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By Anthi Pantazi, researcher on social and humanitarian issues
Since the 9/11 attack, the US reacted abruptly with the so called “War on Terror”, fighting it at first in the Middle East and continuing it in Africa. The rhetoric behind of this war was that fragile states in both Middle East and Africa, especially around the region of Sahel, are considered a haven for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. In this context, the US decided to intervene in the region to secure its own interests and to provide assistance in establishing the continent where necessary (Berouk, 2009). In this context, the US created the AFRICOM (African Command) in 2008, through which they would provide humanitarian aid, health assistance and most importantly- through the counterterrorism strategy- assist the process of security reform. This process includes the strengthening of the security forces by training the peacekeepers and the military forces of these countries, better control of the borders and preventing crises that would destabilise the region and put at risk America’s interests. In this approach, America is not alone. Canada, the EU and especially France, are all partners in this strategy. They organise special training for military and police forces transferring the technical knowledge for enforcing the law to the Africans, but they forget transmitting democratic values and respect to human rights. As a result, the people that they train end up committing great atrocities and human rights violations (Rupert, 2022). The trainees of these programs are involved in other non-democratic actions as well, such as coups.
In the last 18 months, a wave of coups has taken place in West Africa, especially around the region of Sahel. In Chad, Sudan, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso there has been an abrupt seizing of power and, in many cases, by people who were trained by foreign forces, mostly from the US. Since 2008, US trained officers have attempted at least nine coups in West Africa and succeeded in eight of them. Though it can not be adequately proven that this relation of training officers by the US and the coups is causative, there is at least -in the best case scenario- a mishandling of the situation and bad management by the foreign forces.
What is the situation between the U.S. and Africa?
Since the foundation of AFRICOM, the amount of exercises and programs conducted by the US on the African continent per year have increased by 2,000%. From 172 missions per year, it has now grown to 3,500 per year, about 10 every day, a number unknown to both Americans and Africans (Rupert, 2022). By providing training and assistance to local forces, as well as weaponry and equipment combined with financial assistance, these countries seem to have an opportunity to develop their security infrastructures (Al-Bulushi, 2022). But even if doing so, sometimes the result is not the expected one. For example, the financial assistance that was given to Mali for the security sector, resulted in extreme pressure by the donors for larger military spending and for police forces. This decision cost money from other sectors, such as health and education. If pressure by donors results, at least in the specific case, in proritizing the detection of terrorist groups and not in helping the Malian people, then the situation can turn out to be a real tragedy. There have been many reports of the Malian trained officers by the US using excessive violence to civilians, which makes the people disappointed by the existing governance. Research shows that emphasising on military training and technology without transforming the mentality of the institutions makes coups and civil war more likely (Ena & Code, 2020).
Since 2010, the military bases of the US had reached upon 30 across the continent and the fighting of terrorist groups had exploded from almost zero to nearly 50 (York & Chase, 2020). At the same time, violence around the Sahel region has increased by 70%, showing how ineffective the strategies of the foreign powers have been, both the US and the EU, especially France, which is the former colonial power of the region and plays an important role on the internal matters there. Furthermore, violence by terrorist groups in Sahel has increased in the last 2 years by over 60% making it the most fatal region related to militant Islamist group in Africa and resulting in 3,5 million people displaced from the periphery (Turse, 2022). Several studies indicate a link between the US military training and the higher risk of coups, finding twice as likely for a coup to take place in those countries (York & Chase, 2020). It has been proven by now that in the last years, with the perpetual involvement of the former colonial powers of the region and the so called “new imperialists»- referring to America-, it is undoubtable that the continent, and especially West Africa, is being destabilised and increasing insecurity and violence. The analysis will now proceed to the examination of some case studies below on the most recent coups in those countries that were initiated by trained officers by the US.
The coup in Burkina Faso
On January 23, 2022 a coup in Burkina Faso took place. It is the most recent of this wave of coups that has aroused in the past 1.5 year. Damiba, the man who seized power in this coup, was trained by the US programs participating in at least six of them (Kabore, 2022). He was also participating in the Operation Barkhane, a French-led operation to tackle militaristic Islam in the Sahel region. Burkina Faso is one of the countries where interference has seen a great rise. Until 2009, the annual funding of Burkina Faso was around 200,000 dollars and by 2018 this funding had been raised to 16 million dollars annually, while there are even investigations suggesting that this funding reached up to 100 million dollars for the years 2018-2019. This comes simultaneously with the increase of the country’s military spending that in just 10 years it rose from 110 million to 358 million dollars (Savell, 2022).
