Claire Metelits.

The events of 9/11 brought increased engagement with the African continent.1 Yet, while Africa’s significance to U.S. foreign policy has shifted since the Cold War—particularly with the formation of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007—security doctrine remains rooted in political realist thought. The “state,” for example, has kept its place of importance in security narratives through government-to-government interactions and consultations as well as weapons sales and training. Likewise, responses to poverty and under-development have become militarized, demonstrated by increasing numbers of U.S. civil affairs2 operations concurrent with shrinking Congressional allocations for traditional foreign assistance. In challenging the assumptions that are primary in traditional U.S. security approaches in Africa, a critical framework provides a context-specific and realistic view of security threats. The result is more effective security policy.

Western Dalliances

U.S. engagement with Africa has been selective. During the Cold War, Africa was one of several battlegrounds for the containment of the communist influence; the United States and other Western allies used various African leaders to limit Soviet power by supporting authoritarian regimes such as Zaire’s Mobutu and Liberia’s Samuel Doe,3 as well as resourcing insurgent groups that fought leftist governments such as Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The United States also provided emergency assistance in the face of famines and other humanitarian emergencies.

The end of the Cold War saw a significant decline in U.S. assistance to Africa. This new era of retreat was in part due to the failure of the U.S.-led and UN-authorized Unified Task Force (UNITAF) in Somalia (1992-1993). During this period, intermittent attention was drawn to Africa by continued conflict in Somalia and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Still, at the end of the 20th century, for all intents and purposes Africa remained geopolitically insignificant.4

While security challenges have shifted since the Cold War, the way in which threats in Africa are framed remains entrenched in traditional or mainstream security thinking. Using such an approach, the West understands itself as living in a world threatened by hostile opponents, leading to security policy that requires urgent and radical defense measures. Furthermore, in a traditional framework, the state is the entity that must be secured; little attention is paid to what is inside the state. A critical approach reveals the underlying social, political, and historical structures that must be taken into account to successfully assess what is and what is not a true security threat. What follows is a discussion of two oft-identified “threats” in Africa framed in mainstream security approaches. These are then problematized using a critical approach.

Failed States and Ungoverned Spaces

The threat posed by states that do not control areas within their borders is a central security issue, and addressing them has become a basic strategic and moral imperative.5 Narratives on threats originating from Africa are riddled with phrases of “ungoverned spaces” and “failed states.” U.S. State Department officials and defense analysts write about Africa’s “anarchic zones” giving rise to “dangerous chaos,”6 while threat briefings claim that the “vast stretches of ungoverned areas”—lawless zones, veritable “no man’s lands”—demand constant levels of scrutiny.7 As one analyst claimed, Africa, with its “war-ravaged areas and vast swathes of ungoverned territory,” offers ideal conditions for extremists looking for a foothold.8 According to U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, some of the most significant future security challenges will emanate from ungoverned spaces.9 Such narratives paint an alarming picture of Africa, full of desolate areas where young men ride in “technicals,”10 waving and shooting AK-47s.

The mainstream security rationale for addressing such spaces and states is that the chaotic conditions of these areas are the primary locations for operations by groups that Western powers designate as foreign terrorist organizations. Such areas are inextricably linked to terrorism, terrorist “safe havens,” and other emerging security threats because such locales are used for planning, organizing, training, and preparing operations against the West.11 In the traditional view of security, territories that states do not control are geopolitical vacuums that illegal actors occupy. The governments in which these spaces are found are considered threats because they fail in their Westphalian responsibility to stop non-state actors from using their territory and populations to prepare and stage attacks against Western interests.12 A critical approach does not ask what is not in these spaces and states, (a formal, Western-looking government) but what is there and why the West cannot work with it. Mainstream approaches to security analysis mask our ability to see that what often appears to be the breakdown of political and social order can hide the emergence of informal order.13

