Coastal West Africa has historically ranked low in the hierarchy of U.S. interests. However, increased instability in the region would erode decades of U.S. investment in humanitarian and development goals and possibly diminish the appeal of Western modes of political and economic governance to the advantage of alternative modes promoted by countries such as China and Russia. For those reasons, the State Department under the provisions of the 2019 Global Fragility Act (GFA) selected five coastal West African states—Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Togo—as a priority region to receive special attention and assistance over the next ten years. (See figure 1.)
Several factors put the coastal West African countries at risk of political volatility, intercommunal and criminal violence, and armed conflict. Political leaders in coastal West Africa have yet to establish popular and consistent norms of political behavior necessary for legitimacy and stability. Their economies are unable to meet the collective needs of populations that are doubling roughly every twenty to thirty years and are increasingly young. The concept of a social contract between governments and their populations as understood in the West has little salience in the region. The steady deterioration of security in the Sahel and Nigeria in recent years also poses a growing threat to the stability of coastal countries, underscoring how armed groups can easily exploit the proliferation of weapons and latent fragilities that exist in all West African countries.
The GFA legislation directs and funds the Department of State (DOS) to establish an interagency initiative to “stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent violence globally.” More specifically, DOS is required to identify priority countries and regions and develop ten-year implementation plans for each. The GFA also directs DOS to consult with civil society and government actors in affected countries, international organizations, and relevant private, academic, and philanthropic entities as it develops its plans.
The United States faces significant constraints in pursuing the ambitious objectives defined in the GFA. Those constraints include the diversity of the five countries; poor alignment of GFA goals with those of national leaders; the politicization of security institutions; the dominant role of personal rather than institutional relationships; the tightly restricted authorities for most U.S. foreign assistance; the legacy of colonialism; and the ongoing need for involvement in unstable neighboring countries.
Given these limitations and coastal West Africa’s low ranking in the hierarchy of U.S. interests, enlisting African partners—particularly government officials and community leaders whose behavior align with GFA goals and values—in the development of policy options would be a viable and cost-effective approach for GFA implementation.
Sources of Instability
The various interdependent factors that put coastal West African countries at risk of different forms of political volatility, intercommunal and criminal violence, and armed conflict pose inherent challenges for violence mitigation and prevention strategies. As has been the pattern in the broader West African region for the past sixty years, these factors often converge in unique ways that can rapidly disrupt prolonged periods of equilibrium and apparent stability.
The legitimacy of ruling elites remains precarious more than sixty years after their countries became independent. Political leaders in coastal West Africa have yet to establish popularly accepted and consistent norms of political behavior [PDF] that are necessary for legitimacy and lasting stability.
- Benin’s reputation since the early 1990s for relative stability and credible democratic transitions has ended due to the political maneuvering of President Patrice Talon and his ruling party. First elected in 2016, Talon relied on arrests of opposition leaders, judicial meddling, and tight media restrictions to win a second term in controversial and turbulent elections in 2021. Benin’s electoral commission banned opposition parties from running in parliamentary elections in 2019 [PDF].
- Ghana is the only coastal country with an established twenty-year record of relatively peaceful elections and transfers of political power between opposing parties. Its military and police are politically neutral. However, Ghana’s highly competitive political culture sometimes teeters on violence [PDF]; its future stability will depend largely on continued adherence to these democratic norms.
- Ivory Coast is still struggling to overcome the polarizing ethnic politics and political thuggery that undermined government legitimacy and contributed to a spiral of coups and civil war in the 2000s. President Alassane Ouattara sidestepped constitutional term limits and undermined the opposition through arrests and media control to win a third term in a controversial election boycotted by the opposition and marred by violence in 2020.
- Guinea’s governments are perpetually prone to political turbulence and coups due to the heavy reliance of its leaders on political repression and the security services. Increasingly unpopular political restrictions and former President Alpha Condé’s disregard for the constitution’s presidential term limits led to his overthrow by the military in September 2021. Guinea’s endemic susceptibility to political unrest is likely to persist even if the current military government eventually hands power back to a civilian elected government.
