Why should US taxpayers pay for African soldiers to topple elected governments??
Firebrand Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, in a March 2023 hearing of the US Congress’ House Armed Services Committee, cornered General Michael Langley, commander of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), with a seemingly unanswerable question: “Why should US taxpayers be paying to train people who then lead coups in Africa?”
Gaetz was referring to Mamady Doumbouya and Assimi Goïta, who overthrew the governments of Guinea and Mali, respectively, in 2022. The two coup leaders happen to have met while taking part in a so-called “train and equip” programme conducted by the United States in Burkina Faso in 2018.
Train and equip missions are the backbone of America’s military operations in the Sahel. By training and equipping the militaries of embattled countries, and providing the occasional tactical support, America gets to minimise its direct involvement in fighting, while at the same time bolstering the ongoing effectiveness of its partners. Though often criticised, it’s an approach with few downsides for America.
However, recent events in Niger, where the leaders of another American-allied military have overthrown their government, will no doubt be seen by many in Mr Gaetz’s corner as yet further evidence of America’s wasteful failure in the region. Indeed, why should the US keep cooperating with armed forces whose members end up overthrowing their governments?
As it happens, Gaetz’s question to Langley wasn’t exactly unanswerable. Unfortunately, the good general, whether out of fatigue (Gaetz’s questioning started 1h41m into the hearing) or just plain inability, so fumbled his responses that Mr Gaetz got a moderately popular five-minute YouTube video out of the exchange (which was likely the main purpose behind his line of questioning).
The answer is pretty simple: unless it directly induces them to overthrow their governments, the US isn’t responsible for the actions of foreign soldiers who take part in its training programmes and later decide to topple their governments. What’s more, there is no way for the United States to predict that some of the soldiers it trains will go down this ignominious path; the vast majority don’t.
Not only did the US oppose the coups in all three countries, but it also conditioned its continued cooperation on the restoration of civilian government. Importantly, America chose this approach despite the fact that it not only opens the door for its foes, like Russia, to sidle into even more capitals in the region, but also exposes it to accusations of, on the one hand, interfering with governments in the region and, on the other, abandoning these countries at their most vulnerable hour.
And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the US has a compelling reason to maintain a military presence in the Sahel. Over the last decade, the region has eclipsed the Middle East to become the global hotspot of jihadist terror. In that period, the three most afflicted countries – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – have together lost over 40,000 people to jihadist violence. Millions have been displaced.
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The reasons for the Sahel’s ascension to the top of the jihadist violence rankings aren’t too complicated. Analysts seem to agree that poverty, inequality and poor governance are the main factors involved, even if many of the jihadist groups have foreign affiliations. In a sadly ironic twist, jihadist violence only makes these factors worse, feeding further cycles of instability from which escape is even harder.
Jihadists now control as much as 60 percent of Burkina Faso’s territory. Mali is not much better off. And Niger, though it was getting a handle on the violence, might devolve into widespread violence now that its peacemaker president has been ousted. Even more worryingly, the jihadists are extending their tentacles into the more heavily populated coastal states of West Africa.
A jihadist takeover of any of these countries would have profound repercussions for both the region and America, along with its allies. They happen to be some of the poorest countries in the world already; their collapse would send a deluge of refugees both into neighbouring countries, seeding instability there, and north towards Europe.
Additionally, a jihadist-run government in the region would not only threaten American interests in the neighbourhood, but also likely export terror to America and its allies as well in the long run, all while meting untold injustices upon its own citizens. None of these outcomes is even remotely desirable.
America’s presence in the Sahel, therefore, is neither wasteful nor a failure just because some governments get overthrown. Responsibility for the recent coups is, and must be placed squarely, on the heads of the deluded reactionaries who led them, whether they had received American training or not.
America is needed in the region, and it too needs to be there. Its presence costs little in money (a mere 0.3 percent of the DOD’s budget in 2022) and lives (seemingly no fatalities in the last year), but plays an important role in curtailing the spread of jihadism, where it is allowed to operate in collaboration with civilian governments.
But perhaps the main reason America needs to stay in the region is that, unlike Russia, whose Wagner Group has been expanding in the region, its military leaders get to be periodically hauled before Congress, and therefore the world, to answer for their actions.
By participating in this process and questioning the military, Mr Gaetz might have offered the greatest argument for America’s need to stay in the region.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
Image credit: Pexels
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