There is no such thing as a failed state; whole areas do not fail and spaces do not become ungoverned; order exists in these areas, yet it is neither the kind of order the West recognizes, nor the institutions with which the West normally works. Furthermore, groups that are unfavorable to U.S. interests often govern these spaces.14 Such forms of order may look like the Nande traders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have developed self-sustaining, successful, transnational economic enterprises in the absence of a strong central government and in the presence of several violent armed groups. The Nande, who have built commercial enterprises and trust networks, challenge the assumption that a failed state signals a failed society. This community demonstrates how self-governing entities and property rights systems can coexist and reinforce one another—an idea that is inconceivable in a mainstream security perspective, which assumes that governmental institutions and state sovereignty are necessary.15

Using a critical lens, the term “ungoverned space” is geographically subtle, referring to both a physical area and an absence of effective state sovereignty and control.16 The specification of a “space” rather than a whole area acknowledges the improbability of an entire territory failing uniformly and in geographically similar terrain.17 In some areas, formal institutions are ineffective, or the government in the capital has little to no legitimacy. Yet, these areas will possess informal institutions. For example, local chiefs may have more legitimacy among people in some rural areas than do government-appointed officials. Painting an oversimplified picture of regions and states that host terrorist organizations and operations as “failed” or “ungoverned” decontextualizes such developments, treating them as discrete phenomena divorced from political, social, and historical lineages.
Furthermore, generalizations about such spaces and states do not reflect the logistical necessities and strategies of violent actors. Attempting to organize rebellions from peripheral areas is ineffective if the organization aims to gather supporters in advance and engage with enemy forces.18 “In chaos, not even terrorists are safe or, more to the point, in order to be safe to train, and plan, terrorists would have to divert their already limited resources to provide their own security or pay protection money to others.”19

Operating in a “failed state” involves terrorists in local politics, which distracts them from their grander objectives. Furthermore, the infrastructure and logistical problems in such areas are disincentives for actors seeking a reliable base of operations.20 There has also been a trend toward assuming that all violence occurring in Africa (and elsewhere) is the work of terrorist groups. Branding all groups “terrorist” in nature is a tactic of national and foreign governments to attract attention of foreign policymakers and additional foreign resources. Groups operating in isolated areas are more likely to be insurgents dedicated to the overthrow of the state, or militias organized by local elites. The considerable attention paid to the Sahel, for example, seems generated by the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an organization that does not act beyond the Sahel and is more like an insurgency than a global threat. Furthermore, violent actors that do engage with international forces do not require vast ungoverned spaces to do so. The argument that ungoverned territory is necessary for violent actors implies that when an organization focuses on Western interests it automatically becomes a terrorist group whose development is blamed on a lack of state control when, in reality, the group employs a strategy that takes advantage of its own institutional environments.21

The Obsession with “Stability”

The danger posed by instability in Africa is another commonly identified threat in the post-9/11 narrative. Instability can range from the extremely violent—terrorist attacks, civil war, ethnic cleansing, massacres, coups, and revolutions—to lesser forms of instability such as protests, strikes, riots, and declarations of emergencies. The traditional security framework is preoccupied with external threats. Security involves the engagement of radical threat and consequently the adoption of equally radical measures. The idea that localized violence in Africa threatens the stability of the international community is based on the assumption that politically unstable environments breed terrorists.

Furthermore, the political realism of mainstream security narratives focuses on maintaining the status quo: change is dangerous and stability is safe. Reinforcing stability in Africa has led to an increasing Western military presence largely for the training of local forces and the reinforcement of democratic institutions in post-conflict settings. Hence, what has developed is a narrative focused on bolstering African military capabilities and establishing democratic institutions. When viewed critically, however, increased Western military presence on the African continent can be seen to have negative effects on stability because it can create more, not less, radicals.22

Furthermore, working with Western governments can make Africans targets of retaliatory violence.23 For example, the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi was a response to Kenya’s military presence in Somalia battling al-Shabaab along with other U.S. allies. The mainstream focus on stability plays out in international peace building efforts as well. These efforts result in pressure on post-conflict states to adopt democratic institutions. Such a perspective identifies and prioritizes elections, for example, but does not consider that elections are often a veneer that authoritarian regimes adopt to hide weak government institutions and deep-seated corruption. The focus on formal institutions underrates the impact of the informal realm, a bias that may be appropriate for established democracies where the rule of law is more apt to guide actors and where the ethic of constitutionalism reinforces a written constitution. Such conditions often do not exist in emerging democracies where the boundaries of state power have not yet been tested.24