- Togo is among the least democratic countries in West Africa. President Faure Gnassingbé has relied on the security services and dominance of legislative and judicial organs to maintain power since 2005 [PDF], when he succeeded his father who had ruled since 1967. Gnassingbé won reelection in 2020 to a fourth term by rewriting electoral laws, restricting media, and curbing opposition political activity. Togo experiences intermittent unrest, especially during elections, as a result of this constrained political environment.
Demographic and economic pressures are straining the economies of coastal countries throughout West Africa. (See figure 2.) UN data indicates that West Africa’s population will rise from about 400 million in 2020 to 800 million in 2050 [PDF]. Many of the United Nation’s Human Development Indicators for the region are among the lowest in the world, especially in geographic peripheries and politically marginalized areas. Disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have only worsened the region’s economic prospects.
Rural poverty is driving migration to urban areas and, to a lesser degree, to North Africa, Europe, and beyond. Subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, and cash crop cultivation are subject to the erratic whims of nature and markets and yield insufficient income to meet basic needs for health, shelter, education, and transportation. Climate change and other environmental stresses due to human activity are increasing the precarity of agricultural livelihoods.
Unemployment and underemployment are major sources of discontent with national governments, especially among the region’s growing youth population. West African economies are unable to absorb the hundreds of thousands of graduates that emerge annually from college and secondary school. Oxfam assesses that West African governments are the least committed in Africa to reducing wealth inequality for their citizens [PDF].
Unlicensed and illicit economic activities are widespread due to a lack of formal economic opportunities, prompting the widespread adoption of informal—often illegal—activities [PDF] including artisanal gold mining; smuggling licit goods such as fuel and cigarettes; banditry; and the illicit trafficking of weapons, drugs, and people.
Corruption and patronage continue to undermine political legitimacy and administrative capabilities. For many people, government employment as an elected official or civil servant is the only viable means of economic security and advancement. Government officials at all levels frequently exploit their control of government services and resources for personal gain and participate in informal and illicit commerce. They redistribute their gains through patronage networks of extended family and associates, which gives individuals at all socioeconomic levels a reason to maintain the status quo. Those practices undermine the government’s legitimacy by diminishing its ability to protect citizens, administer justice, regulate the economy, and control borders and territory, especially in remote or inaccessible areas. Afrobarometer polling indicates more than half the populations in West African countries see their government officials as corrupt [PDF] in at least one or more major institutions, including the police, judiciary, civil service, presidency, and legislature.
Uneasy relationships between state and society persist for many people, especially in politically and economically marginalized regions or social groups, many of whom avoid or ignore government authority. Public rallies in support of recent coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali underscore this disillusionment. People sometimes regard government officials as causes of, rather than solutions to, their problems. Political analyst E. Gyimah-Boadi assessed [PDF] that “government repression [in West Africa] and a lack of credible responses to poor governance and neglect, endemic poverty, inequality, and youth unemployment are likely to aggravate popular discontent and deepen mistrust between citizens and their government.”
Other forms of social contracts based on kinship, custom, commerce, reciprocity, religious and traditional authority, and local notions of justice do exist and play important roles in sustaining social cohesion despite the state’s limitations. However, these contracts are fragile and prone to collapse when manipulated or contested by violent state and nonstate actors. The collapse of once-resilient social structures in parts of Burkina Faso and central Mali are reminiscent of the implosion of communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone during their civil wars in the 1990s.
Insecure borders with unstable neighbors in the Sahel and Nigeria threaten to destabilize surrounding coastal countries, underscoring how armed groups can easily exploit the proliferation of weapons and latent fragilities that exist in all West African countries [PDF]. The national boundaries that exist on paper between West African countries obscure the deep, centuries-old interconnections of their populations. As has been the case historically, the fortunes of those countries are intertwined.
