months of 2024 and are scheduled to occur in 11 more African countries over the rest of the year.22

Meanwhile, none of Africa’s new military juntas appear willing to relinquish power any time soon. In September 2023, for example, Mali’s junta postponed the transitional presidential election scheduled for February 2024 due to unexplained “technical reasons” and also refused to hold legislative elections.23 Soon after, Ibrahim Traoré, the junta leader in Burkina Faso, said that holding elections in 2024 was “not a priority” and that they would not be held until the security situation in the country had improved.24 As of May 2024, neither junta has committed to a timeframe for new presidential elections.25 Only in Chad did the authorities promise elections for 2024, but only after shepherding a new constitution allowing de facto President Mahamat Idriss Déby, who came to power through a military junta, to stand in those elections.26
Rising Violent Extremism and Islamist Terrorism

The 2020s have also witnessed rising violent extremism and Islamist terrorism in Africa.

Political instability in the region is contributing to an already poor security situation. Half of all intra-state armed conflicts worldwide took place in Africa (26 of 52) in 2022.27 Two-fifths of the top 50 countries ranked in the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data 2024 Conflict Severity Index are in Africa,28 with the Sahel, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo among the top ten conflicts appearing on the associated 2024 “conflict watchlist.”29 Overall, armed conflict violence has greatly increased in Africa since 2020, with fatalities more than quadrupling, from fewer than 25,000 to well over 100,000 across the continent in 2022. Armed conflict deaths in Africa now exceed levels last seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s during the height of the Second Congo War, which was the deadliest civil war since 1945.30

Four of Africa’s five deadliest ongoing armed conflicts — those with over 1,000 fatalities in 2022 — involved insurgencies by Islamist violent extremist organizations, namely the al-Qaeda–aligned Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mali and Burkina Faso, the Islamic State in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.31 While most civil wars in Africa in the 1990s involved ethno-linguistic cleavages, the last two decades have seen a rise of religiously framed civil war.32

The rising African death toll from 2020 to 2022 was due mainly to the outbreak of civil war in Ethiopia in 2020 and, since 2022, to insurgencies in Burkina Faso, Mali, and elsewhere.33 Armed conflicts involving groups associated with the Islamic State have spread across the region, emerging in Niger (2015), Nigeria (2015), Chad (2017), Burkina Faso (2019), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2019), Mozambique (2019), Mali (2022), and Uganda (2022).34

Instances of organized political violence in Africa have increased the most in recent years in Africa’s post-2020 “coup belt”: the Sahel. The number of political violence events in this region has risen from only a few hundred a year prior to 2012 to around 2,000 per year from 2013 to 2018, then increased steeply since 2019 to nearly 12,000 in the most recent 12 months to March 2024. Though central/eastern Africa also has seen major increases in political violence since 2012, only the Sahel has continued to see rising violence into 2024, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data conflict index.35 As a result, the epicenter of global terrorism “has now conclusively shifted out of the Middle East and into the Central Sahel region,” according to the Global Terrorism Index. Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 47 percent of global terrorism deaths in 2023, more than South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa combined. Five of the 10 countries most affected by terrorism in 2023 are in Africa: Burkina Faso (first place), Mali (third), Somalia (seventh), Nigeria (eighth), and Niger (tenth).36

Although American policymakers had hoped to avoid the same fate as France, in part by “playing nice” and cooperating with the juntas, this strategy appears to have largely failed by this spring.

The three most terrorism-afflicted countries in the Sahel — Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — have also suffered coups since 2020. In each case, observers have argued that the incumbent government’s inability to successfully tame their terrorism problem and safeguard national security was at least a contributing if not a driving factor in each coup.37 In all three countries, the newly installed juntas promised to prioritize restoring domestic security and order. Despite these promises, insurgencies in the Sahel have worsened following coups. Across the central Sahel, conflict fatalities from political violence increased 38 percent in 2023, and civilian fatalities grew 18 percent in 2022. More than 8,000 people were killed in Burkina Faso last year. In Niger, Islamic State Sahel Province forces have stepped up attacks since the coup in July 2023.38 In January 2024, Mali’s junta withdrew from a peace agreement with separatists, which has spurred widespread violent attacks on civilians by government forces and Russia’s Wagner group.39

