The United States should enter the Trump era with lower expectations and greater reliance on countries such as Kenya as it pursues its goals in Africa.
At a forum in Washington on Tuesday, experts said the US government will have limited time, resources and energy to commit to achieving its objectives in Africa.
Former head of the US Africa Command (Africom) retired Gen Carter Ham said budget constraints and changing strategic considerations necessitate “a very rigorous prioritisation process outlining realistic outcomes and increasing reliance on partnership with others.”
In practice, this approach means that Washington may have to accept the military stalemate in Somalia, said Gen Ham, who led Africom between 2011 and 2013.
The current situation in Somalia “may be about as good as it’s going to get from a US government perspective,” he said during the meeting on US strategy in Africa which took place at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Somalia’s government offers little prospect of functioning effectively, said J Peter Pham, head of the council’s Africa programme, in a paper that served as the basis for Tuesday’s discussions.
After more than four years in power, the government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud “just barely manages to control the capital and parts of the southeastern littoral,” Dr Pham said. Even that much is only thanks to the presence of more than 22,000 troops that make up the Africa Union’s military force in Somalia, Dr Pham added.
He said it is contradictory that the US and its allies have long backed weak Mogadishu-based governments while spurning more effective entities such as semi-autonomous Puntland and the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland.
Both of those diplomatically unrecognised polities have achieved “relatively high levels of success in their state-building projects and provided their peoples — and, by extension, neighbouring states — with security, while repressing both terrorist insurgents and criminal activities like piracy,” Dr Pham wrote.
Because new circumstances put constraints on what Washington can achieve unilaterally in Africa, the US should develop privileged relationships with key African state partners such as Kenya, Dr Pham urged.
Kenya — along with Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Senegal — has improved the professionalism of its armed forces and taken a lead in regional peacekeeping efforts.
Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as Nigeria, could be accorded “some sort of advanced status” in the constellation of US non-Nato allies, Dr Pham suggested.
US ideological criteria
The proposed shift in strategy should also involve less favouritism toward factions in African countries that conform with US’s ideological criteria, he said.
That rubric could be interpreted as de-emphasising US demands for democratic rule and respect for human rights. And this shift could align with the Trump administration’s Africa policy.
The US will also have to rely more on its private sector as it seeks to advance its political interests in Africa, the forum was told. But US businesses are not yet playing that required role. Amanda Dory, the Pentagon’s top Africa official, said only one per cent of US foreign direct investment goes to Africa “despite all kinds of efforts to cause US investors to be open-minded or adjust their risk calculus.”