Neighboring security forces are overwhelmed, as Sahelian and Nigerian government security forces lack the personnel, equipment, technical acumen, and political conditions required to rein in a multitude of guerilla groups, armed criminal gangs, and self-defense militias, especially in remote areas where terrain is unfamiliar and often impenetrable during the rainy season. The security forces are often reluctant to confront better-armed militants and lack the communications, coordinated air cover, and appropriate ground transport needed for patrolling difficult and isolated terrain, especially in the wet season. Additionally, civilians are unwilling to cooperate in some places, due to mistrust and fear of insurgent reprisals, which the security forces have proven unable to prevent.
Sahelian insurgents have pushed south in the past two years, suggesting the groups are trying to project force into the northern border regions of Benin, Ivory Coast, and Togo. Their motivations and goals are opaque. The protected forest areas and national parks in these regions could be attractive as potential safe havens, sources of revenue, and recruiting and training sites. These protected areas are sparsely populated and rich in flora and fauna that adjacent communities are eager to exploit. Thus, some nearby communities could benefit from insurgent activities that limit government control.
Potential spillover from northern Nigeria, where destabilization has already harmed its eastern and northern neighbors, could eventually affect the coastal countries to its west. Observers have already reported the presence of a handful of Nigerian militants in Benin [PDF]. Nigeria’s population is more than twice that of all the five coastal countries combined. Its economy is two-and-a-half times as big. Brazen attacks and mass abductions are occurring with greater frequency in areas that are closer to the capital Abuja. Possible scenarios—such as the relocation of Nigerian elites to safer countries, refugee outflows, and encroachment of insurgent and armed criminal groups—could exacerbate the many stresses coastal countries are already facing.
Disillusioned local youth are potentially vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups in rural regions. The socioeconomic conditions of the northern regions of coastal countries are far worse than in the south, and are comparable to the Sahel. That factor, in addition to the long-standing political marginalization of northern regions, could make some youth vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups. Sahelian insurgents are effective at entwining jihadi doctrine with local discontent to mobilize fighters and claim legitimacy. Exclusion from the benefits of corruption and patronage can also serve as a pretext for using violence as means of gaining economic or political access.
Permeable national borders and the limited capabilities of government security forces in this region are conducive for insurgents and other armed actors. Border and customs officials have long lacked the capacity to interdict smuggling or other forms of illicit commerce; in some cases, they are complicit in such activities. Moving undetected across borders without passing through official crossings is also easy. Poorly defended police and military posts in remote areas make for soft targets and sources of war material, including weapons, ammunition, and vehicles. Social tensions—such as those between pastoralists and farmers, autochthonous and settler communities, ethnically or regionally oriented ruling and opposition parties, and youth and elders—constitute additional vulnerabilities that insurgents can exploit.
Implications for the United States
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policies in coastal West Africa—and sub-Saharan Africa more broadly—have focused primarily on humanitarian goals such as mitigating conflict, promoting democracy and human rights, improving living conditions, and facilitating economic development. The United States has also assisted governments in countering armed groups influenced or supported by international terrorists. While increased instability in the region would not directly affect vital U.S. interests, it would nonetheless erode decades of American investment in these goals, and possibly diminish the appeal of Western models of political and economic governance relative to Chinese and Russian models.
U.S. commercial interests in coastal West Africa are narrow and small by global standards. They have tended to revolve around agribusiness, mineral extraction, and energy production. Ghana and Ivory Coast together produce over 60 percent of the world’s cocoa and are minor crude oil producers (about 186,000 and 34,000 barrels per day, respectively, in 2021). Guinea contributes about 22 percent of world bauxite production. Total U.S. exports to all five countries in 2019 equated to about 60 percent of U.S. exports to Nigeria and 20 percent to Vietnam, while imports equated to 40 and 2 percent, respectively. (See figure 3.)
U.S. security interests in the region are similarly minimal in the larger geopolitical context. At worst, the increased activity of armed groups in the northern regions of coastal countries could threaten U.S. personnel and citizens working and traveling there. Political unrest and behavior that undermines democratic processes and human rights could erode the relatively cooperative security relationships that the United States has cultivated since the 1990s through capacity building and joint exercises. U.S. military personnel involved in training and advising could also become direct targets, as happened to four U.S. soldiers killed by militants in Niger in 2017. Maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea emanates primarily from Nigeria, but could become more of a problem if other countries lose control over internal security and law enforcement.
