Introduction

The United States remains one of Africa’s leading partners in peace and security at the bilateral and multilateral levels. However, Trump’s administration showed how the US could exert its influence with dire implications for Africa’s strategic interests for long-term peace. With the new Biden administration, there are two key areas of US–Africa partnership that require a reset after Trump’s presidency. These areas include enhancing multilateral peace efforts at the levels of United Nations (UN) peace support operations and the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), and the adoption of a modified approach to the US use of drone strikes on the continent.

Multilateral Peace Efforts

During his administration, Trump placed a strong emphasis on bilateral partnerships while remaining circumspect about multilateral engagements. This approach was meant to ensure US direct influence and control, as opposed to an indirect influence through multilateral organizations. This was the foundation of the third point in the US–Africa strategy,1John Bolton, “A New Africa Strategy: Expanding Economic and Security Ties on the Basis of Mutual Respect,” The Heritage Foundation, December 13, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/global-politics/report/new-africa-strategy-expanding-economic-and-security-ties-the-basis-mutual. which centered on the effective and efficient use of US funds as outlined by John Bolton, one of Trump’s former national security advisors.

At the UN level, Trump’s rollback of the US commitment to peace operations had a significant impact in Africa, which hosts half of all UN missions globally.2By the end of November 2020, the UN had seven peace missions in Africa, out of the thirteen missions across the globe. Trump’s administration pressed the UN Security Council (UNSC) to reach an agreement in June 2017 reducing the total UN peacekeeping budget by $600 million, including 7.5 percent from the United States’ contribution.3Margaret Besheer, “UN Peacekeeping Budget Cut by $600 Million,” Voice of America, June 30, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/usa/un-peacekeeping-budget-cut-600-million. While reducing such funding to peace operations may be unavoidable, those doing so should not lose sight of the critical importance of sustainable peace.

This cut in funding led to a quick drawdown of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which was eventually closed on December 31, 2020. Since the exit of UNAMID peacekeepers, there have been increasing reports of resurging conflict in Darfur.4“Sudan: 250 Killed, Over 100,000 Displaced as Violence Surges in Darfur,” UN News, January 22, 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/01/1082722. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), renewed violence caused about 250 deaths and displaced over 100,000 people within six days from January 15–21, 2021.5“Over 100,000 Displaced by Resurgence of Violence in Sudan’s Darfur Region,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, January 22, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2021/1/600a93a64/100000-displaced-resurgence-violence-sudans-darfur-region.html.

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was also asked to begin its drawdown, leading toward an eventual exit. In many ways, the MINURSO downsizing could be linked to Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. This recognition was announced in exchange for Morocco’s normalization of ties with Israel, a strategic US ally. However, Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security advisor from April 2018 to September 2019, condemned the move and urged Biden to reverse the decision, which in his opinion dangerously undermined decades of carefully crafted US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.6John Bolton, “Biden Must Reverse Course on Western Sahara,” Foreign Policy, December 15, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/15/biden-reverse-course-western-sahara/. Biden faces a dilemma, as reversing Trump’s policy pronouncement could jeopardize relations with Israel. If Biden condones the recognition, on the other hand, the US risks its credibility as a mediator and promoter of people’s rights, particularly in light of the long-held international stance favoring self-determination for Western Sahara through a referendum.7Indeed, UNSC Resolution 690 of 1991, which established MINURSO, was meant to facilitate a referendum in Western Sahara. The self-determination standpoint is in line with the AU’s long-term recognition of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination, although this position has been threatened since Morocco rejoined the AU in 2017.8Ndubuisi Christian Ani and Liesl Louw-Vaudran, “AU Limits Its Role in Western Sahara Crisis,” Institute for Security Studies, September 11, 2018, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/au-limits-its-role-in-western-sahara-crisis.

Furthermore, in January 2016, after the European Union (EU) announced a 20 percent reduction to the allowances of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers, the AU intensified its request to use the UN’s assessed contributions to cover funding gaps—a request that has been the bedrock of Africa’s quest for predictable funding for peace missions since 2007. The US, particularly under Trump, worked against the use of assessed contributions for this purpose.9“The Price of Peace: Securing UN Financing for AU Peace Operations,” International Crisis Group Africa Report no. 286, January 31, 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/286-price-peace-securing-un-financing-au-peace-operations. In 2018, when the issue was raised, the US insisted that “it is premature to move to the next step” in terms of approving the use of assessed contributions.10United Nations Security Council, 8407th Meeting: Delegates in Security Council Call for Using United Nations Assessed Contributions as Means to Strengthen Peacekeeping Operations in Africa, SC/13952, November 20, 2018, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13952.doc.htm. However, the use of assessed contributions is a key option that would empower African institutions to proactively address conflicts on behalf of the UNSC. During Biden’s administration, the AU will have another opportunity to re-engage the US in the ongoing search for predictable funding to enable the continent to play a proactive role in peace and security.

The US Drone Wars in Africa

In 2018, Trump’s administration announced a plan to reduce the number of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) special forces in the Sahel and West Africa by 10 percent over a number of years.11Ryan Browne, “US to Reduce Number of Troops in Africa,” CNN, November 15, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/15/politics/us-reduce-troops-africa/index.html. The planned reduction was partly in response to uproar in the US following the reported killing of four US soldiers in Niger12Tami Abdollah, “Pentagon Ends Reviews of Niger Ambush that Killed 4 Soldiers,” Associated Press News, June 7, 2019, https://apnews.com/article/cb0d6c63f3ed4415a0bd19e98175f792. by terrorists in October 2017—a situation that rekindled bitter memories of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in the early 1990s.13Black Hawk Down refers to the failed US raid in Somalia in 1993 which led to the killing of several US special forces. Subsequently, the US withdrew its forces from Somalia. The event led to a change in US policy in Africa, which included being hesitant to engage directly in Africa wars. See “Black Hawk Down: The Somali Battle that Changed US Policy in Africa,” BBC News, February 1, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-38808175. However, the reduction of troops was accompanied by a new approach which relied on US drone technology (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs), rather than human personnel, for military operations.

