U.S. Seeks To Balance Security And Human Rights In Turbulent West Africa

Army Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, Burkina Faso’s new president, poses in the capital, Ouagadougou, with the torch given by elder revolutionaries during a ceremony on Oct. 15, 2022, marking the 35th anniversary of the assassination of coup leader and former president Thomas Sankara. (Olympia De Maismont/AFP/Getty Images)

BY RACHEL CHASON AND JOHN HUDSON

DAKAR, SENEGAL
 (THE WASHINGTON POST) —The Biden administration faces a dilemma in West Africa: Should the United States help a country in the region run by a military junta with a troubling record on human rights or risk the country’s losing territory to Islamic extremists and partnering with Russian mercenaries?

It is a quandary that, in various forms, has repeatedly confronted the administration in Africa.

Senior officials at the State Department and Pentagon are supporting the provision of nonlethal security assistance to Burkina Faso’s military, arguing that the threat posed by a spiraling Islamist insurgency requires action, especially since Russia’s Wagner Group would be eager to step in. A senior administration official said Wagner is “salivating” for the chance to establish a formal partnership with the Burkinabè government.

In urgent phone calls and private meetings, top Burkinabè officials have appealed to foreign diplomats for help in defeating the insurgents, according to multiple U.S. government officials. But the Burkinabè government took power in a military coup last year and has been implicated by human rights groups in violence against civilians, including a massacre of at least 156 people in April allegedly carried out by the army.

As with Burkina Faso, the U.S. and other Western governments have been wrestling with how best to balance security and human rights concerns elsewhere in and near Africa’s Sahel region, including in Mali, Chad and the Central African Republic — all of which are mired in political turmoil, targeted by Wagner and ruled by governments implicated in abuses.

The challenge for an administration that is outspoken in support of democracy became even more acute last week, when soldiers in the West African country of Niger overthrew its elected president, who had been a key Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants. The United States has about 1,100 soldiers based in Niger and operates a drone base there.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it had suspended security cooperation with Niger’s military, including U.S. training of Nigerien soldiers, “in light of the situation.” But the administration has so far not formally declared the seizure of power in Niger a coup, which would require the freezing of military aid under U.S. law. U.S. officials are part of a chorus of foreign leaders urging that constitutional order be restored in Niger and that the ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, be released. It is unclear what shape U.S. support for Niger eventually will take if those demands are not met.

U.S. officials have been weighing similar considerations in Burkina Faso over recent months. When a 34-year-old army captain named Ibrahim Traoré wrested power last year, he vowed to improve the security situation in Burkina Faso, which has been at the center of the insurgency. The Global Terrorism Index, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, ranks Burkina Faso only behind Afghanistan for extremist violence. Traoré and other members of the junta have said the Burkinabè want to do their own fighting but need training, equipment and intelligence-gathering, according to government officials and aides on Capitol Hill.

U.S. officials, concerned about Russian influence in the region, said that the Wagner Group has been courting junta members in Burkina Faso and that Moscow has provided equipment to the military. Already, Wagner is deeply entrenched in the Central African Republic and Mali and has been trying to sow instability in Chad, including by training rebels to overthrow its president. The declaration late last week by Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin that his operatives will continue expanding operations in Africa has renewed concerns in Washington about Burkina Faso’s fate.

A senior member of the Biden administration said State Department officials are supporting the transfer of nonlethal security assistance to Burkina Faso, which would involve training and equipment for the Burkinabè army. This proposed package has not previously been reported.

“They’re bleeding out on the battlefield,” said the senior administration official, describing the violent standoff between security forces and Islamist militants. “They don’t have as much battlefield awareness as they need. They need more anti-mine training. We could do some of that stuff.”

That U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue, said that such a package would require Burkina Faso to improve its respect for human rights. The administration would have to consult with Congress and waive a provision of U.S. law that bans military aid for governments that take power via coup, the officials said. The package has yet to get White House approval, officials said, and could face pushback on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have questioned the administration’s ability to balance democracy-promotion and managing security concerns.

A top Biden administration official said the administration fears that Burkina Faso will become a gateway for terrorism in coastal West African countries.

Critics, including officials on Capitol Hill and researchers, say that providing military assistance will send the wrong message to a regime that lacks democratic legitimacy and has a troubling human rights record. By providing even nonlethal support to the Burkinabè military, the United States could encourage army excesses and thus further inflame the insurgency, the critics warn.