Under such conditions, formal institutions fail when political actors ally themselves along lines of personal relations and informal institutions.25 A critical approach reveals that elections are merely one part of the stabilization process. It also problematizes elections, demonstrating that they can have negative consequences if they are not timed correctly or not designed to fit local conditions. Elections can mobilize rival factions, encourage the airing of grievances, and provide incentives for political abuse. Instability is more likely to occur when elections are used as a mode of conflict management. According to Salehyan, nearly all conflicts in Africa since 1990 were affiliated with elections.26 A result of the realist-influenced view that the status quo equates to safety is that many instances of instability are lumped into the broad category of “crisis.” The general labels assigned to violence in Africa obscure the variation in violent acts that occur across states27 and demonstrate the casualness with which Africa is treated as “in crisis.” Riots in one community or protests in a capital city are not the same as large-scale conflict. Yet the differences between such events and the characteristics that distinguish them from one another are unacknowledged or misunderstood. Policymakers and analysts often focus on areas with a history of instability as indicative of future violence and subsequent threats to security. Yet, the notion that conflict in the past equates to conflict in the future is a double-edged sword from a threat analysis standpoint. Conflict can be a precursor to future instability, though focusing on such states runs the risk of missing conflicts-in-the-making in “stable” countries.

Such was the case in Mali. A 2010 security brief published by the National Defense University-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, described Mali as a stable country with “great credibility in dealing with … competing interests” from civil society, including Islamist ones.28 Two years later, members of the U.S.-trained Malian military overthrew the regime, leading to a weak interim government and an Islamist insurgency in the north. Given that the U.S. military had been working with Malian forces for several years prior to the coup as part of the U.S.-initiated Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI), the lack of awareness of local political, historical, and social issues is surprising. As one observer remarked, “How was it possible for the Special Forces and their Pentagon bosses and the CIA to have had such a total lack of understanding of the Malian officers they’d trained and the country they’d been operating in for over five years?”29 A critical framework disaggregates political violence and makes room for analysis that uncovers the politics behind it, revealing the underlying causes, which leads to understanding and more effective security policy. Such an assessment reveals, for example, that instability in the Sahel was not an effect of terrorist influences from groups such as AQIM. Instead, instability in the Sahel was a result of underlying tensions that scholars had been writing about for years.30 The crisis in Mali was a conflagration of government corruption, continued armed rebellion in the north by the Tuaregs, and the illicit trafficking of arms, drugs, and other resources. A critical approach would have necessitated an examination of the layers of politics, history, and culture that led to the larger crisis, and could have informed more careful U.S. interaction with the Malian military.


The mainstream view of security depoliticizes Africans, characterizing them either as passive victims of underdevelopment, internal wars, and hunger, or in a negative light by their opposition as insurgents and terrorists. In part this reflects the continent’s enormous social, historical, political, and cultural complexities. As the dominant narrative, a traditional approach to security proliferates a lack of understanding of Africa on the part of United States and other Western security officials. The traditional security framework, like any system that dominates primary (elite) narratives, defines what is reality and what is not. Given that the narrow confines of a mainstream security approach offer little to see other than the effect of insecurity, analysis that informs decision-makers does not portray fully the security challenges.

While the mainstream approach to security continues to dominate the West and the United States in particular, it is not the narrative that comes from Africans and the African continent. Though many African elites appeal to this perspective, whether to curry favor and resources from Western governments, or because they truly believe in its reality, the larger African population is witness to the enormous complexities that are compounded into insecurity. In many ways, African citizens (like much of the developing world) are the architects of the critical perspective if only because they live it.

This article makes no claim that terrorists do not use Africa to recruit, train and plan for their operations. They do. Yet locales where these processes occur and the issues that lead to them are grossly misunderstood and over-simplified. Understandably, in the military and policy world, the need to make swift decisions does not lend itself to lengthy, in-depth research. Still, this results in analysis that is at a minimum off the mark, and at the most dangerously incorrect. The problem is, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Such ignorance can be detrimental to sound defense policy. In fact it takes a broadminded approach to a complex situation to produce the kind of understanding that leads to effective policy decisions. Characterizing non-Western institutions as having a lack of governance and generalizing about political violence can lead to grave errors in assessing the threat environment.