The coup in Mali
The Malian elections in 2020 provoked lots of demonstrations after the illegitimate efforts of the ruling party to stay in power. After months of instability and riots, the military seized power on August 18, 2018 (Folahanmi, 2022). Some of the military officers that initiated the coup were trained by the United States. This was the second coup in 8 years that was planned by US trained officers (Sandor, 2016). As Oscar Wilde has put it: “to lose one civilian government to a coup launched by foreign-trained officers may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness”.
Many specialists see the roots of this problem at the content of these training and exercises. General Carter Ham, commander of the US Africa Command, said that there is too much emphasis on the technical and tactical parts, whereas neglected teaching and transferring democratic values and ethics to the trainees. At the same time, Mali expert Adam Sandor (2016) states that the foreign training tends to benefit the Malian officers without supplying the institutions with a better framework and professionalism. The US, the EU and France are all donors for the security sector of Mali and the efforts of stabilising the country. In 2020, the US government offered Mali 79 million dollars from which 94% was distributed to security services and conflict management, 5% was directed for peace and security programming and only an extremely poor 1% was directed for human rights, democracy and governance (Ena & Code, 2020). The assistance, financial and technical, that in this case Mali gets, comes with some conditions. This money is addressed in a way that secures the donor’s interests, which in this case are the counterterrorism programs that the US , the EU and France direct. This is only achieved by defeating the terrorists/extremists, which is translated in the better quality and quantity of the military, and probably in its lethality too (Ena & Sany, 2021).
The coup in Guinea
In 2020, the President of Guinea, Conde, tried to change the constitution in order to stay in power in the upcoming elections. This provoked lots of demonstrations and disappointment to the people, and even though Conde managed to be re-elected, on September 5, 2021 he was captured by some soldiers whose leader was Colonel Doumbouya (Folahanmi, 2022). A few hours later, Doumbouya announced the dissolution of the government and the foundation of a transitional government, whose leader would be himself. Doumbouya was also familiar to both French and Americans. He had joined the French Foreign Legion, a french voluntary army consisting of foreigners mainly, that get paid while trained and are sent to fight for France’s interests abroad, mainly to Africa, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and many other places with occasional wars such as the Persian Gulf War in 1990. But it was not this experience that implied relation to the coup. Doumbouya had also participated in lots of American training, and the worrying aspect is that at the day of the coup many military officers were in the happy crowd that supported Doumbouya (Schmitt, 2021). This has brought up a number of questions and suspicions about the real intentions of the US, with some relating it directly to the extractive industry sector of Guinea. First of all, Guinea is very rich in iron ore and especially bauxite- it holds more than 27% of the estimated global reserves. Both of these metals are used for making aluminium and, between 2004-2007, Guinea was the provider of 16% of US alumina and bauxite imports. In addition to this, the country is very rich in diamonds, gold, uranium and potential gas and oil reserves (Alexis, 2011). These facts and situations combined create some questions and maybe implications about the true intentions of foreign “aid” and the impact that this can have on the countries which receive it.
Instead of an epilogue
Since 2010, 40 coups have taken place in Africa, half of them around the Sahel region. In the last 1.5 year in this region 7 coups have been observed, with 5 of them being successful. The fact that most of the coup leaders were trained by foreign forces, especially by the US and France, raises questions and doubts about the intentions of the training programs.
If, in the best case scenario, those are actually helping these countries to fight terrorism and build a more concrete state, then it is obvious that the job done is far from great. The policy of this help is required to change and prioritise the needs of the states that it is supposed to help and assist them in building a more resilient and citizen friendly state and not a state-enforcer. Two of the main reasons that seem to foster coups are: 1) extreme poverty and 2) the situation of the country characterised as an anocracy- a mix of democratic and authoritarian features- and it is exactly this that the foreign aid should aim to prevent (Rupert, 2022).
If, though, the intentions of this interference is not at all in favour of the African people, then there is not much to mention. It should not be the lack of adequate proof that prevents us from implying something, but the evidence that those accusations are false. Therefore, there should be more transparency and publicity of the activities and programs running in the continent as well as more official documents giving access to the analytical data concerning these operations. After all, the people of a country should be the ones to decide whether they want or not and what kind of assistance to be offered.
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