Trump’s new Principles, Standards and Procedures (PSP) for the use of US drones replaced Obama’s rather conservative Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG),14Presidential Policy Guidance, Procedures for Approving Direct Action against Terrorist Targets Located outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities, May 22, 2013, https://www.justice.gov/oip/foia-library/procedures_for_approving_direct_action_against_terrorist_targets/. which permitted the use of drones only in cases where officials were virtually certain that the targets fit certain high-threat criteria and on the condition that such strikes would not lead to civilian casualties. Under Trump’s PSP, the policy on the use of drone strikes was more flexible and expanded to target foot soldiers without “unique skills or leadership roles.”15Zachary Donnenfeld, “Drone Strikes a Growing Threat to African Civilians,” Institute for Security Studies, February 27, 2019, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/drone-strikes-a-growing-threat-to-african-civilians. With this broadened approach, the frequency of drone strikes increased in Africa, especially in Somalia.

In Somalia alone, Obama’s eight years as president witnessed about 60 declared and alleged drone and manned aircraft strikes, leading to an estimated number of 42 civilian deaths.16“US Forces in Somalia,” Airwars, https://airwars.org/conflict-data/?belligerent=us-forces&country=somalia. By contrast, in the four years of Trump’s presidency (2017–2020), there were about 276 declared and alleged airstrikes in Somalia with an estimated 134 civilian deaths.17“US Forces,” Airwars. For additional information on activism, see “Somalia: US Must Not Abandon Civilian Victims of Its Air Strikes after Troop Withdrawal,” Amnesty International, December 7, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/12/somalia-us-must-not-abandon-civilian-victims-of-its-air-strikes-after-troop-withdrawal/. There are no reports on the actual number of drones used in comparison to manned aircraft. However, some reports suggest that drones were often the preferred mode of airstrikes given the new policy on the use of drones.18Donnenfeld, “Drone Strikes.” The US rejected most of the reports on the high number of civilian deaths and claimed responsibility for only a few of these casualties. Due to the lack of accountability in Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programs and the limited local capacity to report on such incidences, there is uncertainty about the exact number of drone and airstrikes and related civilian deaths.19Donnenfeld, “Drone Strikes.”

One major concern about the use of drones relates to the value that the Trump administration placed on non-American lives in Africa. As highlighted earlier, the frequent use of drone strikes led to an increase in civilian casualties, as well as claims of destruction of infrastructure, agricultural produce, and livestock.20The Hidden US War in Somalia: Civilian Casualties from Air Strikes in Lower Shabelle (London: Amnesty International, 2019), https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/The-Hidden-U.S.-War-in-Somalia.pdf The increase in civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes fed into grievances and animosity against the US and external forces, including the local government. Some reports have also shown that indiscriminate counterterrorism efforts may indirectly contribute to terrorist recruitment and operations, thereby exacerbating the security situation in Africa.21Abdifatah Hassan Ali, “U.S. Lethal Operations in Somalia Are on the Rise. But Are They Effective?,” Just Security, December 6, 2018, https://www.justsecurity.org/61708/u-s-lethal-operations-somalia-rise-effective/.

In view of the United States’ notoriety for fighting wars across the globe, a greater focus on meaningful economic development in Africa could reduce the aversion to foreign meddling and further decrease the incentive for violent conflicts and extremism in the long term. During his tenure, Trump’s administration adopted some progressive economic policies targeting low-income countries and Africa specifically. For instance, the US passed a new act called the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act in 2018, with the allocation of an approximately $60 billion lending limit to developing countries in order to reduce poverty and improve economic growth.22Witney Schneidman and Joel Wiegert, “Competing in Africa: China, the European Union, and the United States,” Brookings, April 16, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2018/04/16/competing-in-africa-china-the-european-union-and-the-united-states/. The US also has a Connect Africa initiative, launched in July 2018, which seeks to invest $1 billion over the next two years in the areas of information and communications. The Trump administration also initiated a new plan called Prosper Africa to improve the business climate in Africa by supporting businesses and investments.23Adva Saldinger, “What’s in Store for Trump-Era Development Priorities,” Devex, December 23, 2020, https://www.devex.com/news/what-s-in-store-for-trump-era-development-priorities-98824. While the BUILD Act and Prosper Africa were developed as part of Trump’s policy of competition with China, these nascent initiatives24These initiatives will complement the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has been functional since 2000 and is meant to promote trade relations between Africa and the US. have the potential to enhance economic growth and create jobs, thereby reducing incentives for conflict.

Conclusion

Under the Biden administration, Africa and the US must work to reset their partnership toward achieving long-term sustainable peace. It is imperative that cooperation is not skewed toward prioritizing US economic interests, influence, and military adventurism in its relationship with Africa. President Biden has a unique opportunity to ensure multilateral consensus and equal partnership in the search for peace, rather than a unilateral US quest to enforce peace in those African countries where it has strategic, economic, and security interests. Additionally, the Biden administration should reduce the number and frequency of US drone strikes on the continent, while also minimizing the number of civilian casualties during such strikes. The Biden administration should also revamp its support for human rights, participatory democracy, free and fair elections, aid programs, and greater trade access for African goods into US markets. Such efforts should include high-level engagements to broaden and deepen US–Africa relations in ways that ensure that African states and organizations further develop their capacities for local ownership, transparency, and sustainability of peace support processes and operations.

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