Africa is a huge and complex continent. Its problems are such that it will require African nations working with other nation partners to address the complex problems that beset it, Chidi Blyden, the Defense Department's deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, said to the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Blyden testified alongside representatives from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The trio emphasized the need for the three entities to work together and work with African partners to accomplish the U.S. strategy.
The hearing looked specifically at the Sahel region of Africa — a wide swath that lies between the southern Sahara desert and the savanna lands to the south. It is home to some of the poorest countries on the globe, and security is tenuous in the nations, with some suffering through military coups.
The U.S. National Defense Strategy outlines three security priorities in Africa: countering violent extremist organizations; strengthening allies and partners to support mutual security objectives; and addressing targeted strategic competition concerns that present a military risk to the United States.
"In the Sahel these three priorities intersect in a manner that requires not only an integrated approach, but a whole-of-government approach," Blyden said. "Over the past six months, we've seen that the intersection of these three challenges in the Sahel has resulted in military coups and constitutional political transitions, democratic backsliding in West Africa, the inherent spread of VEOs and an exponential increase in their attacks."
She noted that Russia's Wagner Group of mercenaries is active in the region. "These challenges transcend national borders and therefore require a coordinated regional approach," she said. "As such, it would behoove us to address them together with our African partners."
Extremist groups are exploiting power vacuums, instability, local tensions and weak government institutions and governing practices, she said. "These groups jeopardize stability, democracy and peace, which further provides opportunities for extremism to proliferate, creating a vicious feedback loop that is fueled by a lack of good governance and human rights accountability," Blyden said. "When governments struggle to maintain security, deliver essential services, uphold humanitarian principles, or even provide economic opportunities and conflict environments, conditions are ripe for VEOs to exploit and appeal to vulnerable and unprotected marginalized populations."
These terror groups use trafficking in drugs, weapons and people to finance themselves.
Blyden said there are more than a dozen active Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates/cells in Africa stretching "from the Sahel to the Lake Chad Basin, from Somalia to [the Democratic Republic of the Congo]."
These groups present a danger to other nations in Africa including those of West Africa. "DOD is working closely with [the Department of State and] USAID to develop programs for coastal West African countries as part of the Global Fragility Act, … and the U.S. strategy to prevent conflict and promote stability," she said.
But any solution in the region needs to be an African solution. "We need to integrate our entire approach in the Sahel with our African partners, or we risk undermining our own efforts, and providing additional opportunities for VEOs and strategic competitors to gain access and influence," she said.
"While Chad remains one of the most capable partners in the region and N'Djamena is the new host of the G5 Sahel Headquarters, ending U.S. security cooperation has affected our bilateral engagement," Blyden said. "As the Transitional Military Council works towards a return to democratically elected and civilian-led government, we remain committed to supporting the Chadian people. Chad was one of only six countries on the African continent to endorse Russia's suspension from the UN Human Rights Council. Chad is faced by terrorist threats, humanitarian crises and malign Russian influence in its own region. The United States has the potential to provide meaningful security cooperation to train Chad's military and civilian services, especially given its role as a troop contributor in U.N. and regional peace operations."
The United States is not the only country that can work with the nations of the region. "We are encouraging our European allies and African partners operating in the Sahel to adopt a similar approach to … the Sahel strategy, one that seeks solutions that are integrated whole-of-government and African-led," she said. "We assess that unilateral military action is insufficient to address the scope of threats we face on the continent. And although the continent is awash with new initiatives, it would truly benefit from management of the international community to support our partners and their locally supported efforts."
The role of the U.S. is to enable African partners to be successful in creating and maintaining their own security. The nations need to "own" their security, she said. "The best way to help them own their own security is to allow them to lead shaping our support to their efforts," she said.
Africa is also a scene of strategic competition. Russia and China see the strategic potential on the continent. China devotes money and time to cultivate African nations. "As part of its engagement, Russia and the PRC routinely provide training and defense articles to African nations," Blyden said. "While our African partners have stated repeatedly that they prefer our training and defense articles, they turn to our competitors when we are not responsive to their requests. We must work to be more responsive and more present if we are to succeed in this arena."