Violence or vaccines: Which path for U.S. in Africa?

By Michael Shank
August 6, 2014

A U.S. Special Forces trainer conducts a military assault drill for a unit within the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) during an exercise in Nzara on the outskirts of Yambio

Africa is the new frontier for the U.S. Defense Department. The Pentagon has applied counterterrorism tactics throughout the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Central and South Asia. Now it is monitoring the African continent for counterterrorism initiatives. It staged more than 546 military exercises on the continent last year, a 217 percent increase since 2008, and is now involved in nearly 50 African countries.


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U.S. military and police aid to all Africa this year totaled nearly $1.8 billion, with additional arms sales surpassing $800 million. In terms of ensuring Africa’s safety and security, however, the return on this investment is questionable.

To match feature LEONE-MALARIA/What if, for example, that money was instead spent eradicating pervasive viruses that are undermining Africa’s future? Yellow fever vaccination doses cost less than $1.00 and Hepatitis B vaccination doses cost 25 cents or less. These viruses, and their deadly bedfellows like Ebola, are the real threats terrorizing African communities — and more deserving of U.S. defense dollars.

The Pentagon’s serious ramp-up in funds and focus is an apparent response to the rise of groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the various insurgencies throughout Mali, Libya and Uganda. Yet the heavy U.S. military footprint is doing little to address the pressing socioeconomic needs of impoverished people in the Horn of Africa or politically and economically marginalized communities in West Africa.

The violence in these countries — from Nigeria in the west to Somalia in the east — is getting worse, despite increasing U.S. drone strikes, airstrikes, military advisers, joint special operations and other counterterrorism tactics. Relying on hard power in Africa does not address the root causes behind the many extremist groups.

Consider Somalia. U.S. military and police aid to this war-torn country totals more than $72 million this year, which includes weapons acquisitions, military training and tactical support on the ground. Yet in Mogadishu, where I visited last year, Al-Shabaab reportedly recruits unemployed youth with little more than $20 and a cell phone.

U.S. Special Operations Command Africa commanding general Brigadier General Linder shakes hands with a Nigerien military officer during Flintlock 2014 in NiameyIn a country where one in five Somali children dies before age 5, we can and must do better — especially given the entirely preventable famine that killed 250,000 Somalis in 2010-2012. If we care about curtailing recruitment by extremists on the Horn of Africa, we need to offer better alternatives with sustainable livelihoods.

Cameroon is another example. When I was a U.S. congressional staffer in 2011, we helped the Cameroon government launch an anti-malaria campaign. We delivered insecticide-treated mosquito nets that cost roughly $10 per bed.  In 2014, U.S. military and police aid to Cameroon came to nearly $1.5 million, along with at least $7 million in arms sales. Combined, the total $8.5 million could have bought 850,000 bed nets. If it’s about saving lives in Cameroon, the answer is more likely found in bed nets than bombs.

Going forward, the African continent will need to work with the international community to counter security threats facing each country, whether food-, water- or resource-related, or problems with nonstate actors. The question is how.

A worker looks for holes in mosquito netting at A to Z Textile Mills in Arusha, TanzaniaMore big-business engagement by multinationals like Coca-Cola (which pledged to invest $5 billion in Africa over six years) and Marriott Hotels, as President Barack Obama promised Tuesday in Washington at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, won’t directly or immediately help the impoverished and unemployed on the streets of Mogadishu or the marginalized in northern Nigeria.

Africa-centric agendas, however, require longer game plans, with development strategies that are locally owned, locally administered and sustainably funded. The quick fix of a drone strike will likely only increase the continent’s instability. The same applies to the quick fix of top-down corporate funding or aid relief. The real terror on the continent remains the elusiveness of a sustainable, grass-roots development agenda that is genuinely inclusive.

That should be Washington’s focus. It’s time to stop looking at Africa through the barrel of a gun.


PHOTO (TOP): A U.S. Special Forces trainer conducts a military assault drill for a unit within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during an exercise in Nzara on the outskirts of Yambio. November 29, 2013. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Sulay Momoh Jongo, 7, is seen inside a mosquito net in a mud hut in Mallay village, southern Sierra Leone, on April 8, 2008. REUTERS/Katrina Manson

PHOTO (INSERT 2): U.S. Special Operations Command Africa commanding general Brigadier General James Linder (R) shakes hands with a Nigerien military officer during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Niamey, March 9, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney

PHOTO (INSERT 3): A worker looks for holes in mosquito netting at A to Z Textile Mills in Arusha, Tanzania, February 18, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young



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