The case of Sudan is even more instructive of the vicious cycle of coups, autocratization, and civil war. In 2019, a mass uprising by pro-democracy forces managed to trigger a military coup ousting Sudan’s long-time dictator Omar Bashir. Hopes ran high for a democratic transition after continuing protests led the coupmakers to agree to a new constitution and transition timetable.40 A military coup in October 2021 blocked the promised transition to a civilian-led government. Subsequent infighting among security force elites for power within the military junta led to a failed coup attempt by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces against the Sudanese Armed Forces last April, which sparked a devastating civil war leading to at least 13,000 fatalities.41

As Africa has become a more important front in America’s so-called global war on terror, governments in the region have sought greater security assistance from external powers. Initially, many turned to the United Nations, France, and the United States. The United States expanded its military presence and sought cooperative security partnerships in Africa. For example, in 2019, U.S. Air Base 201 in Niger, the drone base in Agadez that the United States built to the tune of $110 million, and Camp Baledogle, a Soviet-era air base the United States refurbished to support operations against al-Shabaab, both became operational to support regional counter-terrorism operations.42

Recent political developments in the Sahel, enabled by coups and great-power competition, threaten U.S. counter-terrorism interests. Africa’s new military juntas have sought to reduce their dependence on Western democracies and have sought counter-insurgency assistance and patronage from non-democratic actors like Russia’s Wagner Group, recently rebranded as the Africa Corps, which is now directed by a Russian military intelligence unit.43 The latter has increasingly been relied upon to counter insurgency in Mali as French and U.N. peacekeeping forces have been forced to withdraw from the region.44 Although American policymakers had hoped to avoid the same fate as France, in part by “playing nice” and cooperating with the juntas, this strategy appears to have largely failed by this spring. In March 2024, the junta in Niamey publicly revoked the military cooperation agreement with the United States and ordered U.S. troops to leave. After negotiations to stay failed, the Biden administration agreed to the request.45 By May 2024, even before U.S. troops had pulled out, Russian troops moved into U.S. Air Base 101 in Niamey.46 In April, the United States was also forced to withdraw dozens of troops based in N’Djamena, which had deployed to Chad since 2021 as part of a U.S. special operations task force.47 U.S. Africa Command head Gen. Michael Langley warned that the loss of U.S. bases in the region will “degrade our ability to do active watching and warning, including for homeland defense.”48
Intensifying Great-Power Competition

Africa has become a major site of great-power competition. U.S. efforts to promote democracy and enhance security in Africa are complicated by rising regional great-power competition with China and Russia.49 This global competition pits liberal against authoritarian states with differing visions of international order.50 After the Cold War, linkage to and leverage of the democratic West were associated with greater advances for democracy, whereas weak Western leverage opened the door to “competitive authoritarianism” and democratic backsliding across the developing world.51 Now Africa’s new juntas and would-be strongmen are seeking to rely on autocratic major power patrons for regime security. Russia and China, in turn, have an interest in making the world and region “safe for autocracy.”52

Russia and China have cultivated friends and influence on the continent as part of a broader geopolitical struggle with the United States over power and influence in the developing world.53 Indeed, Africa may be a testing ground for the resilience of the liberal international order. For example, Gen. Laura Richardson, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, believes that rising competition with Russia and China in Africa may be a harbinger of things to come in the Western Hemisphere in the next five to seven years.54

The influence of powerful Western states is now contested or in decline across much of Africa. During the Cold War, France and the United Kingdom had predominant economic and military influence in their former colonies on the continent. However, China’s exploding economic and diplomatic engagement in Africa in recent decades has enabled its influence on the continent to grow rapidly, in many cases now exceeding that of the former European colonial powers or the United States.55 For example, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2008. China’s $300 billion in trade with Africa in 2023 was four times the U.S.-Africa trade. Similarly, French and U.S. outward investment in Africa dwarfed China’s until 2017, but since then China has become the largest source of investment on the African continent.56 As a result, China has more leverage to potentially subvert democracy or prop up autocrats in Africa.57