Actual indicators of insecurity remain unknown and decontextualized if sources of information are limited only to encounters with fellow elites while ignoring institutions (formal and informal) outside government hallways. Knowledge acquired outside the context of high level officials, from the local, practical realities of daily life, along with an understanding of the social, political, and historical environments, will serve analysts and policymakers well when identifying threats in Africa.


1 Of note, many argue that the U.S. focus on Africa has been about securing access to oil in addition to pursuing terrorist threats. Oil and the “War on Terror” became inextricably linked during the George W. Bush administration. The May 2001 Cheney Report identified sub-Saharan Africa as a critical source of future oil supplies. See Keenan, Jeremy. “AFRICOM: Its Reality, Rhetoric and Future.” In US Strategy in Africa: AFRICOM, Terrorism and Security Challenges, edited by David J. Francis, 113-129. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.

2 Civil affairs operations consist of projects such as well digging, building and repairing schools, hospitals, and bridges; and conducting Medical and Veterinary Civil Action Projects (MEDCAP and VETCAP). These efforts focus on establishing a point of entry into what the United States deems are hostile communities, developing local relationships, gaining knowledge of local populations and reducing tension between host populations, and US or partner military forces. See Ploch, Lauren. Countering Terrorism in East Africa: The U.S. Response. Congressional Research Service, Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 2010.

3 The United States helped bring Mobutu to power after participating in a plot to assassinate the country’s Soviet-backed prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. It is important to note that Lumumba approached the United States for assistance first, but was rejected.

4 Clough, Michale. Free at Last? U.S. Policy Toward Africa and the End of the Cold War. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992.

5 Rotberg, R.I. “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: Breakdown, Prevention and Repair.” In When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, edited by R.I. Rotberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

6 Reference to “anarchic zones” is not unique to the post-9/11 period; use of this phrase arose during the Clinton era when the United States became involved in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Ineffective governments became a security concern following the publication of Robert Kaplan’s article, The Coming Anarchy. Kaplan warned of threats to international security emanating from “regressive” developments in Western Africa and elsewhere that had emerged in the modern world. See Kaplan, Robert. “The Coming Anarchy.” The Atlantic Monthly. February 1, 1994.

7 Tenet, G. Testimony of Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet before Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the Worldwide Threat 2003: Evolving Dangers in a Complex World. 2003. https://www. testimony/2003/dci_speech_02112003. html (accessed April 2013); Lyman, Princeton N. and J. Stephen Morrison. “Terrorist Threat in Africa.” Foreign Affairs, 2004: 75-86; and US AFRICOM Public Affairs. “Transcript: General Ham Interviews with German Newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung.” United States Africa Command. March 13, 2012. (accessed February 2, 2013). For further references by a US AFRICOM Commander and a CIA Director see Rodriguez, David M. “Advance Policy Questions for General David M. Rodriguez, U.S. Army Nominee for Commander, U.S. Africa Command, Version 12, 1011500 Feb 13.” United States Senate Committee on Armed Services; and Brennan, John O. “Open Hearing on the Nomination of John O. Brennan to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.” United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence . February 7, 2013. (accessed May 19, 2013).

8 Pan, Esther. “Q&A: Terror Havens in Africa.” NY Times. December 2003.

9 Roulo, Claudette. Dempsey: Budget Cuts, Global Challenges Raise Risk to Nation. Department of Defense. March 5, 2014. (accessed September 17, 2014).

10 A “technical” is an open-backed civilian pickup truck used to carry armed gunmen often with a mounted support weapon such as a machine or anti-aircraft gun. Irregular forces often use these vehicles. They are also referred to as “battlewagons” and “gunships.”

11 White House. “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” 2006; and US Department of State. “Country Reports on Terrorism 2011.” US Department of State Publication.

12 Wyler, Liana Sun. “Weak and Failing States: Evolving Security Threats and U.S. Policy.” Report for Congress, CRS, 2007.

