Follow us on social

US consistency is the first casualty in rash of African coups

US consistency is the first casualty in rash of African coups

Washington has preferred to approach these military juntas on a 'case by case' basis. The White House has to publicly stand for something, and now.

Analysis | Africa

On September 25, Mali’s military government announced it will delay elections that were slated for February 2024. The authorities cited technical reasons for the postponement and did not name a replacement date.

Viewed against the backdrop of the junta’s actions since taking power in 2020, the delay appears the latest in a series of maneuvers by the junta to extend its rule, even as the junta has failed egregiously in its promises to restore security. The United States has little influence over what happens in Bamako, but by taking a clear and public stand against open-ended military rule in Mali and other countries in the region, Washington can enhance its credibility in the long term.

A recent wave of coups in the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa has involved officers who show no serious willingness to hand power back to civilians. Military officers have now seized power in Mali (2020), Chad (2021), Burkina Faso (2022), and Niger (2023). Add to this the coups in Guinea (2021) and Sudan (2021) and one has a “coup belt” that evokes the dark days of the Cold War. Amid much talk of “coup contagion,” each putsch has had its own, primarily domestic causes — but what has been contagious is coup-makers’ playbooks.

Mali’s Colonel Assimi Goita and associates have been key movers in elaborating this playbook, extending their “transition” time and again. Goita and company came to power in August 2020, appointed a civilian-led transition, overthrew their own civilian appointees in May 2021’s “coup within a coup,” defied sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), compromised on a transition for 2024, and have now begun to tamper with that timetable.

Mali’s colonels have repeatedly exposed the weak hand of regional and Western diplomats. ECOWAS first sought to impose an 18-month timetable in August 2020 — meaning the February 2024 elections should have already occurred in February 2022. What happens in Mali has serious ramifications for how officers in the other countries — some of whom are in close contact with Mali’s junta — will approach their own transition timetables.

The U.S. has few good options in Mali or elsewhere in the region. In Washington, there are concerns that criticizing and antagonizing juntas would diminish whatever influence the U.S. may command in the Sahel. Washington also prefers to take the region’s countries and their coups case by case, frowning on those in Mali and Burkina Faso while showing a significantly more ambivalent and even lenient attitude towards those in Chad and Niger.

And certainly there are diplomatic costs to criticism, as France has learned in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where its soldiers and diplomats are effectively unwelcome.

Yet U.S. “influence” in the region is overstated — what is there to preserve? After 20 years of military training programs, the U.S. has no significant and enduring counterterrorism accomplishments to report. On the political side, if the U.S. has avoided the backlash that has greeted France, it has also not been able to convince soldiers to return to barracks, or even to temper the overreach of some of its favored civilian leaders (the decision by Senegalese President Macky Sall not to seek a third term in 2024 is one bright spot in the region, and may reflect behind-the-scenes international pressure, but Sall continues to crack down severely on the opposition).

Given that U.S. influence has not appreciably bent the curve of the region when it comes either to endemic insecurity or the militarization of politics, it would be better for the U.S. to be consistent, vocal, and clear when it comes to denouncing coups and distorted transition timetables. As of September 30, for example, there was no statement by the U.S. on the Malian junta’s delay of the elections.

Nor has the U.S. clarified, more than two months after the coup in Niger, whether it considers that takeover to be a coup in legal terms — a decision that would trigger a suspension of much assistance to Niger.

As one analyst recently commented, allowing ambiguity to fester when it comes to the U.S. stance on Niger is a recipe for exacerbating conspiracy theorizing about whether the U.S. and other Western powers actually support the coups in the region.

Speaking out at key moments would elicit rebukes from Bamako and Niamey, but it would also send vital signals to the actual people of the Sahel. The region’s populations are Washington’s most important audience at this point, because it is more important to shape positive perceptions of the U.S. over the long term than it is to tiptoe around generals and colonels who rule capitals by force.

Over the long term, moreover, it is in the U.S. interest to give moral support to genuine grassroots democratic culture in the region, which has been a serious force in Sahelian history time and again. At the moment, the U.S. should not materially support civilian organizations that seek to challenge the juntas politically, because doing so could pose profound risks to such civilians (of being arrested and/or tarred with the charge of being Western puppets) and could create unnecessary credibility risks for the U.S. itself.

But by being blunt and forthright that military rule is unacceptable, the U.S. can help set the expectation that norms, and not crass and misguided efforts at realpolitik, will guide Washington’s and others’ policies towards the Sahel.

Publicly criticizing and privately pressuring the region’s military rulers does not mean that Washington will be loathed as much as Paris is. Washington does not have Paris’s colonial baggage, and French officials, from President Emmanuel Macron down to individual ambassadors, have been particularly imperious and insensitive to Sahelian concerns, squandering numerous easy opportunities to appear flexible and humble.

The U.S. can be a more friendly critic, clarifying that it disapproves of juntas’ choices but leaving the door open to conversation

Photo credit: Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of Malian military junta, looks on while he stands behind Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou during a photo opportunity after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) consultative meeting in Accra, Ghana September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

Analysis | Africa
Will US troops have to  go to war for Mohammed bin Salman? (VIDEO)
Biden's Saudi War Obligation

Will US troops have to go to war for Mohammed bin Salman? (VIDEO)

Video Section

Even as the war in Gaza rages on and the death toll surpasses 35,000, the Biden administration appears set on pursuing its vision of a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal that it sees as the path to peace in the Middle East.

