Disengagement or Drones? The American-African Security Relationship

US Army Africa via Flickr
US Army Africa via Flickr

Recently speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama posited that an American disengagement from world affairs would leave a dangerous security vacuum. Whether or not this alleged American withdrawal is real, African states are taking this potential security vacuum to heart. The African Union especially has started to rethink its policies, which includes the substantial borrowing of American expertise, lexicon, and anti-terror tools. South Africa and Nigeria, the largest African powers, have been at the forefront of this change.

For the African Union (AU), with the recent attacks in Kenya in mind, a dilemma emerges, of whether or not to be an ally to the United States, with all of the benefits and dangers that encompasses. These attacks also revealed another issue, that of leaders deeply shaken by the recent attacks. The apprehension is widespread across the continent. While security sector policy is generally a quiet, closed-door issue at the African Union, these growing issues have forced the hand of the AU, forcing a public statement and a public discussion on terrorism and security on the continent. These developments have essentially lifted the conventional lid of an otherwise sensitive internal security issue, which is a constant on the African Union agenda but one guarded jealously by individual states.

Terrorism is a serious concern throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria, with a shockingly high death toll, is currently struggling to contain sectarian violence and the Islamic extremist insurgency of Boko Haram. Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly’s 68th session, President Goodluck Jonathan, cited challenges at home and acknowledged world efforts in “an age of uncertainty.” He called for a continued united front against terror. In Somalia, the fires of terrorism continue to blaze. Speaking at Ohio State University recently, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud warned that terror attacks posed not only a Somali, but also an African and a global challenge. Some observers have also warned of a growing North African terrorist element in Libya and the vast tracts of the Sahara. While the focus is now on Sub-Saharan Africa, the threat stretches beyond this region.

Indeed, perceived threats are far and wide. African leaders are now clearly demonstrating such, by coming out in the open to condemn them and discuss policy. While the show of solidarity is a major pillar of the African Union, these united pronouncements ought to be read carefully. They reveal an emerging pattern of leaders who, fearful of attracting terrorist attention, are seizing the moment to implement their preemptive deterrence strategy. This is particularly true for countries like South Africa, which has maintained a relatively peaceful environment. The threat is real and, for now, difficult to stop. Official condemnations following these attacks no longer end with a simple message of solidarity, but strongly worded warnings, hinting at the seriousness of the ongoing threat.

The United States’ role and influence, on the other hand, should not to be overlooked. Those familiar with post-9/11 U.S. government lexicon might easily notice a significant shift, in Africa, where government “anti-terror” warnings are now prevalent. Most of the AU membership does not generally march in lockstep with American foreign policy, but the Westgate Mall attacks might be changing their calculus, particularly on security issues. African language on security is firming up, with language reminiscent of the post-9/11 atmosphere in the United States. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is not the only leader applying serious measures or offering strong words of condemnations on the terror that has befallen his country. In Pretoria, President Jacob Zuma delivered his own strong words, warning that “Terrorism in any form, and from whichever quarter, cannot be condoned and South Africa stands firmly with the international community in condemning all terrorism and this act in particular.” This is a very telling statement from Zuma, who argues that dangers of terrorism must be realized, and a solution sought, swiftly. Likewise, he continued this message through his United Nations General Assembly 68th session address. Indeed, we are now, for example, seeing the effects of terrorism around the African continent, through the lens of this prevailing pattern of condemnation.

Why though is South Africa concerned? It has faced little terrorism, particularly from Islamic extremist groups. First, South Africa, as security analysts now suggest, is beginning to have problems with these groups, who use the country to organize their operations. That alone is a major concern for South Africa’s security apparatus. The Kenya attacks, with a South African also killed, have only affected or threatened South African interests and the stability of Sub Saharan Africa, but public opinion as well. Taken together, these issues raise serious concerns for South Africa and, indeed, a strong case will be made, for preparedness, by any means. South Africa is very concerned.

The attacks have also altered a complex US-AU security relationship, with the possibility of mutually beneficial outcomes. African leaders who previously distanced themselves from the United States publicly while quietly co-operating on security and development issues now embrace an American military presence, expertise, partnerships, and even their anti-terror lexicon and technology within Africa. President Obama has reciprocated, clear that his country’s preparedness and willingness to use anti-terror tools and machinery in Africa. World security debates are shifting, and new alliances are forming. Still, it is unclear just how long the emerging AU-U.S. security partnership will last. There will be concerns on sovereignty and/or perceptions of Western involvement in Africa, and it will be interesting to watch how African leaders tackle such issues when they do arise. One question, for now at least, will be that of how strong a relationship is formed, with the United States.

Finally, African leaders are now grappling with questions of why Kenya was attacked, or if they had provoked al Shabaab, as some have argued, with the ongoing presence of a 4000-strong, Kenyan-led AU peacekeeper presence in southern Somalia. Furthermore, the way in which Kenya deals with the attacks or anything that comes about as a result of the attacks will be worth paying attention to.  For example, how will Kenya address fears or the possibility of xenophobia against its large ethnic Somali population, who could be blamed for the mall attacks? This is a complex case that warrants careful handling. Kenya is, itself, a complex, multiethnic state. How much it influences or informs AU security considerations will be noteworthy, as many states in the AU share Kenya’s religious and ethnic diversity. Indeed, while eager to help Kenya, many African leaders will be monitoring their own proximity to its president and vice president, who are currently facing and attending to a war crime allegations trial at the International Criminal Court for inciting post-election ethnic violence.

It will be interesting to see how these developments emerge, while realignments on the continental security take place and new threats emerge. For now, however, the United States may have just won itself some needed alliances in Africa, while the African Union gains much-needed tools and expertise in fighting terrorism. That is the extent to which the terror attacks in Kenya have shaken African leaders, and American disengagement has been proven false.

-Tshweu Moleme


(Tshweu Moleme is a South Africa analyst with the BRICS Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto)