False Choices: U.S. Policy toward Coastal West Africa and the Sahel

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The Issue:

  • The U.S. government is grappling with three distinct priorities—violent extremism, democratic backsliding, and strategic competition—in coastal West Africa and the Sahel. The evergreen challenge of tough tradeoffs and limited resources has made policy choices regarding subregion prioritization stunningly difficult.

  • The emerging tug-of-war between the Sahel and coastal West Africa has in part contributed to a problematic framing of the threat’s source, trajectory, and strategic significance to the United States. Washington should avoid the tendency to cast coastal West Africa as the ‘next Sahel,’ a region on the verge of implosion.

  • To advance U.S. objectives, the United States will have to play it smarter. It should lean into the reality that there is significant convergence and interdependence between the Sahel and coastal West Africa. The U.S. government should elevate policies and programs that simultaneously tackle these challenges, specifically justice and rule of law programming; anticorruption efforts; and security sector accountability.


U.S. policy is caught between two subregions and three priorities in West Africa. The United States has enduring interests in both coastal West Africa and the Sahel, as well as a renewed commitment to countering violent extremism, checking authoritarianism, and challenging malign Chinese and Russian activities and influence. It is a task unequal to current levels of resources, staffing, and senior-level engagement.

Since the 2000s, and especially after the 2012 coup in Mali, the United States has increased its security, development, and humanitarian engagement in the Sahel. Yet worrying security trends in coastal West Africa are spurring a recalibration and pivot to more populous countries,1 which lie along critical Atlantic Ocean shipping lanes and are the source of some $4 billion in two-way trade with the United States.2 Similarly, while the U.S. government has expanded its focus on preventing and countering violent extremism from the Sahel to coastal West Africa, it is under new pressure to address democratic backsliding and respond to threats posed by Chinese and Russian activities and influence in both subregions.

There is a path forward. Since the United States cannot pick and choose between subregions and priorities and expect to make sufficient progress to advance key U.S. objectives, it will have to play it smarter. It should lean into the reality that there is significant convergence and interdependence between the Sahel and coastal West Africa and that it is foolhardy and inefficient to address these key challenges separately. To advance U.S. priorities, the United States should elevate policies and programs that simultaneously tackle the forces underpinning democratic backsliding and the drivers of violent extremism, as well as limit openings for malign Chinese and Russian influence in coastal West Africa and the Sahel.

Specifically, the U.S. government should: 1) increase investment in justice and rule of law programming; 2) elevate anticorruption efforts in, but not limited to, the mining and energy sectors; and 3) prioritize security sector accountability. It will require significant divestment from traditional counterterrorism and security-focused policies and programs—which have had minimal success in the Sahel during the past two decades—and renewed investments in democratic institutions, including legislatures, courts, and bureaucracies. Moreover, it will necessitate leveraging traditional and nontraditional U.S. partners, supporting their work to strengthen security sector capacity, and discouraging them from working at cross-purposes with U.S. efforts.

A Growing To-Do List

The evergreen challenge of tough tradeoffs and limited resources has made policy choices regarding subregion prioritization stunningly difficult. The U.S. government, according to the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, is confronting “a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency,” as well as rising nationalism and growing rivalry with Beijing and Moscow.3 It does not—and arguably never did—have sufficient resources and staffing to respond to the enduring and emerging threats in West Africa. According to the 2016 State Department Inspector General report, the Bureau of African Affairs has “profound” difficulties filling overseas positions, and many of its country desks are “thinly staffed.”4 Similar constraints exist in other U.S. departments and agencies, as well as in U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which according to its 2019 posture statement, “does not have an abundance of dedicated assigned forces” and lacks consistent resources to advance its mission in the region.5

Indeed, the scale of the security threats and humanitarian needs in the Sahel and coastal West Africa have grown significantly in recent years, precluding easy answers about U.S. policy and resource allocation.

