In Africa, U.S.-Trained Militaries Are Ousting Civilian Governments in Coups

By Michael M. Phillips | Wall Street Journal

A flurry of military coups across Africa has disrupted the U.S. strategy of enlisting local armies to counter Islamist extremists and other security threats. The U.S. has trained thousands of African soldiers, from infantrymen rehearsing counterterrorism raids on the edge of the Sahara to senior commanders attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The programs are a linchpin of U.S. policy on the continent, intended to help African allies professionalize their armed forces to fight armed opponents both foreign and domestic.

But U.S. commanders have watched with dismay over the past year as military leaders in several African allies—including officers with extensive American schooling—have overthrown civilian governments and seized power for themselves, triggering laws that forbid the U.S. government from providing them with weapons or training.

“There’s no one more surprised or disappointed when partners that we’re working with—or have been working with for a while in some cases—decide to overthrow their government,” Rear Adm. Jamie Sands, commander of U.S. special-operations forces in Africa, said this week. “We have not found ourselves able to prevent it, and we certainly don’t assess that we’re causing it.”

The strategic setback was apparent in recent weeks here at Fort Benning, where the U.S. Army hosted its annual gathering of top ground-force commanders from around Africa. Senior soldiers from three dozen African countries watched American recruits tackle boot-camp obstacle courses, witnessed parachute training and saw live-ammo tank and mortar demonstrations.

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The Army withheld invitations from coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, West African countries engaged in existential struggles with al Qaeda and Islamic State. Guinean soldiers, who in September toppled the West African nation’s civilian government, were left out of the Fort Benning events and are no longer included in U.S.-led special-operations exercises.

Sudan’s ruling junta, which last year reversed a U.S.-supported transition to democratic rule, was unwelcome at the Fort Benning summit. Ethiopia hosted the last such gathering in 2020; this year its military is on the outs with the U.S. over alleged human-rights abuses in its war against Tigrayan rebels.

“We don’t control what happens when we leave,” said U.S. Army Col. Michael Sullivan, commander of the 2d Security Force Assistance Brigade, a unit created to advise and train African armies. “We always hope we’re helping countries do the right thing.”

African soldiers watched American troops practice hand-to-hand combat last month at Fort Benning, Georgia.PHOTO: MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Last year, a logistics advisory team from Col. Sullivan’s brigade had just arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and was waiting out its Covid-19 quarantine at a hotel when the Biden administration decided to cancel the deployment “due to our deep concerns about the conflict in northern Ethiopia and human-rights violations and abuses being committed against civilians,” according to a State Department spokesperson.

The advisers completed quarantine and left the country.

“I think everybody is hopeful they will turn the corner again and we’ll be able to work with our Ethiopian partners,” Col. Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, America’s Great Power rivals can seek to take advantage of the U.S. pullback.

Malian commandos attended U.S.-led special-operations exercises in Mauritania in 2020, but were cut off from American training after its military overthrew the president last May. The Malian junta hired Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group to provide security.

The coup and the presence of the Russian agents led to a falling-out between Mali and France, the former colonial power in much of West Africa, and the announcement that Paris would withdraw thousands of troops that were in Mali fighting Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Human Rights Watch alleged this week that the Russians and their Malian allies rounded up and massacred roughly 300 civilian men—some suspected militants—in the town of Moura last month.

“The Malian government is responsible for this atrocity, the worst in Mali in a decade, whether carried out by Malian forces or associated foreign soldiers,” Corinne Dufka, a director of Human Rights Watch, said in a written release.

A Green Beret conducted U.S.-led special-operations exercises with a Guinean soldier in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in 2020.PHOTO: MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Malian Defense Ministry reported that it had killed 203 “terrorists” in the operation and arrested 51 others, seizing weapons and ammunition. The military subsequently announced an investigation into the alleged massacre.

For years, the U.S. trained soldiers from Burkina Faso, which is facing waves of attacks from Islamic State fighters and a coalition of al Qaeda affiliates called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM.

In 2019, Burkina Faso hosted 2,000 commandos from 32 African and Western countries for U.S.-led special-operations exercises, aimed at beefing up security in the Sahel, the semiarid strip just south of the Sahara.

In 2020, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba was among the Burkina Faso army contingent when the American-led exercises moved to Mauritania. Col. Damiba had previously attended a U.S.-sponsored military intelligence course in Senegal and a State Department peacekeeping-training program.

Early this year, the U.S. military was sufficiently concerned about the spread of militant violence in Burkina Faso to dispatch a Special Forces team to Ouagadougou, the capital city, to advise local commandos.

The Green Berets had just arrived when Burkina Faso soldiers, unhappy with the civilian government’s conduct of the war, surrounded the presidential palace, arrested President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, and announced that a military junta, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, would take power.

Eight days after the first burst of gunfire in front of the presidential palace, the junta named Col. Damiba president.

Instead of training local forces, the Green Berets reinforced security at the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou, in case the coup unleashed anti-American unrest. The U.S. also suspended work on plans to send one of Col. Sullivan’s advisory teams to the country.

Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo dropped Burkina Faso from a joint task force being formed to prevent militants in the Sahel from pushing south toward the Gulf of Guinea—a prospect that alarms the Pentagon.

“Burkina was taken out because of the coup,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Oppong-Peprah, Ghana’s army chief of staff.

American officers say their work with African counterparts routinely includes discussion of the importance of civilian control of the military and adherence to the rule of law.

“So these coups are completely opposite to everything that we’re teaching,” Adm. Sands, the special-operations commander, said in a call with reporters.

Still, Michael Shurkin, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, questioned whether American lectures can successfully counter the political pressures Africa armies can face amid fierce insurgencies, ethnic divisions and corrupt civilian governments.

“Why is a year at Fort Leavenworth going to change how you behave politically in your own country?” asked Mr. Shurkin, now with 14 North Strategies, an Africa-focused consulting firm. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

American Green Berets were in the midst of training Guinean special forces last year when the local soldiers broke away to oust the country’s civilian president. The coup leader, special forces Col. Mamady Doumbouya, had headed Guinea’s delegation to the 2019 American-led commando exercises in Burkina Faso.

When they realized they were at the center of an insurrection, the U.S. commandos took shelter at the U.S. Embassy in Conakry, Guinea’s capital. “At this time, the U.S. Africa Command has suspended all training with the Guinea military,” said a U.S. Africa Command spokeswoman.

Sudan, which had forsaken past ties with terror groups, begun a democratic opening and embarked on a sweeping rapprochement with the U.S., was invited to the U.S.-African army summit in 2020. But a military junta retook power last year and launched a bloody crackdown on protesters, losing its invitation to the Fort Benning event.

U.S. officers say they have no choice but to work with other militaries in global security missions; the U.S. practice is to fight its wars alongside allies. “Our intent is to continue to extend a hand to African nations to help them and really help them address some of the underlying causes of these coups,” said Adm. Sands.

Over the past 20 years, Fort Benning, which specializes in infantry, airborne and Ranger training, has hosted 1,650 soldiers from 37 African countries.

“The military should always collaborate,” said Maj. Gen. Chikunkha Harrison Soko, Malawi’s U.S.–trained land-force commander.

Insecurity in one part of the world quickly leaks into others, he said, through refugee flows and the spread of extremist ideologies. “What affects Europe, affects Africa,” Gen. Soko said. “What affects Africa, affects the whole of Europe.”