But, the agreement that the administration is selling as a peace agreement that will put Palestine on the path to statehood and fundamentally transform the region ultimately amounts to a U.S. war obligation for Saudi Arabia that would also give Mohammed bin Salman nuclear technology.

keep readingShow less
Following a largely preordained election, Vladimir Putin was sworn in last week for another six-year term as president of Russia. Putin’s victory has, of course, been met with accusations of fraud and political interference, factors that help explain his 87.3% vote share.   If this continuation of Putin’s 24-year-long hold on power makes one thing clear, it’s that he and his regime will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But, as his war in Ukraine continues with no clear end in sight, what is less clear is how Washington plans to deal with this reality.  Experts say Washington needs to start projecting a long-term strategy toward Russia and its war in Ukraine, wielding its political leverage to apply pressure on Putin and push for more diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict. Only by looking beyond short-term solutions can Washington realistically move the needle in Ukraine.  Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the U.S. has focused on getting aid to Ukraine to help it win back all of its pre-2014 territory, a goal complicated by Kyiv’s systemic shortages of munitions and manpower. But that response neglects a more strategic approach to the war, according to Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who spoke in a recent panel hosted by Carnegie.   “There is a vortex of emergency planning that people have been, unfortunately, sucked into for the better part of two years since the intelligence first arrived in the fall of 2021,” Weiss said. “And so the urgent crowds out the strategic.”   Historian Stephen Kotkin, for his part, says preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty is critical. However, the apparent focus on regaining territory, pushed by the U.S., is misguided.   “Wars are never about regaining territory. It's about the capacity to fight and the will to fight. And if Russia has the capacity to fight and Ukraine takes back territory, Russia won't stop fighting,” Kotkin said in a podcast on the Wall Street Journal.  And it appears Russia does have the capacity. The number of troops and weapons at Russia’s disposal far exceeds Ukraine’s, and Russian leaders spend twice as much on defense as their Ukrainian counterparts. Ukraine will need a continuous supply of aid from the West to continue to match up to Russia. And while aid to Ukraine is important, Kotkin says, so is a clear plan for determining the preferred outcome of the war.  The U.S. may be better served by using the significant political leverage it has over Russia to shape a long-term outcome in its favor.   George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, says that Russia’s primary concerns and interests do not end with Ukraine. Moscow is fundamentally concerned about the NATO alliance and the threat it may pose to Russian internal stability. Negotiations and dialogue about the bounds and limits of NATO and Russia’s powers, therefore, are critical to the broader conflict.   This is a process that is not possible without the U.S. and Europe. “That means by definition, we have some leverage,” Beebe says.   To this point, Kotkin says the strength of the U.S. and its allies lies in their political influence — where they are much more powerful than Russia — rather than on the battlefield. Leveraging this influence will be a necessary tool in reaching an agreement that is favorable to the West’s interests, “one that protects the United States, protects its allies in Europe, that preserves an independent Ukraine, but also respects Russia's core security interests there.”  In Kotkin’s view, this would mean pushing for an armistice that ends the fighting on the ground and preserves Ukrainian sovereignty, meaning not legally acknowledging Russia’s possession of the territory they have taken during the war. Then, negotiations can proceed.   Beebe adds that a treaty on how conventional forces can be used in Europe will be important, one that establishes limits on where and how militaries can be deployed. “[Russia] need[s] some understanding with the West about what we're all going to agree to rule out in terms of interference in the other's domestic affairs,” Beebe said.     Critical to these objectives is dialogue with Putin, which Beebe says Washington has not done enough to facilitate. U.S. officials have stated publicly that they do not plan to meet with Putin.    The U.S. rejected Putin’s most statements of his willingness to negotiate, which he expressed in an interview with Tucker Carlson in February, citing skepticism that Putin has any genuine intentions of ending the war. “Despite Mr. Putin’s words, we have seen no actions to indicate he is interested in ending this war. If he was, he would pull back his forces and stop his ceaseless attacks on Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said in response.   But neither side has been open to serious communication. Biden and Putin haven’t met to engage in meaningful talks about the war since it began, their last meeting taking place before the war began in the summer of 2021 in Geneva. Weiss says the U.S. should make it clear that those lines of communication are open.   “Any strategy that involves diplomatic outreach also has to be sort of undergirded by serious resolve and a sense that we're not we're not going anywhere,” Weiss said.  An end to the war will be critical to long-term global stability. Russia will remain a significant player on the world stage, Beebe explains, considering it is the world’s largest nuclear power and a leading energy producer. It is therefore ultimately in the U.S. and Europe’s interests to reach a relationship “that combines competitive and cooperative elements, and where we find a way to manage our differences and make sure that they don't spiral into very dangerous military confrontation,” he says.    As two major global superpowers, the U.S. and Russia need to find a way to share the world. Only genuine, long-term planning can ensure that Washington will be able to shape that future in its best interests.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo

Playing the long game with Putin

Europe

Following a largely preordained election, Vladimir Putin was sworn in last week for another six-year term as president of Russia. Putin’s victory has, of course, been met with accusations of fraud and political interference, factors that help explain his 87.3% vote share.

If this continuation of Putin’s 24-year-long hold on power makes one thing clear, it’s that he and his regime will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But, as his war in Ukraine continues with no clear end in sight, what is less clear is how Washington plans to deal with this reality.

keep readingShow less
Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Demonstration at Georgia's Parliament in Tbilisi on May 12, 2024, the night before the vote on a law on foreign influence. (Maxime Gruss / Hans Lucas via Reuters)

Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Europe

Mass protests are roiling the Republic of Georgia as tens of thousands have taken to the streets against a proposed bill by the Georgian government on “foreign influence” that has worsened tension in an already polarized Georgian society.

That bill was passed Tuesday after turmoil in which punches were actually thrown between lawmakers on the parliament floor.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest