The Strategic Significance of Africa’s Smallest Democracies

In June 2020, Colombian businessman Alex Saab landed in the West African island nation of Cabo Verde. He claimed he was traveling on behalf of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro as a state “agent” on business to obtain humanitarian supplies to help combat the coronavirus pandemic. Cabo Verdean officials promptly arrested Saab, pursuant to an Interpol Red Notice, and agreed to pursue extradition proceedings to the United States. Saab, widely regarded as Maduro’s fixer, is under U.S. sanctions and wanted on suspicion of money laundering. Cabo Verde, which typically receives limited attention relative to regional neighbors such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, suddenly found itself in the middle of one of the U.S. government’s top priorities: the Venezuelan crisis.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Cabo Verde’s role in the U.S.-Venezuelan drama is far from exceptional. Africa’s smallest democracies, especially its island nations, routinely punch above their weight. With populations under 1.5 million people—the World Bank’s marker of a “small state”—Cabo Verde, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Seychelles feature in some of the most prominent global challenges, including international justice, geostrategic competition, and transnational threats. Their guest-starring roles in major foreign policy debates upend traditional thinking about U.S. investments and partnerships in Africa, making clear that the continent’s smallest states warrant more attention to advance U.S. global objectives.

Democracy and Location, Location, Location

The continent’s smallest democracies unexpectedly show up in global foreign policy challenges because of their open political and economic systems as well as central locations in strategic waterways and airspaces. Freedom House has identified Cabo Verde, Mauritius, and São Tomé and Príncipe as three of the region’s seven “free” countries. Seychelles is one of the strongest performing “partly free” states in sub-Saharan Africa, sitting on the cusp between “free” and “partly free” status. This commitment to upholding the rule of law presumably spurred Cabo Verde to fulfill its legal obligations under the United Nations Transnational Organized Crime Convention to arrest Saab, with President Jorge Carlos Fonseca telling reporters that “although we’re small, we can’t have a foreign policy or stance that’s secretive, or bashful, as if we were helpless or closed off in our little shell.” A similar values-based agenda may have prompted Seychellois president Danny Faure and former Mauritian president Ameenah Gurib-Fakim to sound the alarm about Covid-19’s effects and lobby for debt relief. Moreover, their open markets and lenient tax systems attract multinational corporations to set up operations and buy property in these countries, though not without some complications.

The countries’ locations are equally pivotal. Alex Saab’s plane stopped in Cabo Verde to refuel on its way to Iran, and the island nation has been a stopover for U.S. secretaries of state on their way home following continental trips. Cabo Verde also has served as an emergency landing site for NASA space missions. Furthermore, Cabo Verde, Mauritius, Seychelles, and São Tomé and Príncipe are all located in strategic waterways, explaining the heated courtship by major and middle powers for access and partnerships.

  • Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean, leased one of its islands to India to develop a jetty, rebuild and extend the airport’s runway, and construct a new terminal. Mauritius and the United Kingdom are at loggerheads over the sovereignty of Diego Garcia island. For decades, the UK and U.S. militaries have used the island as a key logistics, reconnaissance, and operational base. As retired rear admiral Michael McDevitt explains in War on the Rocks, the island is within striking distance of virtually all maritime choke points, vital sea lines of communication, and potential Chinese naval bases in the region.

  • Seychelles, also located in the Indian Ocean, has been involved in on-again, off-again negotiations with India over the construction of a military base, mulled a proposal for a Chinese naval resupply port, and opened a coast guard base with the help of the United Arab Emirates. Seychelles previously was one of a handful of Air Force satellite tracking stations in the world, and the country has partnered with the United Kingdom, European Union, and NATO to address piracy in the Indian Ocean.

  • São Tomé and Príncipe, located in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, has flirted with the United States to host a support port for aircraft, warships, and patrol ships. In 2016, São Tomé and Príncipe cut diplomatic ties to Taiwan and benefited from a Chinese pledge to provide the archipelago with $146 million for the modernization of its international airport and construction of a deep-sea container port.

The Problem with Being Small

Sub-Saharan Africa’s small democracies, however, face economic, political, and reputational consequences by serving as a backdrop for high-stakes international intrigue. While big states are not immune to these challenges, small states have fewer resources to mitigate or counter negative implications; in a 2014 International Peace Institute report, the author highlighted asymmetric access to information, capacity constraints, and structural barriers to full participation in multilateral settings as specific obstacles.

  • Cabo Verde has been the target of fake news attacks for its role in Saab’s extradition, including being slanderously labeled as a narco-state. The government also is stuck with dedicating limited resources in responding to legal challenges from Saab’s high-profile lawyers.

  • Seychelles briefly appeared in the Mueller investigation for an alleged secret meeting between Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, and a Russian official close to Russian president Vladi­mir Putin. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned a Seychelles-based entity for its dealings with Iran.

