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Opinion

Attacks in Mali, Libya, Algeria show why Africa still needs US support

Attacks by Islamist insurgents on US outposts in Benghazi, Libya, at a gas plant in Algeria, and in Mali expose several reasons for persistent security weakness across Africa. For one thing, many countries are too poor to supply the funds and soldiers for regional peace efforts.

By Kurt Shillinger / January 28, 2013

Chadian soldiers secure Gao airport, north of Mali, Jan. 26. French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north for more than nine months. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger says 'Africa’s experiment in a regional approach to security is serious and laudable, but it will take time to build credible capacity.'

Ghislain Mariette/ECPAD/AP

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St. Louis

As his country’s troops began pushing back an Islamist insurgency in Mali earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius emphasized that “our African friends need to take the lead” in defending that North African country and the region.

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Mr. Fabius was addressing a summit of African military leaders in West Africa. But his plea missed an obvious point: Malian officials would not have requested French intervention if they or their regional partners had the capacity to roll back the insurgents themselves.

Two decades have passed since the end of apartheid in South Africa – the final dividing line with the colonial era. In that time, the continent’s leaders have steadily built new regional and Africa-wide economic and security structures to spur development and break the seemingly intractable presence of war.

The thinking is that collective strength can compensate for individual state weakness. This effort may well be helping economically. Sub-Saharan Africa has posted some of the world’s highest sustained economic growth rates over the past decade. But joint African military deployments have yielded only fleeting success in the continent’s worst hot spots.

The attacks by Islamist insurgents on US outposts in Benghazi, Libya, last September and at a gas plant in Algeria this month expose several reasons for persistent security weakness across Africa.

First, the multinational forces of the regions and of the larger African Union require financial and personnel contributions from the member states. Both are missing in sufficient supply. The majority of sub-Saharan countries are still among the world’s poorest. Many simply cannot afford to honor their pledges of dollars and soldiers to regional peace efforts.

West African leaders have been talking about sending a regional force to Mali since a coup d’etat last March. They are still looking for funding, and on Jan. 29 will gather again to woo international donors.

Second, weak governance undermines security. One of the stated motives behind the Mali coup last year was the military’s frustration with the government’s tepid response to advancing extremism in the country’s arid north. The putsch, obviously, failed to fix that problem.

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