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AfricaSource February 6, 2024

No more business as usual: The US needs a broader engagement strategy in West Africa

By Michael Shurkin

The Pentagon is reportedly in preliminary talks with the governments of Benin, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire about opening a drone base in one of those countries, presumably to compensate for the likely closure of the US drone base in Niger, following a coup there in July 2023. Even though there are contradictory reports about the talks, their possibility underscores an unsettling reality: US influence in the Sahel has waned, and Washington needs to rethink its engagement there and in West Africa as a whole.

If left to its own devices, US policy probably would default to a business-as-usual approach in West Africa. Unfortunately, that approach has not worked and is even less likely to work now that the French have been ousted from the region. US rhetoric about governments transitioning to civilian rule often falls on deaf ears, and many people in the region are convinced that Russia is a better partner than the United States was and is likely to be in the future. Worse, it is not clear that they are wrong.

The United States is looked upon much more favorably than France, but Washington offers little that might help counter pro-Russia and pro-China views.

A better approach would be for US policymakers to look more comprehensively at the entire region and the major trends there, which include anti-French sentiment, impatience with democracy, and support for Russia. Meanwhile, China clearly dominates the region in terms of investment and trade. The United States is looked upon much more favorably than France, but Washington offers little that might help counter pro-Russia and pro-China views. The United States is not positioned to fill the vacuum France has left behind.

One way to try to increase US influence is to step up significantly what the United States is offering, though for various reasons, Washington is at a competitive disadvantage in this regard vis-à-vis Russia and China. Announced this past fall, the Biden administration’s major investment in the Lobito Corridor rail and road project in Angola, Congo, and Zambia (a key talking point for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Angola in January) is a big step in the right direction. But Washington’s Lobito initiative is all the more striking for how unusual it is for the United States to be playing China’s game of massively investing in large-scale infrastructure projects.

It is also important for US policymakers to discern among those countries that Washington is unlikely to pull away from the Russian orbit (including the juntas of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger), those that are open to it, and those that in fact are pro-American. Washington should then find creative ways to engage with each of these three groups to strengthen, reorientate, or weaken them.

The difference between the first two groups—countries firmly in Russia’s orbit and those that might break free—often is a function of the balance between ideology and pragmatism on the part of a country’s leaders. Some African leaders are ideologically predisposed to working with Russia and committed to the idea. Others are driven more by pragmatism: They might earnestly believe Russia and China to be better partners, but perhaps can be convinced otherwise. Carrots will work better than sticks, which do not work and are more likely to provoke resentment. The Sahel’s military juntas have demonstrated remarkable insouciance in the face of economic sanctions and Western countries’ cessation of financial assistance. Washington, for example, presently seems to think that it can entice Niger’s junta with the promise to reduce sanctions as part of its effort to keep open the drone base in the north of the country; it is highly unlikely that the junta cares. The recent decision by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to quit the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) underscores the fact that their governments have different priorities. Leaving ECOWAS may do profound damage to the economies of these poor landlocked countries, which rely on regional trade.

The last group, countries that are indeed pro-American, is larger than one might think, especially but not exclusively in Anglophone countries and regions. For example, in West Africa, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone are friendly. (Nigerians also happen to make up the largest African immigrant group in the United States, including several US officials.) US policymakers could focus on cultivating even more positive views of the United States in those countries as a first step in a new US strategy toward West Africa.

In some cases, a country’s government might be drifting toward Russia, but significant portions of its population are not. An example of this is Southern Cameroons, also known as the Anglophone region of Cameroon. Southern Cameroons is the portion of the German colony of Kamerun that came under British colonial rule after Britain and France carved up the German possession in World War I. In 1961, the two Cameroons were fused into a single entity after the United Nations voted in favor of Cameroonian independence. Today, they remain considerably distinct, and there is a Southern Cameroons independence movement, which the Cameroonian government represses.

The argument here is not necessarily to recognize the Anglophone region’s independence (which the United States opposes on principle) or to build bases there (which is impossible without Yaoundé’s blessing). The argument is instead to be more attuned to trends in African countries and among their populations, and then find creative ways to engage those countries and their peoples in the US interest, including at levels below the national governments in local communities and municipal and regional governments.

US policy in sub-Saharan Africa should focus not only on dialogue with leaders in national capitals but also with a much broader array of people at different levels and in different regions. This is particularly imperative in the areas where the United States had relied on French influence, only to see it collapse in recent years, with Russia filling the vacuum. Cameroon, whose government appears to be tilting toward Russia, is an example of that, and the English-speaking periphery region of the country presents the United States with opportunities for engagement based on language, geography, and real competition from the big powers.

The United States can no longer stick to its current way of engaging with West African countries, which often involves dealing with centers rather than peripheries. Long-standing policies regarding whom to talk to and how should be questioned, to see if the United States should try a different approach to the region.

Michael Shurkin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Africa Center and a former political analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Further reading

Image: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President of Ivory Coast Alassane Ouattara shake hands after they delivered remarks following their meeting at the Residence of President in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on January 23, 2024. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/Pool via REUTERS