The influence of France — America’s closest external partner on the continent in recent decades — in Francophone Africa is now in freefall. France’s condemnation of coups led to diplomatic fallouts with the new juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. These three countries created the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defense pact, in September 2023.58 In August 2022, the last of several thousand French troops withdrew from Mali, marking the end of Operation Barkhane, a decade-long counter-insurgency campaign.59 In February 2023, France withdrew its troops from Burkina Faso.60 On Sept. 27, 2023, two months after Niger’s coup, France agreed to withdraw its ambassador and 1,500 troops.61 France has been forced to shift the base of its counter-insurgency operations in Africa to Chad.62 In December 2023, Mali and Niger revoked tax cooperation treaties with France.63 In April, Burkina Faso expelled French diplomats.64

Russia has capitalized on anti-French sentiment and French withdrawals in the Sahel.65 The new Sahel alliance — Africa’s new “holy alliance” — is poised to become “a vehicle for Russian influence in the heart of Africa.”66 Russia’s Africa policy has emphasized military engagement, drawing from its historical role as one of the largest arms suppliers to Africa. Since 2018, Russia has also deployed private military contractors to 31 African countries.67 The most prominent of these is the Wagner Group, which moved into the Central African Republic in 2018 and expanded its presence across Africa in subsequent years.68 In return for a “regime survival package,” the Wagner Group — recently rebranded the Africa Corps or Expeditionary Corps — is seeking access to strategically important natural resources such as timber, gold, uranium, and lithium.69 In May 2023, only months after expelling French troops, Burkina Faso’s military leaders hailed Russia as a strategic ally.70 Last December, Russia re-opened its embassy in Burkina Faso, which was shuttered in 1992.71 Moscow also struck a new military cooperation deal with Niger. In April 2024, 100 instructors from the Africa Corps arrived in Niger.72 Africa Corps personnel reportedly hope to take over the U.S. base in Agadez, which U.S. troops must now vacate.73

The rise of Russian and Chinese influence and decline of democracy in the region over the last decade are mutually reinforcing.

Unlike Russia, China has focused on economic engagement in Africa — like it has elsewhere — and funding infrastructure development through its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s investment and aid without attaching conditions such as political and economic reforms — unlike some powerful Western countries — have attracted many African leaders who have come to resent what is perceived as Western meddling in internal affairs.74 Beijing may also have greater ambitions for military engagement and security cooperation on the continent.75 China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and seeks another base in west Africa on the Atlantic coast.76 China has deployed private security contractors in 15 African states since 2018.77 China has been ambivalent toward the coup trend in Africa and has sought to reinforce its existing influence.78 In response to the 2017 coup that ousted Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, for example, Chinese President Xi Jinping backed Emmerson Mnangagwa, invited him to Beijing for a state visit in April 2018, and increased investment in Zimbabwe.79 China also seeks to promote its norms and values through professional military education in Africa.80

The rise of Russian and Chinese influence and decline of democracy in the region over the last decade are mutually reinforcing.81 The number of disinformation campaigns in the region quadrupled from 2022 to 2023, with foreign state sponsors led by Russia and China responsible for most. Russia alone has sponsored disinformation to undermine democracy in 19 African states, more often than not with the Wagner Group directly involved. For example, Russian networks “helped prime and promote” the coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, whose new military juntas have in turn also become major sponsors of disinformation in west Africa.82 China’s propaganda in Africa likewise perpetuates anti-U.S. and anti-democratic narratives.83
Assessing the Evolution of U.S. Africa Policy