U.S. political interests in the coastal countries are also limited because the countries have little influence on the global stage other than as votes in the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. Although their governments are diplomatically friendly toward the United States, their UN voting patterns tend to follow the broader African and nonaligned nation consensus on many issues. According to the Department of State report for 2020 [PDF], overall voting coincidence with the United States on issues of importance to the United States in the United Nations for each of the five countries was close to global and African averages of about 46 and 40 percent respectively. In March 2022, Benin, Ghana, and Ivory Coast voted with the United States on the Ukraine UN resolution while Guinea and Togo did not vote.
Challenges and Approaches
The United States faces numerous intertwined constraints in pursuing the ambitious objectives defined in the GFA. First and foremost, the scale, complexity, and urgency of challenges in coastal West Africa—a region approximately the size of France and Germany combined—far exceed the capacity and influence of any single local or external actor. The five coastal countries vary considerably in size, population, and internal dynamics. Although they face similar challenges, each is on a distinct political and economic trajectory that warrants a tailored approach informed by deep understanding of local political dynamics. Moreover, instability in the Sahel, Nigeria, and other nearby non-GFA countries could impede potential progress in the coastal countries and necessitate parallel, coordinated action. Rising tensions over government restrictions on the political opposition in Senegal—historically one of West Africa’s most stable and democratic countries and a close U.S. partner—underscore the broader, persistent fragility in the region.
Another major constraint relates to the behavior of national leaders, the single most influential factor shaping overall lasting stability. As demonstrated across West Africa over the decades, programmatic gains toward local peace-building, development, or humanitarian objectives can unravel abruptly when leaders participate in brinksmanship that escalates into national crisis and conflict. As demonstrated by the erosion of democratic and human rights practices in West Africa in recent years, the interests of national governments do not necessarily align with GFA goals. Heads of state and their inner circles are preoccupied with day-to-day political survival and maintaining privileged access to economic assets. They are poorly positioned, incentivized, and resourced to pursue policies conducive to lasting stability, especially those related to democracy, human rights, and poverty alleviation. They are likely to prioritize regime security over threats to their national peripheries, which are perceived to be of little political importance.
In prioritizing political survival over the goals of external actors, incumbent leaders—especially those with authoritarian tendencies—are adept at leveraging security cooperation with Western countries to legitimize their governments and deflect scrutiny of their undemocratic behaviors, corruption, and other governance flaws. As demonstrated in countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali, this can undermine the benefits of such programs and culminate in coups, military fragmentation, and the politicization of security forces. Political leaders are also adept at referencing historic colonial exploitation and racism to resist Western agendas perceived as meddlesome, paternalistic, or inconsistent with local values. This can also complicate U.S. collaboration with European partners, especially France, which is experiencing an uptick in resentment in some countries.
The dominance of personal over institutional relationships [PDF] poses another challenge for GFA implementation. Extensive research and analysis show that personal networks of trust are central to political and economic activity across West Africa, in contrast to formal institutional and contractual relationships that dominate in Western countries. Cultivating those networks is essential for exerting influence and shaping the trajectory of events. Moreover, this could require considerably more effort in the four Francophone countries, where France has historically been the lead international actor, than in the only Anglophone country, Ghana, with which the United States has had closer ties.
Finally, most U.S. funding for Africa is restricted by legislation to health and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) programs, both of which lack the flexibility to comprehensively address the manifold sources of instability in coastal West Africa. (MCC is conditioned on strict governance criteria that make some countries ineligible or at risk of losing assistance if they become unstable.) The GFA appropriation is $1.15 billion for its first five years of implementation. Dividing this sum evenly among the four GFA focus countries (Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea) and one region (coastal West Africa) would result in approximately $46 million annually for all the coastal countries. This compares to the approximately $400 million in total U.S. economic and security assistance obligated for the region in 2021, the $524.7 million MCC compact that entered into force for Ivory Coast in 2019, and the most recent $315.9 million compact for Ghana that ran from 2016 to 2022.
As noted in the introduction, enlisting African partners in developing GFA policy options is the most realistic approach given the region’s low ranking in the hierarchy of U.S. security concerns. This approach focuses on risk and crisis mitigation, taking into account the challenges posed by demographic and economic pressures. A logical first step toward developing these options would be using existing U.S. programs to identify governmental and nongovernmental parties at the local, national, and regional levels whose values and interests align with GFA goals. A second step would be to facilitate productive relationships among these groups and develop ties with the United States and its regional and international partners, thereby building country-specific strategies iteratively and collaboratively. A third step would be to empower these actors with resources and status while containing potential spoilers whose behaviors contribute to instability.
The following are specific actions and institutional changes that should be taken to help advance GFA goals. Since setbacks are likely, these recommendations position the United States primarily as an indirect actor with the overall aim of nudging conditions as opportunities arise.
Employ White House and cabinet-level engagement to shape elite behavior. Specific policy actions should prioritize diplomacy to stabilize the precarious political backdrops in each of the countries and the broader region. Timely, sustained, and high-level U.S. diplomacy that encourages national leaders to respect constitutional norms and open political space to opposition parties could mitigate destabilizing crises. Doing so could help protect and increase the political influence of U.S. partners in civil society and government. As demonstrated recently in Burkina Faso and Mali, security and peace-building achievements can be quickly reversed by political spoilers who exacerbate grievances and politicize security institutions. Diplomacy that steers leaders away from such behaviors can propel countries onto more stable trajectories and empower more constructive actors.
U.S. diplomacy—including White House involvement—convinced former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings and former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi to retire, open political space, and allow for civilian democratic succession despite their previous histories of authoritarian rule. Both countries probably would have fallen into unstable trajectories had Rawlings and Moi not done so. As Herman Cohen documents in his history of U.S. policy in Africa, U.S. presidential involvement and intervention at critical moments have been essential to shaping favorable outcomes in Africa.
The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) espouses values and norms that align with GFA principles and could serve as a forceful diplomatic partner for the United States. Involving other partners from Africa, Europe, and beyond could bolster diplomatic initiatives but should be carefully weighed against national rivalries, colonial legacies, and other factors that could detract from such partnerships.
Augment and coordinate outreach, exchange, and security cooperation programs to identify and empower preferred parties. GFA effectiveness will also depend on the number and influence of parties aligned with U.S. goals. As indicated in the assessment of constraints, personal networks of trust are essential for exerting influence and shaping the trajectory of events in West Africa. Research literature on this topic suggests that investing in lasting personal ties with important influencers across society, not just in governments, could help position the United States to mitigate future instability. In other words, ties that are valid and meaningful in a local African cultural context could provide outsiders an important means of communication and insight into the dynamics affecting stability, especially in times of crisis or radical change. They are also essential for identifying and enabling the local actors who are most motivated to improve relationships between state and society. As the research and analysis on the personal nature of politics in West Africa also suggests, outsiders lacking such ties are susceptible to manipulation by local partners with ulterior motives that can lead to instability.
Existing programs—such as the Peace Corps, the International Visitor’s Program (IVP), Fulbright, and the Young Africa Leaders Initiative—offer low-cost, off-the-shelf opportunities to develop the special relationships needed to inform and facilitate implementation of the GFA. When appropriate, linking participants in some of these programs with those in U.S. security cooperation efforts could help improve state-society relationships and broaden participation in mitigating violence and instability. With GFA resources, these programs could be broadened or used as templates for new initiatives specifically aligned with GFA goals. Some studies suggest these types of programs are low in cost and risk and have demonstrated effectiveness in building U.S.-oriented constituencies in Africa [PDF] while simultaneously increasing U.S. area knowledge. The programs are also highly flexible and can be tailored to focus on country-specific requirements.
