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A Hearing On Africa: Questions Unanswered, Questions Unasked By Salih Booker And Temi Ibirogba

The whole framework harkens back to the wasteful, destructive, and corrosive Cold War era of big power competition in Africa where the political and economic aspirations of Africans were largely ignored.


The 16 May House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Africa was the first time in recent memory that the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were all in the same Congressional hearing room to answer questions about U.S. policy toward the world’s most rapidly growing continent.

Titled “Democracy, Development, and Defense: Rebalancing U.S. Africa Policy,” the objective of the hearing was to highlight just how unbalanced U.S. Africa policy has become and to explore how the American government should move away from short-sighted security objectives toward a more long-term strategic vision, that focuses on supporting democracy (good governance and human rights) and development (economic growth, poverty reduction, industrialization, regional integration and trade).

To begin, committee chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) pointedly asked, “why should Africans believe in the U.S. commitment to the consolidation of democracy in Africa?” He asked, more precisely, “can you guarantee the Sudanese people that the U.S. will not undermine a true democratic transition in order to cut a deal with the very institution [the military] responsible for the country’s malaise?” The Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Tibor Nagy, did not directly answer the questions and instead emphasized that the U.S. government is “having discussions with our Gulf friends to make sure that there is a commonality of purpose in Sudan.” That little exchange spoke volumes about the outsourcing of U.S. foreign policy in Sudan suggesting that the U.S. is more concerned about the interests of its allies: the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohamed Bin Zayed, and the General-turned-civilian president of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, rather than the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people.

Much later in the hearing, Nagy would say of the U.S. government, “we are weaponizing our embassies in Africa” to confront Russian disinformation like during the Cold War and to confront the Chinese as well. This captured the essence of the other underlying message of the U.S. government witnesses. The Trump administration’s Africa strategy, as described by National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton in a speech at the Heritage Foundation last December, is mainly preoccupied with competition with China and Russia. Both are countries which he believes are “deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.” The whole framework harkens back to the wasteful, destructive, and corrosive Cold War era of big power competition in Africa where the political and economic aspirations of Africans were largely ignored. For his part, Ambassador Nagy – a career foreign service officer brought out of retirement following President Trump’s racist rant against African countries, which he described in the most vulgar and ignorant manner – seemed to wax nostalgic about those foregone days.

The Assistant Secretary and his fellow Trump administration witnesses managed to evade too many questions at the hearing. The following questions left unanswered and those not asked at all provide sadly provide revealing insights into the current reality of U.S. – Africa relations. 

Questions that weren’t answered

1. Has U.S. development aid to Africa increased or decreased? Although USAID rolled out a brand new “Private Sector Engagement Policy” last December based on the belief that the “future of international development is enterprise-driven" in Africa, Ramsey Day, the agency’s Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator was unable to answer questions regarding U.S. development assistance levels to Africa over the past several years providing zero context on whether U.S. support for development in Africa had increased or decreased since the previous administration (spoiler alert: it has decreased from $13b in 2016 to $9.7b in 2018 for Sub-Saharan Africa alone).

2. How many civilians has the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) killed in recent years? Michelle Lenihan, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, was unable to explain why there were discrepancies in the number of civilian causalities reported by AFRICOM and those reported by Amnesty International and other independent sources. Nor was she able to explain their methodology for determining whether civilians are killed in U.S. airstrikes in Africa. AFRICOM initially claimed that zero civilians had been killed in 2018 but after Amnesty’s inquires, they adjusted the number to two. Independent reporting makes clear that civilian deaths in Africa due to manned and unmanned aerial strikes, as well as ground operations, have been increasing. In 2016 the Obama administration carried out 14 airstrikes in Somalia alone. In 2017 the Trump administration increased that number to 35, and again in 2018 to 45. In the first quarter of 2019, the number of attacks was nearly equal the total for the previous year. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, since January 2007, U.S. drone strikes in Somalia have resulted in an estimated 965-1163 deaths, a significant proportion of whom were believed to be unarmed civilians. 

