When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States (US) in January, many wondered what his administration's policy towards Africa would be. Ten months later, it is clear that regarding security at least, a reduction of the US cost burden for United Nations (UN) peacekeeping, combined with increased direct US military engagement and a preference for bilateral support, are key pillars.
While fulfilling US interests, these approaches risk constraining the capacity of nascent African initiatives that require predictable support not only on a bilateral level, but also from the UN.
The US continues to support the fight against extremist groups in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin and the Horn of Africa. However Trump's insistence on reducing US financial aid has affected many areas of cooperation with Africa on peace and security. This includes blocking proposals to use UN-assessed contributions to support African peace security operations like the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and the G5 Sahel mission. The US has instead pursued a more bilateral approach. This partly highlights the US quest to demand greater accountability from its partners, and avoids potential financial loss by going through the UN.
Direct military engagement contradicts the need to support African solutions for African problems
In January 2016, after the European Union announced a 20% cut to the allowances of AMISOM peacekeepers, the African Union (AU) began lobbying for the use of UN-assessed contributions to cover the gap. The AU says this is a natural option given that AMISOM is authorised by the UN Security Council (UNSC) and carried out on behalf of the UN, which is responsible for international peace and security. So far, UN-assessed contributions have been used for the UN Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS), which provides logistical support to AMISOM, but isn't used to pay AMISOM troops directly.
In line with its strategy to reduce overall UN peacekeeping costs, Trump's administration appears to oppose the use of UN-assessed contributions to cover AMISOM's funding gap. The UNSOS budget has also come under fire, with proposed reductions reportedly beginning to affect the mission's performance. This has dealt a double blow to AMISOM during a crucial period as the mission prepares for a drawdown next year, and eventual withdrawal by 2020.
AMISOM is not the only mission affected by the Trump budget cuts, as a June agreement cut $600 million from the total UN peacekeeping budget, and 7.5% from the US share.
Instead of supporting further UN aid to AMISOM, the US appears to have prioritised a direct US military response, aside from the provision of some assistance to AMISOM and the Somalia government. In March, Trump declared southern Somalia a war zone for 180 days, approving greater leeway for precision airstrikes against al-Shabaab. US forces have also since played a more active role in ground operations, as the death of a US soldier demonstrated in May.
While the airstrikes increase pressure, their overall efficacy in decimating al-Shabaab is questionable, as shown by the 14 October Mogadishu blast that killed over 350 people.
US funding cuts are a double blow to AMISOM, as it prepares for a drawdown next year
The US and the UK also opposed suggestions for the provision of UN financial and logistical support to the G5 Sahel Force established in February by Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, and authorised by the AU. A watered-down UN resolution on the force rather called on bilateral and multilateral partners to provide logistical, operational and financial aid to the mission. While the EU and the US have pledged some financial support, significant financial gaps remain.
The UN's decision raised concerns about international back-up of complementary regional efforts that support UN missions. The advent of the G5 Sahel comes amid the seeming helplessness of the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in the face of several attacks on civilians and peacekeepers in the region. The G5 Sahel mission could help reduce terror threats in Mali and the Sahel, thereby enabling MINUSMA to fulfil its mandate more effectively.
The US preference for direct military engagement also comes with its own risks. Besides the above-mentioned death of the US soldier in Somalia, four special forces were killed during an ambush by an extremist group in Niger in October. After that attack, the US announced $60 million in bilateral support to the G5 Sahel, indicating support for the mission, but not through the UN. The move is symbolic of Trump's preference for cost-saving at the UN while pursuing bilateral approaches in terms of direct US funding and direct military engagement.
The US preference in some ways, however, contradicts the need to support African initiatives for African solutions. African institutions, including the AU, are trying to provide remedies to the continent's challenges, but they need international partnerships and predictable support. In this sense, the continued disagreement over UN-assessed contributions may affect making the AU Peace Fund operational. The AU hoped to provide 25% of the funds for its peace operations, under the design that the remaining 75% could be covered by the UN. But such UNSC support now looks unlikely.
While airstrikes increase pressure, their overall efficacy in decimating al-Shabaab is questionable
An opportunity to discuss funding options is presented by the AU-US High-Level Dialogue scheduled for 16 November. The dialogue, held annually since 2010, allows both sides to define and develop their areas of partnership.
As the event draws near, the AU should address concerns over the accountability of African initiatives - concerns that restrain international partners from providing predictable support to African missions. The US on the other hand can measure its success in Africa in terms of enhancing African initiatives both through bilateral and multilateral support rather than just a reliance on the former, given the need for wider partnerships when it comes to security in Africa.
Ndubuisi Christian Ani and Omar S Mahmood, Researchers, ISS Addis Ababa
This article was written for the ISS's Peace and Security Council Report.