Historically, American engagement with Africa has been episodic because Africa has never been seen as strategically important.84 The U.S. State Department only established a separate regional bureau for Africa in 1958.85 During the first half of the Cold War, U.S. Africa policy was one of minimal economic and military engagement aimed at avoiding major commitments in the region.86 In the latter Cold War from the mid-1970s, Africa received relatively more attention from U.S. policymakers (but not necessarily more resources) as U.S.-Soviet struggles for political influence intensified across the Global South. North Africa, and Egypt in particular, garnered the highest priority as they were seen as more relevant to the more strategically important Middle East.87 For example, after the Camp David Accords in 1979, Egypt became a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Egypt’s special status is also reflected in the fact that it is the only African state included under the U.S. Central Command theater covering the greater Middle East since the 1980s. By contrast, U.S. attention and commitments in sub-Saharan Africa have always lagged behind. Only six U.S. presidents since World War II have ever made official state visits to sub-Saharan Africa, the first being Jimmy Carter in 1978 and the last being Barack Obama in 2015.88

Throughout the Cold War, as in other regions, U.S. Africa policy focused on great-power competition — namely, containing Soviet and communist influence. Fear of Soviet encroachment animated American interventions in Africa.89 For example, after the Soviets and Cubans backed left-wing forces in the Angolan civil war, Washington backed right-wing National Union for the Total Independence of Angola rebels.90 Likewise, after the Soviet Union backed Ethiopia in the Ogaden War in 1977–78, the United States seized the opportunity to gain Somalia as an ally. In exchange for access to military bases, the United States gave aid to President Siad Barre and turned a blind eye to the dictator’s human rights abuses.91 America’s security interests in Africa were limited, with Libya’s state sponsorship of terrorism a nuisance. Democracy promotion was never a central U.S. objective in Africa during the Cold War.92

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War great-power competition, the United States pursued constructive but modest efforts at democracy promotion and conflict resolution in Africa, with mixed success in the 1990s. U.S. diplomacy played a supporting role in the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa.93 Though the Clinton administration created the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives in 1994 with a mission to support peace and democracy in Angola and elsewhere,94 a shrinking U.S. foreign aid budget meant only modest investment in democracy aid.95 Meanwhile, humanitarian interventions were marked by failure in Somalia and inaction in Rwanda, leading the United States to stand on the sidelines of Africa’s civil wars.96 In 1998, to signal U.S. commitment, President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. president since Carter to visit sub-Saharan Africa.97 Clinton’s signature regional economic policy, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, has expanded duty-free access to the United States from Africa since 2000.98

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. Africa policy increasingly focused on counter-terrorism with Africa a theater of the global war on terror. In 2002, the United States gained its first and only permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. In 2007, building on existing regional counter-terror programs,99 the United States created Africa Command, the first new geographic combatant command since standing up Central Command in the 1980s.100 The Bush administration also more than tripled U.S. economic aid to sub-Saharan Africa from $2.25 billion in 2001 to $7.6 billion by 2008. Support for aid increases was based in part on the notion that underdevelopment increased the risk of state collapse and the emergence of Islamic extremist groups such as al-Shabaab. Bush also argued that increased humanitarian aid for Africa was a moral imperative.101 Much of the new aid commitments were for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program and a new Millennium Challenge Account to reward poor countries with good governance.102 Unlike during the Cold War, when most aid went to North Africa, the biggest foreign aid increases were in sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel. Still, largely preoccupied with the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration did little to directly intervene in Africa’s conflicts, including in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, instead preferring to let U.N. peacekeepers take the lead.

Many observers hoped the inauguration of America’s first black president would signal a new era of U.S.-Africa relations.103 However, the Obama years were characterized by plateaued levels of aid and attention to the region as the administration sought to address fiscal pressures while making Asia a strategic priority for the United States.104 Despite this, the Bush-era trend of growing U.S. military presence in Africa continued, as reflected in the growing numbers of troops and advisors, status of forces agreements, and temporary bases.105 Yet little progress was made in countering violent extremism as deepening military engagement in Africa was not matched by investments in diplomacy, development, or democracy promotion.106

Biden sought to give a new tone to Africa policy, replacing Trump’s transactional “America First” diplomacy with the promise of “mutually respectful relations.”

