How the Obama Administration Could Tackle Drivers of Violent Extremism in Africa

In the State of the Union address, President Obama scarcely mentioned Africa, apart from raising the concern that “instability” could create “safe havens for new terrorist networks” and briefly arguing, “When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick, it’s the right thing to do, and it prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores.”

Presenting African countries primarily as places of instability and disease feeds into outdated narratives, and disguises the significant role that the U.S. government already plays through its military and diplomatic engagements on the continent. As the Obama Administration seeks to cement its legacy on foreign policy, U.S. officials should focus on drivers of violent extremism there, and critically assess how American activities in places like Kenya, Cameroon, and Rwanda may actually foster it.

As President Obama traveled to Kenya in July 2015, Human Rights First issued a blueprint, How the United States Can Help Counter Violent Extremism and Support Civil Society in Kenya, highlighting that the Kenyan Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU), which received $50 million from the U.S. government, is accused by local civil society organizations of torture and a string of extrajudicial executions. U.S. officials still haven’t adequately addressed how Kenyan police abuses undermine the fight against violent extremism, and, more broadly, how U.S. support for security forces could include more robust accountability measures to safeguard against these counterproductive and rights-violating outcomes.

The U.S. isn’t just funding local counterterrorism entities; it’s expanding its military footprint on the continent directly, most immediately by setting up a new base in Cameroon for drones to conduct surveillance on Boko Haram, expected to be operational this month. This development follows an announcement in October 2015 that AFRICOM would send 300 troops (of which 90 were initially deployed) to conduct surveillance, as well as related training activities for Cameroon’s military on intelligence matters and border security. The intelligence gathered by these drones will be conveyed to a regional multinational task force fighting Boko Haram.

But the use of surveillance drones elsewhere provides a cautionary tale. Their misuse can be a driver of violent extremism, if U.S. forces use intel from drones to bolster repressive regimes, or if shoddy intel leads to misdirected or overbroad military or law-enforcement activities. In Cameroon, there are many open questions: How will the intel collected by U.S. drones be corroborated? Will the United States have a role in determining how the task force uses it? How will the United States monitor the situation to ensure that the use of its intel is not directly or indirectly radicalizing vulnerable communities? Little information is available about any lessons learned from the U.S. drone base in Ethiopia that was closed this month because of, according to a Pentagon spokesperson, a “mutual decision” that a U.S. presence there “is not required at this time.”

The U.S. government’s 2014 Country Report on Human Rights Practices observes that Cameroon’s security forces “tortured, beat, harassed, or otherwise abused citizens,” and “impunity continues to be a problem.” The U.S. government should provide more information to the public explaining the nature of its bilateral support for countries like Cameroon in the fight against Boko Haram, and it should lay out the precautions it takes to avoid funding or training security forces that commit human rights violations.

Another potential driver of violent extremism is African leaders’ decisions to unconstitutionally exceed their term limits. Rwandan President Paul Kagame organized a snap referendum in December on a constitutional amendment which, with 98% approval, will effectively allow him to stay in power until 2034. Such violations of term limits not only weaken the democratic fabric of societies; they also fuel violent extremism by closing peaceful space for dialogue and political mobilization.

The State Department said it was “deeply disappointed” by President Kagame’s decision to run for re-election, accusing him of “ignor[ing] an historic opportunity to reinforce and solidify the democratic institutions the Rwandan people have for more than 20 years labored so hard to establish.” But this tough talk will be empty if the United States continues with “business as usual” in its relationship with Rwanda.

One need only look next door in Burundi for a sobering example of how violations of term limits lead to brutal crackdowns on civil society, the splintering of opposition groups into armed factions, and indiscriminate extrajudicial killings. Other heads of state in the region are looking to the U.S. response as well, as they consider their own mandates and approaching elections. For 2016, the Obama Administration should invest in strengthening democratic institutions so that people have access to forums in which to air grievances, and the U.S. should be clear that there will be serious adverse consequences for heads of state who violate their term limits. Strong words aren’t enough.

President Obama made the case on Tuesday that “our foreign assistance [is] a part of our national security.” But if the agenda for the remainder of his time in office includes a comprehensive approach to tackling violent extremism—and it should—then there is much work to be done.

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Published on January 15, 2016

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