  • Since the start of 2019, the Sahel has experienced a 50 percent rise in violent events (battles, violence against civilians, explosions/remote violence, and riots), resulting in over 15,000 fatalities, according to Armed Conflict Locations and Events Database (ACLED).6 The attacks have forced a record number of people from their homes; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned in January 2021 that internal displacement in the Sahel had quadrupled over the past two years to 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) from just 490,000 in early 2019,7 including a rise in IDPs in Burkina Faso from 89,000 at the start of 2019 to more than 1 million in December 2020.8

  • Coastal West Africa, which has seen lower levels of violence than in the Sahel, is now an area of increasing concern. In late March 2021, an estimated 60 gunmen attacked two military installations in Cote d’Ivoire on the border with Burkina Faso.9 The assailants killed at least three soldiers and wounded five others. In June 2020, another terrorist attack in Cote d’Ivoire killed fourteen Ivoirian army personnel.10 A kidnapping for ransom of two tourists in northern Benin resulted in the death of a Beninese tour guide and two French Special Forces soldiers in 2019.11 The French External Intelligence Service director recently expressed concern that militant jihadist groups in the Sahel are pursuing expansion into the Gulf of Guinea states, with a focus on Cote d’Ivoire and Benin. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the special representative of the secretary-general and head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, also has signaled feaers about the region.12

To make matters worse, both subregions are facing a precipitous decline in democracy and human rights while attracting more interest from U.S. adversaries, such as China and Russia. This confluence of challenges is a further strain on U.S. government response, spurring debates about core U.S. interests in the region.

  • The Sahel’s democratic trajectory has been volatile, marked by watershed electoral transitions, military coups, and unconstitutional power grabs. While Niger and Mauritania witnessed their first-ever civilian-to-civilian transfer of powers, there are still attacks on journalists, and a key opposition leader was barred from contesting elections in Niger.13 Mali’s military staged its fifth coup since independence in May 2021, naming coup leader Colonel Assimi Goïta as transitional president.14 In Chad, the military suspended the constitution and installed 37-year-old Mahamat Idriss Déby as head of state following the death of his father in April 2021.15

  • Coastal West Africa is also experiencing democratic decline. The presidents of Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea recently amended their constitutions to allow for a third term while Benin’s president has cracked down on the country’s once-vibrant civic space and political opposition, winning a virtually uncontested reelection earlier this year. In fact, Freedom House noted a 13-point decline in Benin’s total score between 2019 and 2020.16 Togo’s president recently arrested two opposition leaders and briefly detained trade union representatives. Internet blackouts in Benin and Guinea over the last few years and reports of media repression in Benin, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo are additional areas of significant concern. Several coastal West African leaders interfered with the independence of their judiciaries or other institutions responsible for accountability.

  • U.S. geopolitical adversaries have expanded their presence in the Sahel, seizing on the region’s insecurity as an opportunity to proffer services and gain on-the-ground experience. Russia has signed security cooperation agreements with Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger and is assisting Sahelian law enforcement agencies.17 In 2019, the Russian defense minister told his Malian counterpart that “We want your country to quickly overcome internal problems and succeed in reflecting the onslaught of outside terrorist forces.”18 Beijing has dispatched peacekeepers to Mali in part to test their mettle in a hostile environment, as well as try out new military weapons and equipment, according to the European Parliamentary Research Service.19 The Chinese government provided a $45 million grant to the G5 Sahel Force.20 In addition, China has investments in Chad’s oil sector and Niger’s uranium mines, and extended $87 million to Mauritania for a fishing harbor.21

  • China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, have expanded their presence in coastal West Africa. China is building, operating, or financing ports in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo.22 In 2018, China signed a $2 billion infrastructure deal for bauxite extraction in Ghana, and both China and Russia have mining interests in Guinea.23 The Chinese Government is providing free access to satellite TV to rural communities in Benin and Ghana, and Huawei works closely with the Ivoirian minister of digital economy and post.24 In addition, Russia has signed security cooperation agreements with Ghana and Guinea.25