  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2019 exposed Mauritius, which sells itself as a gateway for corporations, for its status as a “tax haven,” enabling multinational firms to pay minimal taxes through treaties with 46 countries. The Mauritian government has challenged these allegations, arguing that “Mauritius is a cooperative and clean jurisdiction that has made significant progress in adhering to international standards.”

These countries also have to grapple with the impacts of climate change. According to the United Nations, small island states are highly vulnerable to climate change and the resulting rise in sea level. Specifically, ecologists expect these countries to endure more cyclones, heavy rains, and flooding. While the governments are working to tackle these challenges, including a novel approach by Seychelles to swap 5 percent of its national debt for a cash injection to fight the effects of climate change, it is a herculean task. In addition, Mauritius is currently reeling from a devastating oil spill off its coast, which has jeopardized an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot and sparked political protests in the capital. All of these countries rely heavily on international tourism, and the current pandemic stands to inflict serious harm to their economies and national debts.

Thinking Small and Big to Advance U.S. Policy toward Africa

The role of Cabo Verde with respect to Venezuela is a feature, not a bug, of the region’s increasing connectedness and importance in the international system. This dynamic requires a new approach to U.S. policy toward Africa. These cases further substantiate that what happens in Africa does not stop at the water’s edge. Africa’s progress and setbacks should be seen in a global context, necessitating a departure from Washington’s siloed approach to the region. If the United States wants to constrain rogue regimes, crackdown on corruption networks, or curb human rights abuses, it must see Africa as part of the answer.

The prominence of the continent’s smallest states also raises questions about the balance of resources and U.S. partnerships. U.S. policy toward Africa traditionally has been predicated on working closely with “anchor” or “focus” states, namely the region’s largest countries with sufficient diplomatic, security, or economic heft, to promote U.S. objectives. While this approach has its merits, Africa’s smallest democracies also have unique attributes to respond to global challenges. The answer, however, is not to abandon the big states, but to pursue a parallel approach to preserve close relations with anchor states while developing deeper ties to small states with niche capabilities and ties.

Below are five recommendations to elevate and leverage the role of Africa’s smallest democracies to promote U.S. priorities. These are broadly applicable to all African states, but they have special resonance for the continent’s smallest democracies because they receive considerably less attention; no U.S. president has visited any of the four countries, and these countries have rarely been invited to the Oval Office.

  • Take inventory. It is important to understand small-state policy positions on key issues as well as map their relations with non-African countries to uncover new policy opportunities. For instance, Cabo Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe, as Lusophone countries, have close ties to Brazil, Timor-Leste, and Macau. São Tomé and Príncipe is also a member of International Organization of La Francophonie. According to the International Peace Institute report, small states often excel in multilateral diplomacy and are skilled at developing networks and working through groups.

  • Unleash the diplomats. U.S. ambassadors are the president’s representatives in-country, not just chief consular officers and building managers. The State Department should encourage its diplomats to experiment with new approaches to develop strong ties, even in small states. Former U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power recounted that 50 out of the 191 ambassadors she visited reported that no U.S. permanent representative had set foot in their missions before. One of her interlocutors was the Cabo Verdean ambassador who stressed how extreme weather events had hurt his country’s economic and developmental progress.

  • Keep relations warm. U.S. engagements cannot be episodic and consistently low level if U.S. policymakers want to tap African expertise and influence. Former secretary of state George Shultz used to talk about “gardening” in foreign relations, in which he meant listening, nurturing, and cultivating ties with other countries. When his successor James Baker tried to convince Côte d’Ivoire to vote for the Iraq War in 1991, the Ivoirian foreign minister complained that during his periodic visits to Washington he had been unable to meet with anyone higher than the assistant secretary of state for Africa. To secure Côte d’Ivoire’s vote, Baker pledged to send a U.S. government plane to bring him to Washington for meetings when he was next in New York.

  • Extend a helping hand. It is critical to surge support when these small countries endure hardships. Often, even comparatively small-dollar amounts of aid go a long way in making material differences in these countries. The United States could increase its assistance in response to the oil spill in Mauritius or provide tools to Cabo Verde to counter Venezuelan disinformation. The United States led the international response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia and has a long record of support to the West African country; in 2019, Liberia voted with the United States 54 percent of the time in the UN General Assembly—more than any other African state.

  • Call out disagreements. Even when courting Africa’s small states, it is imperative to acknowledge challenges, shortcomings, or conflict with U.S. values. For instance, Mauritius’s lenient corporate laws have contributed to the perception that it is an unregulated tax haven. It is a fallacy that uncritical approval of the region’s democracies is necessary to preserve close ties. In her recent memoir, former national security adviser Susan Rice reflected that it is wiser to explain the U.S. approach “in terms of national interests, while avoiding praise for individual leaders and speaking out more forcefully about their failings and abuses.”

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

Commentary is 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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