3. What is the U.S. position regarding Libya – is the U.S. supporting the U.N.-recognized government or the renegade General Khalifa Haftar? And are Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. supporting General Haftar as well? Under sharp questioning from Rep. Ted Lieu, we observed that while the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, publicly called for a political settlement in Libya, President Trump spoke with Haftar on the phone even as the latter was attacking the government in Tripoli which had previously thought it had the support of the U.S. Once again Lenihan was unable or unwilling to answer any of these questions.

4. How does the U.S. overcome the President’s unacceptable comments about African countries? Will President Trump travel to Africa? Ambassador Nagy responded simply that he has “only come across genuinely good feelings toward the United States of America” on the part of Africans during recent trips.

Questions that weren’t asked

1. What actions has the U.S. taken to promote civilian-led transitions in Sudan and Algeria? The continuously deteriorating situation in both Sudan and Algeria has provided a straightforward challenge to support pro-democracy movements such as the Forces of Freedom and Change’s in Sudan and human rights activists and opposition movements in Algeria. But the U.S. response has been notably ambiguous. While State Department or U.S. embassy spokespersons have made tepid statements on Sudan, they’ve said virtually nothing about Algeria, and Washington waited until after the 3 June massacre in Khartoum before sending a senior envoy to the region. The U.S. has yet to invoke sanctions to pressure these regimes to accept civilian transitions, nor has the U.S. acted to stop Saudi and U.A.E. military support to the military and militia forces in these countries. Indeed, it is as if the U.S. is outsourcing its dirty work to those Gulf monarchies and Egypt, just as it has in Yemen.

2. Why is the U.S. military footprint in Africa so large? What is the Defense Department’s plan in Africa? It was surprising that aside from a few questions about U.S. drone strikes in Somalia very little was said about the growing U.S. military footprint on the continent and its disproportionate and growing influence in determining U.S. foreign policy priorities on the continent. There are more than 8,000 U.S. troops in Africa, operating in nearly all of Africa’s 55 countries and the United States now has 34 status of forces agreements (or similar military treaties) with African countries. U.S. Special Operations forces are sometimes deployed in African countries even without such agreements. The U.S. is literally at war in at least three African countries – Libya, Somalia and Niger – claiming the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Forces (AUMF) as the legal justification. According to unclassified documents released by AFRICOM, there are 34 U.S. bases spread throughout the continent that house special operations forces, manned and unmanned aircraft, and are used as jumping off points for missions. Fourteen of these are considered “enduring bases” – forward operating sites and cooperative security locations, and another 20 sites are considered “contingency locations”. One wonders if such activities are in compliance with the constitutions and laws of the host countries themselves?

3. What is the Trump administration’s policy regarding African immigration to the United States, including the status of migrants who are already in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) but threatened with deportation and the increasing number of migrants stuck at the Mexican border?  Some of these migrants including Eritreans and other nationalities are being denied asylum status in the United States despite the fact that many are fleeing governments that allegedly torture and kill their own people. The U.S. currently provides TPS to around 1,352 Africans from Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. Another few thousand African immigrants from the former U.S. colony Liberia had their Deferred Enforced Departure (similar to TPS) revoked by President Trump in March of last year. These individuals have lived in the U.S. for decades, many raising American children, and should be provided a way to gain lawful permanent residency. The hearing was an opportunity to bring attention to these largely ignored African immigration issues, but unfortunately, the questions were not asked.

We had hoped this hearing would be an opportunity to gain greater clarity on the goals and objectives of the Trump administration’s Africa Policy and to initiate a stronger process of Congressional oversight to achieve greater transparency and accountability for the conduct of U.S. Africa policy. It’s clear that the administration would rather not be bothered with answering questions, and the Congress members aren’t receiving enough pressure from their constituents to demand real answers to the more important questions. What is needed is greater activism among Africa’s multiple constituencies in the U.S. directed at the Congress.

For our part, we support the calls for an end to the militarization of U.S. Africa policy, for clear public support for the pro-democracy movements in Algeria and Sudan and human rights throughout the continent, and for greater U.S. support for African-led economic development efforts.


Salih Booker is the President and CEO of the Center for International Policy and Temi Ibirogba is the Program and Research Associate for the Center’s Africa Program.