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To Promote Lasting Self-Government In Africa, Don’t Lead With The U.S. Military


Most Americans rarely think about Africa. Even if they follow world news and foreign policy, it’s not a place that crosses their mind. It’s tough to do when the top story for the day is about wigs.

Europe, the Middle East, and Asia dominate our headlines, but the 54 countries on the African continent have the youngest median age in the world and, with 1.2 billion people, are projected to surpass the population of China in the next decade. This poses a significant challenge to our foreign policy and to the survival of self-rule across the world.

Historically, peaceful democratic rule rarely comes out of thin air or without violence reverberating for years afterwards. Africa is no different. Since widespread decolonization in the 20th century, numerous coups, counter coups, and civil wars have racked the continent. The majority of African countries have been led by men who fought in these wars. They have a history of corruption, remaining in power long past their expiration date, and violently repressing their enemies.

Nigeria is a microcosm of African challenges. It is the seventh most populous country in the world and the 20th largest economy. The country has more than 250 ethnic groups that each have their own language. The northern half of the country is predominantly Muslim, and the southern half is predominantly Christian. Large oil reserves provide wealth in the South that is not distributed to the North.

In February, President Muhammadu Buhari was re-elected for a second term. Buhari is a former general in the Nigerian army who took part in the coups and civil war following the country’s independence. He was even the head of state from ‘83-’85. He calls himself a converted democrat and not a dictator, but his policies as an elected leader have been repressive and controlling.

The opposition leader and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar has called the election a “sham” and said his coalition will challenge the results in court. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria even stated that reports of intimidation and fraud were credible.

President Buhari has done little to help stabilize Nigeria, and the government continually marginalizes the northern, impoverished, half of the country. The president even comes from the state of Borno, in the north east, where Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province violence is most prevalent.

There is also Muslim-on-Christian violence in the middle belt of the country, and ethno-political violence among the region’s nomadic Fulani tribe. Terrorist organizations exploit shared grievances with Fulani tribesman to mobilize them for violence. Without democratic solutions, multiple terrorist groups could synchronize operations and logistics through the Fulani across the entire Sahel region.

The United States has spent millions to counter Boko Haram and will deliver the first of 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to the Nigerian Air Force next year. Unfortunately, it’s not equipment and training that the Nigerian military needs to reduce violence in their country, it’s resolve in fighting the enemy and restraint from conducting human rights violations on the population as they do it. U.S. advisers continually passed up-to-date intelligence on Boko Haram locations to Nigerian generals that was routinely ignored.

What can the United States do to ensure the fledgling democracies in Africa last for the next generation? We tend to default to military operations because they seem tangible, but what do we have to show for the thousands of U.S. troops on the continent and hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditures? Without democratic progress, military efforts will be in vain. We should look to our other instruments of national power—diplomacy, economics, and information—for solutions.

Largely, we have no choice but to work with corrupt African leaders, but we can use diplomatic power to punish those we find to be preventing the democratic process. Travel bans and personal sanctions are effective diplomatic tools. We can use diplomacy to pressure Saudi Arabia to limit the export of Salafism to African countries like Nigeria. We must also ensure the State Department and USAID have the funds to conduct election monitoring and promote democratic processes.

Economically, we need American businesses to invest more in Nigeria. China is investing billions into Nigeria and Angola, both oil-rich countries. If we do not fundamentally change our approach to economic influence, China will be the sole power that controls access to natural resources in Africa. The United States can also use trade negotiations to convince the Economic Community of West African States to do more militarily to support each other.

The information element of national power needs to be used to propagate the importance of a peaceful democratic process to stability and economic prosperity. It needs to convince politicians to listen to their constituents and offer ways for grievances to be addressed before they boil over into conflict.

Terrorist combatants need to be reached in remote areas and provided ways to disarm and reintegrate into society. Above all, this information campaign needs to be aimed at the next generation of African leaders and voters.

Like much of Africa, Nigeria has seen a massive increase in smartphone usage. This global connectivity has helped younger generations connect with the world. When you speak with them, they are optimistic about the future. They understand that corruption hurts their countries and are dedicated to changing their circumstances.

American foreign policy should focus on encouraging young people to pressure their governments to be transparent and open, to run for office, and to force the peaceful execution of democracy. Nigeria can be the example of democracy for the continent, or it can take steps back to 20th-century dictatorship and violence. America is in a unique position to foster the former.