12.13.2012

U.S. Interests in Africa: Developing a Sustainable Policy for Ending African Wars and Assisting in Counterterrorism Efforts (Part 1)

Current UN Peacekeeping Missions. Image via United Nations
History has illustrated that many of America’s policies towards Africa have been inconsistent at best. However, with the dawn of the 21st century, U.S. interests in Africa - particularly security interests - have increased, which has prompted the U.S. to create a new agenda for its relationship with the continent. Armed conflicts in Africa threaten to postpone its economic and political development, which discourages investment, trade, and the creation of a stable relationship between both the U.S. and Africa. Furthermore, with the emergence of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. has shifted some of its focus towards African states which are considered to be breeding grounds for terrorism. 

Armed conflicts and terrorism threaten both America and Africa’s security; therefore, it is in the U.S.’s best interests to assist Africa in addressing these issues. Thus far, Washington has participated in many multilateral and unilateral peacekeeping and counterterrorism initiatives in Africa. However, if the U.S. is sincere in its desire to further its interests in Africa as well as assist Africa in putting an end to armed conflicts all the while addressing the ‘terrorist’ threat, then it needs to develop a consistent policy towards the continent that is focused on long-term, sustainable solutions. 

The best way for this to occur is for the U.S. to partake in a security and development nexus in Africa, as well as participate in state-building efforts, all of which would encourage economic, social, and political development, thereby lessening the likelihood for armed conflicts while also assisting in counterterrorism efforts.

U.S. Interests in Africa: Ending African Wars
One of the first items on the renewed African security agenda for the U.S. is ending and preventing conflicts that have long plagued the continent. It is believed that ending Africa’s wars will lead to economic and social development, while also assisting in the Global War on Terror. Although the number of armed conflicts in Africa has significantly decreased since the time of the Cold War, there are still many states experiencing civil wars and armed rebellions, such as Mali, the two Sudans, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Many reasons, such as “weak government, legions of unemployed or underemployed, and myriad social, ethnic and religious divisions”1are cited for creating conditions ripe for war. Weak governments are an obvious cause for civil wars because they allow for opportunistic military commanders or warlords to exploit the state’s lack of legitimacy in order to gain control. The threat that the unemployed (youth) play is an often overlooked cause of armed conflict in Africa. When a state has a large population of disenfranchised and unemployed youth, it allows warlords to transform “anger and poverty into armed political revolts” to address grievances2.  One need only to look towards Sierra Leone’s lumpen during its civil war to see the threat that unemployed youth pose to the legitimacy and stability of a state.

Consequences of African Wars: Hindering Development
The consequences of armed conflicts are well-known and the human cost of war is evident, especially in areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo where war-related deaths number in the millions; however, there are several other economic, social, and security consequences that emanate from these armed conflicts. For example, African wars discourage foreign investment which “undermin[es] prospects for [economic] growth”3, which is one of the necessary factors for integrating Africa into the global political economy - which is high atop America’s African agenda. Therefore, it could be argued that as long as armed conflicts persist in Africa at a relatively consistent rate, investment and economic growth might be hindered, thereby making it difficult to foster development and address the root causes of armed conflict, such as poverty and unemployment.

U.S. Responses to African Wars: UN Peacekeeping Missions
Top Contributors to UN Peacekeeping Operations in 2011-2012
Statistics via United Nations
There have, however, been varied responses by the U.S., United Nations, and African regional organizations to respond to Africa’s armed conflicts. For example, the United Nations peacekeeping missions are significant when it comes to responding to wars throughout Africa. Of the UN’s nearly 65,000 peacekeeping forces, 56,000 of them are located in Sub-Saharan Africa.4 

The U.S. is the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping efforts; therefore, the U.S. has significant control of the UN peacekeeping agenda. Simply looking at the U.S.’s contributions to UN peacekeeping missions in Sub-Saharan Africa illustrates where U.S. interests lay. For example, in 2002 immediately after the terror attacks on September 11, U.S. contributions to UN peacekeeping was nearly 500 million dollars; however, the following year it dropped to nearly 222 million dollars, which illustrates not only great inconsistency in America’s policies towards Africa, but also the ease in which Washington diverted its attention from Africa to the Middle East, which was reflective of its foreign policy at the time.

However, after 2004 when U.S. contributions were around 325 million, in 2005 the contributions rose to nearly 1 billion5 – this might presumably be when the U.S. realized the importance of Africa in counterterrorism efforts. Although the contributions by the U.S. began to rise significantly after 2005, it nonetheless shows America’s inconsistency when dealing with African conflicts and in its prioritization of Africa on its overall foreign policy agenda. America’s contributions to the UN are vital when it comes to securing peace throughout Africa; however, if Washington was sincere in its talks about bringing peace to the continent, then it needs to adopt a more consistent policy for its peacekeeping agenda that reflects its rhetoric.


1 Raymond Copson, The United States in Africa, (London: Zed Books, 2007), 86.
2 Ibid., 88.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 107.
[5] Ibid., 96.

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