Engagement With African Nations Must Matter to Americans

“Africa matters.”

This is the simple, direct and crucial message that Michelle Lenihan, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, wants to get across to Americans: What happens in Africa is important and affects the world.

Underlying everything on the continent is the fact that it is not a monolith. Africa is a diverse area with 54 countries and hundreds of languages. “Africa is a continent of enormous challenges and opportunities, with the possibility of moving in either direction depending on how they are managed,” Lenihan said in a recent interview.

U.S. Engagement

The United States needs to remain engaged on the continent to help the countries of the continent develop and prosper. There are more than 1 billion people on the continent. “The population is projected to more than double by 2050,” she said. “It will constitute about a quarter of the world’s population. What is also striking is that over 60 percent will be under 25 years old.”

Americans can look at this and discuss whether the glass is half full or half empty with regards to the continent. Half-full people will see massive markets and opportunities for commerce to proceed and ingenuity to flourish. Half-empty people will look at this demographic wave as a security challenge exacerbated by youth unemployment, climate trends, corruption and ungoverned or little-governed areas.

DOD’s Supporting Role

The Defense Department has a role in the continent, but it is a support role, Lenihan said. In concert with interagency partners, U.S. Africa Command is the combatant command with responsibility to implement U.S. defense strategy on the continent. “We have a by, with and through approach to Africa and underlying that is a focus on partnership,” she said. “We partner with African and other countries, with international and regional organizations and subregional organizations.”

U.S. service members work in bilateral engagements with various countries to strengthen the security aspect of the nations and to demonstrate how a military functions in a democracy. Other service members work with increasingly important and effective regional organizations to encourage cooperation across national borders. “A lot of the threats are transnational in nature and countries are realizing they have shared interests and they need to work together,” she said. “You see some countries in the past who would not have worked with a neighbor, now partnering.”

International Alliances, Partnerships

Another example is in reply to the terror threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Qaida affiliates. The G5 Sahel alliance — comprised of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad — is a response to transnational terror. U.S. service members work with the countries individually and as an alliance to improve security capabilities including intelligence sharing.

The United States also works with troops contributing countries involved in African Union Mission in Somalia — AMISOM. Somalia was a failed state that is taking steps to re-establishing itself as a nation. U.S. civilian agencies — including the U.S. Agency for International Development — are back in Mogadishu. Lenihan said she is encouraged by developments in the region, but realizes there is a long road ahead before Somalia is stable.


Aid and advice runs the gamut from teaching African service members the basics of combat reconnaissance and infantry training to building institutions at the defense ministries.

“Defense institution building is a huge priority for us, recognizing you can’t train and equip your way out of developing these capabilities, you really have to focus on these institutions so the foundations are there so they can sustain themselves,” she said. “In some countries, we work through the security governance initiative to make this happen.”

These are not easy things to do and results will not be apparent overnight, Lenihan said. “This is a multi-tiered effort that looks to build capabilities,” she said.

Added to this are U.S. military educational programs. For not a lot of money, there is a large effect, with thousands of African military leaders receiving instruction at American military schools. “This works to instruct the leaders, but also to professionalize African forces,” Lenihan said. “The personal contacts established through this are also invaluable.”


Great power competition with China and Russia continues for the United States in Africa. Russia is the major arms supplier to some nations in Africa.

China has a more long-term strategy on the continent. “They have a lot of partnerships in Africa,” she said. “President Xi [Jinping] was recently there and they definitely have strong diplomatic and economic interests. U.S. government involvement in Africa is more transparent and focused on building capacity. It is very much shared interests and shared goals.”

It is in the security interest of the U.S. to help develop nations so their populations can thrive and not become places where extremists find havens, Lenihan said, noting that transparent motives are best for addressing the problems on the continent.

“What I am worried about is the corrosive effects of some of the practices that nations can apply,” she said. “The United States is trying to encourage strong, functional governments [and] trying to encourage free markets and business development. There are certain countries that have policies that undermine that, and that is problematic for the security and stability of Africa.”

Lenihan specifically highlighted the contributions of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. “The program has a really positive effect on our bilateral engagements,” she said. “This is an enduring partnership between the nation and the state National Guard organizations.”

Guardsmen, who often stay with the same units for years, build long-term connections with partner nations and often bring the skills and knowledge they develop in civilian jobs to the efforts on the continent. “Every country I know that has a state partnership values it,” Lenihan said. “It is such a positive element for this type of partnership.”