The Next Sahel Fallacy

The policy tug-of-war between the Sahel and coastal West Africa has in part contributed to a problematic framing of the threat’s source, trajectory, and strategic significance to the United States. There has been a tendency to cast coastal West Africa as the “next Sahel,” a region on the verge of implosion. In April, U.S. AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend warned that the Sahel’s “burning embers are dancing on the roofs of the littoral states, but they haven't caught fire yet.”26 He added that “for once, I would like to get ahead of the house being on fire.” This portrait of potential transmission from the Sahel to coastal West Africa—repeated by diplomats, practitioners, and journalists—unhelpfully favors policies and programs that intend to inoculate border regions and replicate unsuccessful security strategies used in the Sahel.27 It is not only inaccurate, but it sets up the two subregions as foils, promoting containment in the Sahel and emphasizing prevention in coastal West Africa.

A Problem Over There

The inclination to see the Sahel’s insecurity as spilling over and into coastal West Africa spurs policies that harden borders, increase military information-sharing between countries, and target ethnic groups that traverse both subregions, such as the Fulani (known as Peul in Francophone countries).28 It downplays coastal West African political, social, and economic risk factors, arguing instead for a “firebreak across the Sahel.”29 It also suggests that the most significant threats reside in areas contiguous with the Sahel, which has been proven untrue. Indeed, in 2016, extremists attacked the coastal resort town of Grand Bassam in Cote d’Ivoire.30 The following year, the U.S. embassy in Senegal warned of a potential terrorist activity in Dakar and barred U.S. staff from staying at seaside hotels for the next two months.31

More of the Same

As long as the Sahel is regarded as the main vector of instability, the inclination will be to reproduce the same policies and programs in coastal West Africa. This suite of tools includes security sector strengthening and training, information sharing between neighbors, and limited economic and political engagement. There may also be an impulse to back new regional bodies, such as the Accra Initiative.32 This framing tends to heighten the perception of the threats posed by terrorists, while downplaying how states and communities have contributed to insecurity. Moreover, it has not produced positive results in the Sahel and is likely to be unsuccessful in coastal West Africa; in 2020, AFRICOM told the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General that violent extremist organizations have been neither contained nor degraded in the Sahel and Lake Chad region.33

The Shiny Object

The narrative about growing threats in coastal West Africa, propagated by regional leaders as much as by UN and U.S. officials, unintentionally presents one region as endemic and peripheral while the other as emergent and more central to U.S. interests.34 In his testimony to Congress in March 2020, then-U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs David Hale said instability spreading to coastal states of West Africa “directly threaten[s] the heart of American interests in the region.”35 This framing has the potential to tip resources to coastal West Africa at the expense of the Sahelian countries, missing an opportunity to clearly define U.S. priorities and streamline U.S. programming. Unchallenged, this narrative will have suboptimal effects for both subregions.

This portrait of potential transmission from the Sahel to coastal West Africa—repeated by diplomats, practitioners, and journalists—unhelpfully favors policies and programs that intend to inoculate border regions and replicate unsuccessful security strategies used in the Sahel.

The Prioritization Conundrum

The policy debate surrounding violent extremism, democracy promotion, and strategic competition tends to devolve into a food fight over which objective to elevate, treating these priorities as separate and often in competition with one another. Both the Obama and Trump administrations presented their core objectives toward sub-Saharan Africa as distinct pillars.36 While President Obama’s approach acknowledged interdependence between U.S. goals, it failed to prioritize activities with the greatest degree of overlap and mutual benefit.