GFA resources also could be used to expand participation and ensure that exchange and outreach programs have the involvement of important population segments. In their policy recommendations for the GFA, Susanna Campbell and Corinne Graff from the U.S. Institute of Peace have emphasized the importance of regular consultation with different parties as a central element of violence prevention. Following this logic, GFA implementers could ensure programs are collectively reaching the public and private sectors, formal and informal business communities, civilian and military government institutions, incumbent and opposition political parties, geographic centers and peripheries, social elites and marginal groups, and multiple generations, including youth. They could also facilitate interaction among these different population segments by, for example, bringing together alumni from civilian and military exchange programs, such as the IVP and International Military Education and Training. The Ambassador’s Special Self-Help Fund is another existing platform that GFA implementers could fund to amplify the local reach of U.S. missions, especially in geographic regions or among groups not touched by other U.S. programs.
Align and leverage better-resourced programs to empower like-minded partners. The GFA’s credibility will depend on the degree to which better-resourced signature programs, such as the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and MCC, are integrated into stabilization strategies, both within the U.S. interagency policymaking process and in public messaging. Though constrained by their congressional authorities, the existing U.S. programs and initiatives in coastal West Africa offer a vast array of established networks, platforms, and local knowledge that GFA implementers could tap to strengthen state-society relationships. GFA policy recommendations published by other think tanks emphasize the importance of interagency coordination as a central determinant of effectiveness. Along these lines, the integration of GFA implementers into planning discussions for well-established U.S. assistance programs could also help identify creative ways of aligning the programs with the broader strategic goal of stability.
Build a cadre of specialists to demonstrate commitment to the region. GFA credibility and effectiveness will also depend on the degree to which U.S. officials demonstrate lasting professional commitment to the region through understanding of socio-cultural nuances and an ability to speak local African languages. The GFA could make this possible by creating a cadre of specialists across U.S. agencies—including the Department of Defense—to work in the region for at least five years so they can develop deep working relationships with African partners. An assessment of U.S. training efforts in Mali [PDF], for example, has identified high turnover of trainers and shortness of deployments as an impediment to effectiveness. Promotion and compensation incentives probably would be required to attract high-caliber officials away from more career enhancing and higher visibility policy portfolios. Such incentives would be important to motivate officials to develop knowledge and language skills that are not transferable beyond relatively small geographic areas. Incentivizing and enabling U.S. personnel to travel throughout coastal countries for extended and regular visits, including in remote and potentially insecure areas, would further boost GFA credibility and effectiveness.
Augment U.S. development assistance to increase employment opportunities. If resources are available, investing in economic initiatives in which the United States has a comparative advantage and broad bipartisan domestic constituencies, such as agriculture, could help create employment and income-generation opportunities that could improve state-society relationships. Gains achieved through conflict mitigation programs led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and efforts to counter violent extremism will be in constant jeopardy if not complemented with noticeable economic improvements that convince populations that national governments are working in their best interests. When appropriate, collaborating on economic programs with like-minded international partners such as Japan could also increase their influence.
These strategic actions could take years to yield tangible results. Nonetheless, the actions would build a more durable foundation for shaping the strategic environment and mitigating emergent crises than direct and prescriptive interventions aimed at achieving immediate palliative effects. It would allow for decentralized and tailored GFA implementation at the country-level to minimize bureaucratic drag and the imposition of U.S.-centric policies, both of which the GFA seeks to avoid. It also would facilitate locally driven and resourced efforts, in contrast to existing technocratic and resource-intensive development, humanitarian, and security initiatives.
The stability of coastal West Africa will remain precarious as long as states lack legitimacy among significant segments of their populations and security in neighboring countries continues to deteriorate. Potential instability would not threaten vital U.S. security interests but could nonetheless undermine decades of investment in humanitarian, development, and democratic goals. Further instability would also increase local disillusionment with Western modes of governance and values.
The scale and complexity of the region’s challenges far exceed the resources and authorities currently available for U.S. policymakers, especially for a region low in the hierarchy of national security concerns. Nonetheless, the United States could play a role in mitigating instability through White House–level diplomacy with regional leaders, complementary outreach to governmental and nongovernmental actors aligned with GFA goals, and focused economic initiatives that capitalize on U.S. comparative advantages. This approach could improve the ability of the United States to shape the region’s trajectory, especially if driven by a cadre of regional specialists with the requisite skills and knowledge to develop personal relationships and trust with these actors.
This paper was made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.