U.S. officials, concerned about Russian influence in the region, said that the Wagner Group has been courting junta members in Burkina Faso and that Moscow has provided equipment to the military. Already, Wagner is deeply entrenched in the Central African Republic and Mali and has been trying to sow instability in Chad, including by training rebels to overthrow its president. The declaration late last week by Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin that his operatives will continue expanding operations in Africa has renewed concerns in Washington about Burkina Faso’s fate.

A senior member of the Biden administration said State Department officials are supporting the transfer of nonlethal security assistance to Burkina Faso, which would involve training and equipment for the Burkinabè army. This proposed package has not previously been reported.

“They’re bleeding out on the battlefield,” said the senior administration official, describing the violent standoff between security forces and Islamist militants. “They don’t have as much battlefield awareness as they need. They need more anti-mine training. We could do some of that stuff.”

That U.S. official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue, said that such a package would require Burkina Faso to improve its respect for human rights. The administration would have to consult with Congress and waive a provision of U.S. law that bans military aid for governments that take power via coup, the officials said. The package has yet to get White House approval, officials said, and could face pushback on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have questioned the administration’s ability to balance democracy-promotion and managing security concerns.

A top Biden administration official said the administration fears that Burkina Faso will become a gateway for terrorism in coastal West African countries.

Critics, including officials on Capitol Hill and researchers, say that providing military assistance will send the wrong message to a regime that lacks democratic legitimacy and has a troubling human rights record. By providing even nonlethal support to the Burkinabè military, the United States could encourage army excesses and thus further inflame the insurgency, the critics warn.

Touring sub-Saharan Africa last year, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken differentiated American policy from that of China and Russia — which have accumulated influence in Africa by focusing on business and security, respectively — saying the Biden administration’s policy was based on promoting democracy. But the United States also has a long history of partnering with coup-makers and authoritarian leaders in Africa when it suits American security or economic interests, the political scientist Alex Thurston of the University of Cincinnati and other researchers noted, including Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and the Déby family in Chad.

In Burkina Faso, a once-peaceful country known in part for its international film festival, the United States cut about $158 million in security assistance after the first of two coups last year. The bulk of U.S. aid to that country now is for development, officials said, in addition to a training program for local police and a partnership with the D.C. National Guard.

A senior Defense Department official said “the urgency of the emergency” means the United States has to do more. “Burkina Faso is at a tipping point,” said the official. “Our position is that if we don’t provide assistance, then someone else will, whether it is Wagner or China or another group.”

In October, senior officials from the White House, Pentagon and State Department visited Burkina Faso and met with senior Burkinabé officials. During the visit, the U.S. officials said, they told Traoré that if he did business with the Wagner Group, that would cross a red line for the United States. They said that while the United States would try to extend more help within the constraints of American law, “if you go Prigozhin, we will be done.”

A fraught decision

Despite Traoré’s promises to take control of the security situation, it has only become worse. More than 1,600 civilians are projected to die this year in events related to extremists, according to data from the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, more than double last year.

Government violence against civilians also has surged, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, with the army and informal militias perpetrating executions and forced disappearances.

The Burkinabè government did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. It has previously said it would investigate the April massacre.

Stephanie Savell, a Brown University anthropologist who has researched Burkina Faso, said U.S. security assistance has worsened the crisis by intensifying a cycle of revenge, noting frequent accounts of Burkinabè men joining insurgent groups after government or militia violence affects their families.

“Americans are failing to ask the big-picture questions about what has happened in the past and whether it is effective,” she said. “Instead of asking those big-picture questions, people are saying, ‘How can we do this slightly better or slightly differently,’ rather than saying, ‘Is military assistance the right response at all?’'

Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration needs to have a clearer strategy toward the Sahel region.

“The question is: How do we walk and chew gum at the same time?” Hudson said. “If these governments lose battles or decide to call in the Russians, that has a serious and measurable effect on national security interests. But at the same time, we don’t want to condone or legitimize their rule from a political standpoint.”

A senior U.S. government official said the administration was pushing for a democratic transition in Burkina Faso while considering the options available to help the country’s government defend itself.

“We have to lead with our democratic values,” the official said, “but we can’t turn a blind eye to a security situation that is deteriorating every day.”

Hudson reported from Washington.

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