  • There is a strong correlation between government effectiveness, accountability, and violent extremism. Several Sahelian and coastal countries, including Mali—which are at or near the bottom 10 percent of countries worldwide in terms of government effectiveness—are already experiencing or are susceptible to terrorist attacks.37 Moreover, according to a United Nations Development Programme study from 2017, 71 percent of interviewed extremist group members said they joined these groups in response to violent or repressive government action against them or those close to them.38

  • While Beijing and Moscow have made in-roads in both democracies and autocracies in the two subregions, there is consistent public and political pressure in democracies to be transparent about these partnerships and curb their negative effects. Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo, for example, has been pressed to explain his bauxite deal with China and to check illegal mining known as Galamsey, which includes Chinese wildcat miners. In 2019, his government fined Chinese fishing trawlers $1 million.39 In contrast, Guinea’s authoritarian president Alpha Condé has deepened his ties to Moscow without significant pushback.

  • There is less of a nexus between the threat of extremism and ties with Russia and China. Increased attacks have, however, spurred many Sahelian and coastal West African countries to buy more foreign arms and equipment, often from Russian and Chinese vendors. Russia was the largest arms exporter to sub-Saharan Africa from 2016–20, providing 30 percent of total arms imports, while the Chinese government was the second-largest exporter, providing 20 percent of total arms imports to the region.40 Ghana, for example, received more than 50 percent of its arms from China between 2018–20.41

A Unified Theory of Everything

The United States needs to be smarter—rather than going smaller—in addressing these three objectives in coastal West Africa and the Sahel. The United States has significant interests in both subregions, and its efforts should be tied in both subregions should be tied more closely together. Moreover, it is equally unwise to export ineffectual policies and programs from the Sahel to coastal West Africa. The key is prioritizing lines of effort that respond to local dynamics and simultaneously tackle the drivers of extremism and democratic backsliding. Diplomatic messaging from the international community also needs to be consistent. While there is less immediate overlap, this approach has the potential to constrain the malign activities of U.S. adversaries. As it rebalances its policy approach and assistance in West Africa, the United States may want to turn to its African, foreign, and multilateral partners to lead on other engagements, including strengthening military capabilities. It will be imperative to ensure the United States and its partners avoid undercutting one another, especially when it comes to confronting democratic backsliding. It will require special attention to craft careful, consistent messaging to prevent further challenges to coordination, as partners rush in to address insecurity and governance issues. Finally, the U.S. government should put diplomacy at the heart of its response, speaking truth to power and demonstrating the fortitude to adjust and curtail programming at critical junctures.

Privileging Force Multipliers

To most effectively pursue its counterextremism, prodemocracy, and strategic competition objectives in coastal West Africa and the Sahel, the United States should concentrate on policies and programs that have the greatest impact on all three objectives. Specifically, the U.S. government should increase investment in formal and traditional justice and rule of law programming; elevate anticorruption efforts in, but not limited to, the mining and energy sectors; and prioritize security sector accountability. These areas have the most significant overlap, addressing key drivers of extremism and democratic backsliding, as well as thwarting malign foreign activities.

Justice Now

When individuals perceive that there are no formal or informal processes to register concerns, ask for redress, and receive a just settlement, it opens the door for violent extremists to proffer themselves as alternatives to the state. In Mali, for example, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wall Muslimin (JNIM) has started to mediate disputes, embedding itself within communities.42 Moreover, courts that fail to enforce laws and ensure accountability for high-level bribery and other official misconduct enable rulers to tighten their grip on power and leverage Chinese and Russian activities for professional and personal goals. The United States should prioritize policies and programs focused on rule of law, justice, and dignity to deepen resilience and inoculate West African citizens from negative influences. It can build on recent exercises with Sahelian police and judicial authorities to prosecute terror cases by expanding assistance to support functioning courts in civil and criminal cases.43 Investment in informal and traditional justice mechanisms is particularly crucial where the reach and trust of the state are limited.