In 2017 and 2018, after a period of continuity in Africa policy punctuated by a few diplomatic blunders, great-power competition with China and Russia became more central to the Trump administration’s Africa strategy.107 In December 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton unveiled “Prosper Africa,” a new initiative aimed at competing with the perceived growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region.108 The plan promised to double flagging U.S.-Africa trade and investment and compete with Chinese Belt and Road Initiative investments.109 In 2019, the U.S. International Development Finance Cooperation was established to drive private investment in the developing world, especially Africa.110 But without adequate funding, the reality never matched the ambitious rhetoric of “Prosper Africa.”111 By the end of his term, Trump tried to limit Washington’s footprint on the continent, both economically and militarily. He “pared back efforts to fight jihadis in Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria” and in December 2020 ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Somalia.112 As a result, by 2021, official U.S. troop levels in Africa — which had peaked at just over 5,000 in 2017 — had fallen to pre-9/11 era levels of closer to 1,200–1,300 troops in 2019 and 2020.

Upon coming to office, the Biden administration did not prioritize Africa, though in a 2020 Foreign Affairs article, Biden said that “we need to do more to integrate our friends in Latin America and Africa into the broader network of democracies and to seize opportunities for cooperation in those regions.”113 Biden sought to give a new tone to Africa policy, replacing Trump’s transactional “America First” diplomacy with the promise of “mutually respectful relations.” To that end, Biden lifted Trump’s Muslim travel ban, which affected many African countries.114 In May 2022, at the request of the Pentagon, Biden reversed Trump’s December 2020 order and authorized hundreds of special operations forces to redeploy to Somalia.115 In December 2022, Biden convened the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, where he announced more humanitarian aid for the region116 and several new initiatives, including a “21st Partnership for African Security” and “African Democratic and Political Transitions” initiative.117 The summit’s agenda has framed Biden’s Africa policy ever since. Late in 2022, the Biden administration named Ambassador Johnnie Carson as a new special presidential representative for U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit implementation.118 Nevertheless, there has been no major increase in overall U.S. foreign aid to Africa in the Biden years.119
The Need for Actionable U.S. Policy

The Biden administration still lacks a coherent and robust strategy for promoting democracy, countering violent extremism, and competing with China and Russia in Africa.

In August 2022, the Biden administration published the “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa.”120 It identified four objectives of U.S. strategy in the region: foster openness and open societies, deliver democratic and security dividends, advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity, and support conservation, climate adaptation, and energy transition. Rhetorically, the strategy calls “continuity” in Africa policy as insufficient. It claims to “reframe the region’s importance to U.S. national security interests.” One reason for Africa’s heightened importance is China and Russia’s use of the region “to challenge the rules-based international order.” In addition, the strategy notes growing economic interests, with the African Continental Free Trade Area set to make Africa one of the largest free trade areas in the world (and make Africa the fifth largest economy in the world). We agree with much of the strategy’s rhetoric. The question, of course, is how to translate such lofty principles into actionable policy.

In a September 2023 speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Biden spoke about the need to defend democracy around the world, especially in west Africa. The United States, Biden said, stands “with the African Union and ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] and other regional bodies to support constitutional rule. We will not retreat from the values that make us strong. We will defend democracy.”121 This echoed the 2022 National Security Strategy’s emphasis on “democratic competition,” or efforts to defend democracy and help democracies demonstrate the superiority of the democratic way of life over autocratic alternatives.122

In practice, the Biden administration’s expressed commitment to democratic values in Africa has been in tension with interests-based foreign policy goals, including countering violent extremism. For example, in September 2023, Washington struck a short-lived deal with Niger’s new military junta — which, last July, toppled Mohamed Bazoum’s democratically elected government123 — to resume operations from the U.S. drone base at Agadez.124 Though failure to quickly declare and oppose anti-democratic coups undermines U.S. credentials as a reliable patron of democracy,125 the United States hesitated triggering cuts in military aid and training critical to countering terror in the Sahel, so Washington did not acknowledge a coup had taken place in Niger until October 2023.126 The gap between Biden’s rhetoric and initial U.S. reaction to Niger’s coup reflects an enduring perceived trade-off that the United States faces in confronting democratic backsliding in the region. The developments in Niger also indicate that Washington’s current approach is not working. In March 2024, Niamey revoked the status of forces agreement with the United States and ordered American troops to leave, potentially creating a vacuum Russia and China want to fill.

