Blinken looks to bolster West African security partnerships after setbacks

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Lagos, Nigeria – This week during his visit to the Ivorian capital Abidjan, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pledged $45m to boost coastal West African security, extending funding of an ongoing programme in the region to $300m.

Blinken, who also praised counterinsurgency measures by the Ivorian military in warding off armed groups despite being wedged between Mali and Burkina Faso, hotspots for violence in the Sahel, then jetted off to Abuja.

There, he met Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s president and chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as part of a four-nation tour that also includes Angola and Cape Verde.

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Simultaneously, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, is also on a separate tour: After attending the inauguration of Liberia’s new president Joseph Boakai, she is also visiting Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone. 

The flurry of diplomatic trips is officially billed as a show of support to democracies in the region. But analysts say the visits are fundamentally attempts by the US to bolster or build new security partnerships in a region witnessing waning Western influence in recent months.

Why West Africa?

Save for Angola, all the countries on both tours are in West Africa, which has witnessed a spate of recent military takeovers and violence by multiple armed groups.

According to the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a biennial study on democracy in Africa, governance in the last decade (2012-2021) is at risk as progress “has flatlined since 2019”.

With worsening economic conditions coupled with alarming insecurity as armed groups spread across the region, militaries in the Sahel countries have taken to toppling democratically elected governments. With six successful coups in the region since 2020, almost half of the 16 countries in West Africa are under military control.

These new governments have taken to fresh partners like Russia, which through mercenary forces like the Wagner Group, is expanding its footprint in West Africa, offering the region’s rulers alternative strategic options to the US, France and other traditionally influential European nations.

Experts say the trips by US officials to eight functioning democracies are borne of a need to reassure Washington’s remaining allies in the region of its cooperation, even as their neighbours shop for new partners outside the usual Western sphere of influence.

The visits are also happening in the shadows of Chinese influence in the region, which is visible in trade agreements and infrastructural projects with countries within it.

“The geopolitical context shows the importance and relevance of US-Africa relations and the importance of sustaining those relationships,” Oge Onubogu, director of the Africa programme at Wilson Centre, an American think tank, said.

Blinken’s visit to the region also comes months after the US-backed ECOWAS stance against the July 30 coup in Niger.

Niger was, until the coup, considered the centre of Washington’s counterinsurgency efforts in the Sahel and the Pentagon has maintained that the location was crucial to its fight against armed groups in the region.

The US currently maintains one drone base in sub-Sahara Africa – a $100m one in Agadez in the north of landlocked Niger. Since Mohammed Bazoum was toppled as its president and US criticism of the takeover followed, operations have become severely limited at the base.

And as doubts cloud its continued existence, the ruptured relationship between Niamey and Washington could prove beneficial for nearby states, experts say.

“Sahel security is obviously a preoccupation and the US has been in discussion with several coastal West African states over hosting a drone base,” said Alex Vines, director of the Africa programme at London-based think tank Chatham House. “Countering Russia and China are also agenda items but not the primary driver for the choice of these country visits.”

It tallies with what American military commanders have also publicly said about considering other locations for the base.

This security development is why the US wants to show diplomatic support for countries with relatively stable democracies along the Atlantic coast, according to Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.

As violence by armed groups  – and anti-French sentiments – spread from the Sahel downwards, there is increasing pressure on governments in coastal West Africa to consider other options besides Western governments, which are being seen as ineffective in the fight, he said.

“If we think of what is going on in West Africa right now and sort of the strategic consideration, one will notice that the security situation in the Sahel is deteriorating quite rapidly and it is putting a lot of pressure on coastal West Africa countries,” Eizenga said. “I think there is an effort to take into consideration just how important those pressures are.”

Washington, he added, wants to counter that in a region that accounts for around 6 percent of the world’s population.

“I think they are genuinely looking for opportunities to partner with African governments in ways that strengthen democratic leadership across the world… everyone is very attuned and aware to the fact Africa will be a dominant force in global politics and global economics over the next decades,” Eizenga said.

A question of intentions

Within the region, there is scepticism about the visits.

When US President Joe Biden hosted African leaders at the US-Africa Leaders Summit in 2022, he said he would visit the continent in 2023.

But the visit never came, and criticism of what many consider a flippant engagement with the continent has continued.

Blinken has visited sub-Saharan Africa four times since Biden’s administration came to power, but experts believe it cannot erase the disappointment of Biden’s unfulfilled promise to African leaders.

US officials, however, deny this.

“President Biden remains serious about his intention to travel to Africa, and each one of the Cabinet trips substantially moves the ball with respect to our relationship [with Africa],” Judd Devermont, a special assistant to the president and senior director for Africa affairs at the White House’s National Security Council told Al Jazeera.

“It is our view that a serious relationship with sub-Saharan Africa is defined by engagement at all levels, regularly, frequently and persistently, and that is critical to exactly what we have been doing in the past year,” added Devermont, who was part of Greenfield’s delegation to Monrovia.

Wilson Centre’s Onubogu remains unconvinced.

“At the end of the day, these trips by Secretary Blinken and Ambassador Greenfield will be seen as [nothing more than] just high-level visits… I believe those sentiments within Africa are fair.”

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