Fight Corruption

Government corruption—while not unique to the Sahel and coastal West Africa—underpins the expansion of violent extremism and fosters an environment where autocratic leaders and U.S. adversaries can advance their agendas. Corruption is one of the factors that gives rise to extremism. For example, Human Rights Watch says that Sahelian extremist groups have concentrated recruitment efforts among Fulani by exploiting community grievances over public sector corruption.44 It is not surprising that Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Togo are at the bottom of Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index.45 Moreover, Chinese companies have used corruption to win key contracts in the region, especially in the mining and energy sectors. In 2017, a Guinean government minister was convicted of laundering $8.5 million to help a Chinese conglomerate secure mining rights.46 Similarly, a U.S. judge convicted a former Hong Kong official for bribing officials in Chad in exchange for contracts with a Chinese energy company.47 The U.S. government, following Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement to “fight corruption, which stacks the deck against us,” should make anticorruption a core priority across the Sahel and coastal West Africa. It should applaud efforts to bring corrupt officials to justice and pay special attention to private sector graft, including fishing trawlers and transportation cartels.

Hold Security Sectors Accountable for Abuses

When the military, police, and state-sanctioned armed groups face little to no consequences for human rights violations, it supercharges extremist recruitment efforts. It also gives security services a blank check to brutally target political opponents and suppress peaceful protestors. In 2019, Beninese president Patrice Talon sent in military tanks to surround the home of his rival and predecessor, Thomas Boni Yayi.48 In Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, there have been deadly clashes between protestors and security services, leaving several dead.49 Moreover, it further aligns Sahelian and coastal West African governments with China. Guinea and Togo both defended Beijing’s abuses in Xinjiang and backed its Hong Kong policy.50 The U.S. government, while required under Leahy laws not to furnish security sector assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross violations of human rights, has failed to apply these restrictions consistently and tends to downplay its strategic value.51 Washington should regard these efforts as central to broader U.S. goals while enhancing security forces’ capacity to prevent, respond to, and investigate incidents of alleged civilian harm.

Government corruption—while not unique to the Sahel and coastal West Africa—underpins the expansion of violent extremism and fosters an environment where autocratic leaders and U.S. adversaries can advance their agendas. Corruption is one of the factors that gives rise to extremism.

Partnering with Key Players

The United States cannot respond to these challenges alone. If the U.S. government prioritizes certain policies and programs, it will need to coordinate its domestic and foreign partners to reinforce specific initiatives and take the lead on others. The U.S. government should uplift local democratic institutions, media houses and outlets, and community activists who have the ability to sway their publics and effect favorable policy outcomes. It will also be essential to de-conflict and ensure foreign governments are not working at cross-purposes.

Back Local Voices

The most effective brakes on violent extremism, democratic backsliding, and negative Chinese and Russian influence are strong local institutions, robust media, and community activism. Stakeholders, such as legislators, judges, journalists, traditional leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists, have demonstrated in specific circumstances that they can increase the pressure on the government. The Ghanaian opposition, for example, asked the International Monetary Fund to review the government’s bauxite deal with China, and thousands of Burkinabe have protested rising insecurity in their country.52 U.S. financial and technical support—albeit not advertised as countering violent extremism or strategic competition programming—has the potential to bolster these actors, enabling them to shine a light on vulnerabilities and abuses, as well as press their governments to adjust policies.

Tap Regional Forces

While the United States focuses on priority areas, it should nudge local governments, regional bodies, and European countries to lead on security initiatives. Most Sahelian and coastal West African states belong to longstanding regional institutions, such as the Economic Community of West African States, and newer security outfits, including the Accra Initiative and G-5 Sahel Joint Force. Moreover, France and other European governments are already involved in military operations and training missions in the Sahel. The region’s heads of state, as well as respected elders, can serve as negotiators and leverage their moral authority. In April 2021, Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum and Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Ghazouani pressed the Chadian transitional military council to negotiate with the northern rebels. In 2019, five former leaders, including Nicéphore Soglo of Benin, stressed the importance of respecting term limits.53 Although these endeavors do not always succeed, they enable the U.S. government to reiterate its policies against democratic backsliding and align with African voices. The United States should echo these points in its public and private engagements and not simply wait until the eve of an election.