Beyond Niger, U.S. Africa policy now faces a trilemma of promoting democracy and combatting terrorism while simultaneously competing with authoritarian rivals for geopolitical influence. Washington aspires to do all three efforts well but can effectively only do two things at any given time. As geopolitical competition intensifies, the United States faces resistance that it last encountered during the Cold War, when it also had an uneven track record of defending democracy. We now see a reinvigorated Cold War–era debate over whether Washington should practice double standards for illiberal regimes in Africa that may share security or geopolitical interests with the United States.127 During the Cold War, this meant tolerating right-wing dictatorships whose collapse might empower communists. At present, the concern is similar, as not tolerating friendly dictatorships might undermine U.S. security interests or empower anti-American forces.

But without a roadmap or clear set of principles, U.S. policymakers are reacting ad hoc to each coup.

Biden’s 2022 Africa strategy says relatively little about how to promote democracy or deter and reverse coups in the region. On the one hand, it says that the United States will condemn coups (historically, it has not) and incorporate human rights abuses by security forces into bilateral talks. The strategy also says the United States will use both positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions. But without a roadmap or clear set of principles, U.S. policymakers are reacting ad hoc to each coup. The result is hesitation, paralysis, and inconsistency — the United States has only “called a coup a coup” half of the time since 2009.128 For example, although coup leaders from Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea were denied invitations to attend the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, Mahamat Déby, who seized power in Chad in April 2021, was invited.
Revitalizing and Recalibrating U.S. Policy

U.S. Africa policy needs to be revitalized and recalibrated to respond to the spreading post-2020 coup pandemic head on because doing so makes the region safer for democracy and more stable — regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.

Washington should at long last shed the habit of giving Africa short shrift in terms of attention and resources. Wars in Ukraine and Gaza understandably occupy much policymaker attention. But the United States should not ignore the fate of democracy or security developments in Africa. In a world of transnational security threats, African insecurity also threatens U.S. security interests. Terrorist threats to American citizens have often emanated from Africa, from the time Osama bin Laden set up al-Qaeda’s operations in Sudan in 1992 (until 1996)129 to the 1998 twin embassy bombings that killed a dozen Americans (and 200 Africans) to today, when al-Qaeda and Islamic State–linked groups are spread throughout the continent and kill or kidnap Americans for ransom.130 In 2020, al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan military base, killing a U.S. servicemember and two U.S. government contractors.131 Even more alarming is the arrest of an al-Shabaab member taking flight lessons in the Philippines who was, according to the Department of Justice, “conspiring to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States” — illustrating there is a transnational threat from at least one group on the continent.132

The United States also cannot sit idly by while an onslaught of coups in Africa chips away at democratization, generates chaos and instability, and creates new opportunities for unrest that America’s rivals have shown they know how to exploit. For example, terrorist attacks rose 30 percent in the aftermath of the 2021 coup in Mali, after the new government turned to Wagner for security assistance and ordered the French and the U.N. to leave the country, greatly limiting Washington’s ability to provide support.133 One observer claims that Wagner’s presence in Mali “has strengthened and energized jihadi groups, providing them with not only a recruitment tool, but a much more favorable operating environment in Mali.”134 This development could happen in other places where Russia’s presence and influence are on the rise.

The Biden administration says that Africa is a priority, but its actions suggest otherwise. While the United States has not lost all of its influence in Africa, failing to truly prioritize the region to compete with Russia and China could risk undermining U.S. values and interests. To compete effectively will require sustained engagement, more fiscal resources, and a rebalanced Africa strategy that reduces the yawning gap between rhetorical commitment to democracy and America’s tepid response to coups.

There are no easy or quick solutions to the Africa policy trilemma, but hard choices need to be made and priorities set and clarified.135 The reality of the last four years suggests a more assertive and deliberate strategy is needed in countries where the United States is still welcome. In short, the United States should find more ways to demonstrate to its African partners, and the African people, that Washington is a dependable democratic advocate and preferred security partner. Here are four policy ideas to that end.

