In studying current events in Africa, much of my attention has recently gone to the role of African states in various security missions. Whether it’s the questions surrounding the roadmap towards a withdrawal of AMISOM from Somalia, the ECOWAS intervention in Gambia, or the coming of age story of the G5 Sahel force in Mali, the role of African countries in tackling internal and regional security challenges is clearly continuing to develop. The so-called ‘African Solutions for African Problems’ motto, which has been used to describe the growing responsibility taken by African states in tackling security threats in the continent, is obviously a concept with great staying power. Its relevance in understanding the evolution of geopolitics within the African continent is clear.
At the same time, however, I believe it is just as interesting to study that which is absent in this very concept. While ‘African Solutions for African Problems’ is meant to propagate mostly a positive story, one of responsibility and emancipation, to me it is also synonym with the reluctance of western nations to commit themselves to security operations in Sub Saharan Africa. Throughout the era of decolonization, and the remainder of the Cold War, western militaries were omnipresent in Africa’s conflict zones. During the nineties, however, this commitment gradually evaporated, and at this point sizeable commitment has become rare.
The need for western states to have their armed forces on African soil disappeared along with the main interests those deployments once served. The transition away from the initial phases of decolonization minimized the political objectives former colonizers attempted to secure and protect in part through military presence, and at the end of the Cold War the numerous proxy conflicts in Africa had already died down.
In addition to this, the early nineties brought a series of traumatic experiences for western powers in Africa. The killing of American soldiers during the Battle for Mogadishu in 1993, and shortly thereafter the targeting of Belgian peacekeepers during the onset of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 as well as the failure to prevent the genocide itself, forced a grim realism and acceptance onto western powers. The realization that a presence in Africa came with a considerable risk, and that noticeable or sustainable results were all but guaranteed caused a shift towards the role of African forces.
Risk is always inherently a part of military operations, and western states were definitely not naive to be surprised by this in the early nineties. The important revolution that had taken place through decolonization and the end of the Cold War altered the prize of their efforts. That is to say, there no longer was an obvious prize. In part, the reason that today the emphasis is on ‘African Solutions for African Problems’, is that the particular challenges they address have now been identified as African problems, and not Western problems. Similar dynamics can currently be seen in the Middle East, for example, where western powers seek to minimize their footprint after having witnessed the difficulties of state-building approaches in the area. Instead, working with local actors and reinforcing those is preferred over the so-called ‘boots on the ground’.
Of course I’d be lying if I pretended the era of Western interventions in Sub Saharan Africa is over. There still is such a thing as Western problems in Africa. For such problems to warrant decisive action by western actors, however, they need to rise to a level of considerable threat. The crisis in Mali, for example, which eventually forced France to carry the main weight of a considerable intervention in the Sahel, demonstrates how a certain level of perceived threat through the expansion of jihadist groups still presents a Western problem that requires a Western solution.
Even now that the responsibility for this security operation is gradually being shifted towards African forces, or at least that is the intent, France ends up carrying the burden through their Opération Barkhane. The level of available ‘African Solutions’ simply doesn’t measure up against the level of ‘Western Problems’ in the Sahel. France even ends up picking up the tab for the G5 Sahel force made up of African troops, but depending entirely on external financing. The same is true for many other so-called ‘African Solutions’ that depend on a great deal of Western funding, as well as logistical services and high level capabilities such as air operations.
The adjustment of Western interests in Sub Saharan Africa created a gap that was filled by African optimism and emancipation initially, though local capabilities were unable to completely rise to the challenge and address these security challenges before they blossomed into ‘Western Problems’. This means that western states are unable to fully escape the African continent, but their levels of commitment are very conservatively weighed against the potential for widespread economic fallout or transregional threats that could emerge as ‘Western Problems’.