Manage Policy Disagreements

The U.S. government is unlikely to always see eye-to-eye with the regional governments and external powers, and it should resist the temptation to paper over these disagreements. For example, the United States’ call for a political transition “in accordance with the Chadian constitution” has been discordant with France’s unflinching support for the transitional military council.54 To advance its goals, the United States should be unafraid to disagree with former colonial powers and deepen the participation of other transatlantic governments like Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It may have to be vigilant that Paris’s preference for strong ties with government leaders—authoritarian or democratic—does not alienate regional publics, condone corruption, or endorse term extensions, as was the case in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire.55 Similarly, the United States should be wary of regional leaders, such as Guinean president Alpha Condé and Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé, who have tried to exploit growing concerns about violent extremism to gain U.S. acquiescence on democratic backsliding.56

The most effective brakes on violent extremism, democratic backsliding, and negative Chinese and Russian influence are strong local institutions, robust media, and community activism.

Speaking Our Truth

At the heart of these recommendations is diplomacy. While programs are important, U.S. diplomats set the tone for engagement and are best positioned to advance all three objectives in both subregions. It will require an honest reckoning of what is happening in these countries and a willingness to communicate U.S. concerns privately and publicly.

If You See Something, Say Something

U.S. diplomats should speak up earlier when warning signs appear, especially regarding democratic backsliding and security sector abuses. The U.S. government cannot wait until elections, in part because much of the attacks on democratic norms and hollowing out of institutions occurs before the votes are cast. For example, the United States was slow to deliver a tough message to Talon in Benin and muted its criticism of Condé and Ivoirian president Alassane Ouattara’s third term extensions. Similarly, it was discreet about former Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s corruption and quiescent about Chadian military human rights violations—as well as seemingly resigned to the appointment of Deby’s son following his death. There are very few upsides to U.S. complacency; while U.S. embassies may fear they will lose their access to the host government, their silence is more damaging. It enables further democratic regression and civil rights abuses while ripening conditions for violent extremism.   

Act Local, Think Global

The United States tends to primarily concern itself with presidential polls, devoting less attention to broader democratic processes or impactful local and legislative elections. Chad has delayed its legislative elections six times since 2015, and it took Guinea over a decade to hold local elections.57 If the U.S. government doesn’t focus on the local level, it will find itself in a losing battle at the national and regional level. If the United States misses the context behind some of these trends and struggles to identify and support potential partners—including civil servants—it is likely to struggle to muster the requisite credibility and influence to respond effectively. Relatedly, the Biden administration should elevate and integrate African issues at its forthcoming Summit for Democracy, providing a platform for civil society activists and doing more to address the region’s purchase of surveillance software and its propensity to cut off internet access to suppress dissent and obfuscate election chicanery, as has happened in Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Togo.58

Practice Radical Candor

The United States is too quick to champion certain leaders and retain programming that has either failed or at least is past its prime. This instinct has been counterproductive, hindering U.S. agility and closing off opportunities to refine long-term strategies. When U.S.-lauded democratic leaders bend the rules to their advantage, the United States often has muted its concerns. Rather than uphold certain leaders as “positive models”—as recommended in President Obama’s strategy toward Africa—it is more constructive to discuss specific activities as beneficial or detrimental.58 This approach could spur a recalibration of short and long-term approaches, requiring an acknowledgment that backing an important counterterrorism partner, such as Chad, could have significant consequences following unconstitutional transitions of power. Finally, the U.S. government has to commit to review, assess, and adjust its policies to ensure it is advancing its goals. It may require abandoning ineffective processes or graduating from programs when sufficient progress has been made.

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

This brief is made possible with generous support from the U.S. Department of State.

CSIS Briefs are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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