13 Feldman, Robert. “Amidst the Chaos a Small Force for Stability: Somalia’s Business Community.” Small Wars and Insurgencies 23, no. 2 (May 2012): 295-306; and Harper, Mary. Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State. London: Zed Books, 2012.

14 Clunan, A, and H. Trinkunasm. “Conceptualizing Ungoverned Spaces.” In Ungoverned spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty, edited by A Clunan and H. Trinkunasm, 17-33. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008; and Hartmann, B. “Lines in the Shifting Sand: The Strategic Politics of Climate Change.” Human Security and National Defense Conference. Throndheim, Norway, 2009.

15 Kabamba, Patience. Business of Civil War: New Forms of Life in the Debris of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dakar: Codesria, 2013.

16 Piombo, J. “Terrorism and U.S. Counter-Terrorism in Africa: An Overview.” Strategic Insights 6, no. 1 (2007): 45-59; and Hazen, J. “Understanding Gangs as Armed Groups.” International Review of the Red Cross 92, no. 878 (2010): 369-86.

17 Raleigh, Clionadh, and Caitriona Dowd. “Governance and Conflict in the Sahel’s ‘Ungoverned Space.'” Stability 2, no. 2 (2013): 1-17.

18 Ibid.

19 Simons and Tucker 2007, 389.

20 Ibid.

21Raleigh, Clionadh, and Caitriona Dowd. “The Myth of Global Islamic Terrorism and Local Conflict in Mali and the Sahel.” African Affairs 112, no. 448 (May 2013): 498-509.

22 Adjaye, Joseph. “AFRICOM: A View From Below: What Security? Whose Security?” In African Security and the African Command, edited by Joseph Adjaye, Donald Goldstein and Louis A. Picard Terry F. Buss, 75-94. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2011.

23 Okumu, Wafula. “Africa Command: Opportunity for Enhanced Engagement or the Militarization of U.S.-Africa Relations?” Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, US House of Representatives, 2007.

24 Okoth-Ogendo, H.W.O. “Constitutions Without Constitutionalism: Reflections on an African Political Paradox.” In The State and Constitutionalism: An African Debate on Democracy, edited by Issa Shivji. Harare: SAPES Trust, 1991.

25 Bratton, Michael. “The Democracy Barometers: Formal Versus Informal Institutions in Africa.” Journal of Democracy 18, no. 3 (2007): 96-110; and Salehyan, Idean. “Elections and Social Conflict in Africa.” CKC Speaker Series. Cultural Knowledge Consortium, 2013.

26 Salehyan 2013.

27 ACLED. Conflict Trends (No. 13): Real-Analysis of African Political Violence, April 2013. The Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, Austin, TX: ACLED, 2013.

28 Devlin-Foltz, Zachary. Africa’s Fragile States: Empowering Extremists, Exporting Terrorism . Africa Security Brief, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Washington DC: ACSS, 2010.

29 Lando, Barry. “Mali — A Double Tale of Unintended Consequences.” Huffington Post. January 15, 2013. (accessed January 17, 2013).

30 See for example Keita, Kalifa. “Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Sahel: The Tuareg Insurgency in Mali.” Small Wars and Insurgencies 9, no. 3 (1998): 102-28; Seely, Jennifer C. “A Political Analysis of Decentralisation: Coopting the Tuareg Threat in Mali.” Journal of Modern African Studies 39, no. 3 (2001): 499-524; Lecocq, B. “Unemployed Intellectuals in the Sahara: The Teshumara Nationalist Movement and the Revolutions in Tuareg Society.” International Review of Social History 49, no. Supplement (2004): 87-109; Benjaminsen, Tor A. “Does Supply-Induced Scarcity Drive Violent Conflicts in the African Sahel?” Journal of Peace Research 45, no. 6 (November 2008): 819-36; Keenan, Jeremy. “Uranium Goes Critical in Niger: Tuareg Rebellions Threaten Sahelian Conflagration.” Review of African Political Economy 35, no. 117 (2008): 449-66; and Guichaoua, Yvan. Circumstantial Alliances and Loose Loyalties in Rebellion Making: The Case of Tuareg Insurgency in Northern Niger (2007-2009). Research Working Paper 20, Microcon, Brighton: MICROCON, 2009.