Aid Gone Awry in Africa

America must be far more careful about who winds up on the receiving end of its military aid.

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As the U.S. government gears up to militarize more of the Middle East by arming rebels in Syria, we are witnessing a similar mission creep toward the African continent. Not merely in the more obvious military interventions into Libya, Mali or Somalia, or military bases in Niger or Djibouti, but through growing security partnerships in places including Kenya, Nigeria and even Mauritania. The ramp up of military and counterterror assistance to these countries – and the human rights abuses committed by these same actors – is seriously troubling.

While President Barack Obama's recent counterterrorism speech failed to address these problems, ongoing events in Nigeria have spurred Secretary of State John Kerry to express "deep concern" around human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military, a major U.S. counterterror partner.  But given that a recent U.N. report also found U.S.-trained Congolese troops guilty of mass rape and other atrocities, it's time for more than mere expression of concern. 

We need vigilant, ongoing accountability around U.S. military training and equipment – especially as the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities included some alarming language on U.S. security assistance in its latest markup of the National Defense Authorization Act. The subcommittee raised concerns that current U.S. standards – known as the Leahy laws – would be interpreted "more broadly" than intended, causing combatant commands to be significantly "restricted" in "a number of countries across the globe." 

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

Those restrictions, however, which the House subcommittee felt might be too limiting, are one of few mechanisms currently in place to ensure accountability and respect for human rights. Yet these restrictions are not strong enough. While they sometimes serve to cut off aid from specific units or individuals, they ultimately do not prevent ongoing partnerships with chronically abusive governments.

This "Western money" and "African boots" approach to security assistance programs is increasingly seen by Washington as an innovative alternative to large-scale wars – one that allows for "sharing" the burden of security and empowering foreign forces to address their own problems. But without careful accountability and rigorous evaluation, its implementation looks a lot more like short-sighted Cold War policies in Latin America than local empowerment.

Take a look at how bad it's gotten as part of the mission creep on the African continent's northern half. Human Rights Watch released a report last month documenting the abuse, rape and torture of at least 1,000 Somali refugees by U.S.-backed Kenyan police forces as retaliation for supposed terrorist attacks. This follows a report by the Open Society Justice Initiative released last November that connected U.S. counterterror assistance and influence to systemic human rights abuses in Kenya and Uganda, and another account of U.S.-backed torture in Mauritania.  And then there's always the Ethiopian government, another major recipient of U.S. assistance, which has used anti-terrorism laws to actively repress civil society, crack down on peaceful dissent and limit the civil rights of Muslims and others.

While no security force is perfect, the emerging pattern of U.S. military assistance to Africa is one of partnership with governments and forces known for widespread violations – and few efforts toward accountability or long-term, systemic reform.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The U.S. has taken some small steps to acknowledge the problematic nature of human rights violations, with Kerry admitting that they can "escalate the violence and fuel extremism."  But as the U.S. continues to profess support for reform in each of the countries in question, it also continues to provide aid like surveillance drones to governments that imprison activists and further marginalize oppressed communities.

The counter by U.S. officials is to claim that military aid is actually improving human rights, good governance and rule of law, arguing that, while complicated, this cooperation is necessary and effective in countering militant extremism.

This assertion, however, has no backing. Given the recent U.S. track record in Mali, in which U.S.-trained officers both defected to the side of insurgents and undertook a military coup, there's reason to believe that U.S. assistance is neither effective nor supporting just governance. General Carter Ham, former Commander of the U.S. Africa Command, stated that U.S. training in Mali "didn't spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos." Since then, he and others at AFRICOM have told members of Congress that steps have been taken to improve related programs. But the necessary steps to ensure this doesn't happen again – that is, to regularly evaluate and hold this assistance accountable – aren't happening.

If the U.S. is truly committed to those working toward peace, justice and long-term stability – some of the most powerful counters to militant extremism – it's high time that this was reflected in both word and deed. These policies not only have an immediate impact on those affected, but directly undermine larger efforts toward just governance and respect for human rights in the long-term. The double-standard isn't lost on those impacted by night raids and renditions, and the growing frustration and potential for radicalization is one that the U.S. government shouldn't ignore.

This budget cycle, members of Congress need to take concrete steps to regularly evaluate, condition and hold U.S. security assistance accountable. Before the U.S. opts for a softer approach to the Leahy restrictions, it should opt to think critically about just what kind of capacity is being built – and whether or not any of us, in the U.S., Nigeria or otherwise, will be safer as a result.  

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Cassidy Regan served as the Kenya Project Associate at FCNL from 2012-2013.

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