First, prioritize engaging friendly African partners and democracies, especially in the littorals.

The United States should focus on increasing engagement with the littoral countries of Benin, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana as well as Cameroon and Nigeria. Many of the littoral nations in west Africa have seen attacks by Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in their northern regions — with Cote d’Ivoire being the site of a major al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attack in 2016.136 Historically, the United States has had good relationships with these countries, and they are probably open to increased military cooperation. In fact, Washington is presently exploring options for drone basing in the littorals.137 At the same time, Russia is trying to deepen its military ties in this region with countries that are still friendly to Washington;138 Washington needs to prioritize and expedite engaging with these nations to maintain its relevancy as a security partner and defender of democracy in the region.

Cameroon and Nigeria have been fighting violent extremist organizations for close to two decades. Security cooperation between the United States and Nigeria came to a head in 2014 over concerns about human rights abuses. However, with its huge population, large economy, and plentiful natural resources, Nigeria’s importance on the continent is apparent.139 Washington should continue to improve these relationships.140 Moscow is currently in talks with Abuja about how to deepen bilateral cooperation.141 But all of these countries are still open to U.S. engagement, and Washington can prove to its regional partners that it is still serious about providing security assistance and intensifying engagement. In short, Washington should try to contain democratic backsliding and Russian and Chinese influence from expanding farther beyond the Sahel into the littorals and neighboring countries.

Second, rebalance the “3Ds” of democracy, defense, and diplomacy. Maintain investment in defense cooperation while increasing investment in development and democracy in the region.

While Washington claims to take a comprehensive approach to Africa, balancing development, diplomacy, and defense,142 the tripod of the “three Ds” is out of balance. America’s Africa policy is too passive and lacks sufficient investment in development and diplomacy. There remain clear benefits to continued defense cooperation across Africa,143 including supporting diplomatic efforts to deepen Washington’s relationships on the ground. Defense cooperation should remain an important part of U.S. strategy on the continent. However, now more than ever, Washington needs to expand diplomatic and development tools of statecraft to better curb the coup pandemic, nudge military juntas to quickly restore democratic rule, improve partnerships, and protect African and U.S. interests. A heightened focus on development, investment,144 trade, education, strengthening democratic institutions, and supporting free and fair elections should accompany existing military engagement. Where to focus these efforts? Start in countries under threat by violent extremist organizations — which have yet to turn to Russia for support.

On the diplomatic front, one sensible place to start would be for the U.S. president to visit Africa — as Biden promised but failed to do in 2023.145 The bare minimum next step should be to fill remaining vacancies in the State Department’s key ambassadorial posts. Biden’s nominee for ambassador to the African Union, Stephanie S. Sullivan, has not been confirmed despite being nominated nearly two years ago.146 The special envoy for the Sahel position is also vacant, and filling it should be a priority. The United States has recently named Tom Perriello as a new special envoy for Sudan.147 Yet Washington still lacks a high-level regional point person for strengthening democratic institutions.148 Without a coordinated regional diplomatic effort being run out of the State Department with the full public support of the White House, America’s anti-coup diplomacy has been hampered. A higher-level special envoy focused on rolling back recent coups and preventing future coups by strengthening democracy and weakening the tolerance for coups is needed. The envoy should be empowered to engage in regional shuttle diplomacy and give the United States a more central role coordinating regional anti-coup diplomacy with regional partners, embassies, and regional international organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union.

While these are worthy aid initiatives, they should be better funded to seriously compete with Russia and China.

Regarding economic statecraft, growing fiscal constraints and polarization in the U.S. Congress make a large-scale development initiative for Africa akin to the Marshall Plan politically if not fiscally infeasible in the near term.149 Biden’s 2024 budget included about $8 billion for Africa, roughly the same as over the past decade.150 What could be politically possible are more moderate increases in aid given more strategically to promote democratic development and counter Russian and Chinese influence, both multilaterally with select partners and bilaterally by scaling up funding for the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the State Department’s Human Rights Democracy Fund for Africa.151 In August 2023, as part of the supplemental appropriations request for Ukraine aid, the Biden administration asked for $200 million for a “Countering Russian Malign Actors in Africa Fund” to bolster aid in countries vulnerable to Russian influence. Just this spring, that request was pared back to only $25 million in Biden’s fiscal year 2025 budget proposal. Biden’s request also includes $400 million for a “Countering the People’s Republic of China Influence Fund” and funds for a Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, echoing Trump’s “Prosper Africa” to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.152 While these are worthy aid initiatives, they should be better funded to seriously compete with Russia and China.

Third, develop a playbook for consistently navigating coup responses.

The primary tools used to counter recent coups — limited Economic Community of West African States sanctions and suspended African Union memberships — are not working.153 In January 2024, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger all announced they were leaving the Economic Community of West African States.154 With the recent decline of anti-coup norms,155 coup plotters today recognize “the West is no longer the only game in town.”156 They see a more permissive environment to make coups stick. Given the presence of other external patrons, U.S. sanctions alone probably will not work. The only way to change coup makers’ cost-benefit calculus short of military intervention is to invest in more active diplomacy and economic assistance tied to democratic progress.

A new U.S. approach should focus on creating positive incentives for military juntas to quickly return to democratic rule. In the immediate wake of a coup, the United States needs to quickly declare it, not ignore it. Prior research has shown that the credible threat of strong international responses can make coups rarer and pressure post-coup military juntas to restore civilian rule quickly.157 Greater flexibility in response is needed to reduce incentives for rhetorical hedging by U.S. policymakers. A more flexible coup response policy would, depending on facts on the ground, proscribe some but not all forms of aid and cooperation (such as democracy aid).158

In the medium term, credible offers of greater economic or military aid for restoring democratic rule quickly could help incentivize coup leaders to establish transitional governments sooner. Democratic donors must coordinate so that such aid offers that are conditional on democratic progress are still attractive despite competing offers of aid from Russia and China. To ensure the United States and its allies are not training the next generation of coup leaders,159 military engagement must shift “away from the delivery of tactical weapons and towards a ‘governance-first’ policy that leads with support for institution building aimed at fostering civilian control and responsible use.”160

Long term, America’s goal should be to offer credible commitments to carrots for democratization, which at the same time do not drive coup regimes to seek support from Russia or China. Rather than just a strategy of containment, Washington should consider a Kennedy-style “alliance for progress.” After the Cuban revolution, the United States sought to neutralize the appeal of communist revolution by bolstering non-communist states with more development aid.161 We propose a similar non-militarized strategy to counter autocracy in Africa today.

Fourth, coordinate more closely with Western allies and regional partners.

Washington should do more with its close Western partners on the continent, including coordinating funding aid and investment packages to counter Russia and China. Since 2013, Washington has worked closely with Paris in the Sahel to provide transport, aerial refueling, and intelligence.162 Washington should coordinate more with France so future agreements enable continued work toward shared geopolitical and security objectives — at least in the countries that have not rejected France and could benefit from additional assistance like the littorals, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Washington should also seek to cooperate with the United Kingdom and other close Western allies who share an interest in regional stability and countering authoritarian regimes and could be cajoled to take a deeper interest in the continent. For example, Britain has slashed aid to Africa in recent years.163 The United States should advocate such cuts be reversed as part of a concerted effort to restore Western linkage and leverage. Washington can work with European allies to bypass hostile juntas and support African civil society.164
Conclusion

Amidst the ongoing coup pandemic and shifting geopolitical landscape, U.S. Africa policy needs a paradigm shift to center democratic competition and more consistently and better support democracies. The United States should find new ways of demonstrating to its African partners, and the African people, that Washington is a dependable and preferred partner. Rather than sacrifice democracy in the name of other strategic interests, as the United States was prone to do during the Cold War, Washington now needs to commit to the defense of democracy as the default means of competing with authoritarian major power rivals across the Global South and Africa.

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