With recent military coups in July in Niger and in August in Gabon, commentators have heaped blame on the United States. Last year it was a coup in Mali and two in Burkina Faso, and, according to The Intercept, “at least 14 US-trained officers have taken part in coups in West Africa since 2008.” Piling on in a House Armed Services Committee hearing in March 2023, Congressman Matt Gaetz grilled the Commander of US Africa Command, insinuating, “why should US taxpayers be paying to train people who then lead coups in Africa?”
Asked for his perspective on the US military being blamed for the recent coup in Niger, a senior Nigerian military officer called that assessment “laughable,” adding, “You can say the same for Nigeria as after the US.” He then explained that many of the Niger coup-leaders, along with many other African military personnel, receive substantial military training and education from the Nigerian armed forces. And much like the US, Nigeria also emphasizes to foreign military personnel the need to respect civilian control, human rights, and international law.
Blaming the United States for coups is part of a Cold War hangover. The reality is that Africa has problems with governance and instability, which leads to a competitive security assistance marketplace. Western military powers and strategic competitors like China and Russia provide military aid for multiple reasons, but ultimately it serves the national interest in gaining access and influence with host-nation leadership. Having interviewed hundreds of military personnel from over 30 African countries over the last 8 years, I contend that many of these officers trained by the US and other Western countries have also been militarily trained and educated by authoritarian countries, such as China and Russia, and less democratic countries such as Brazil, India, and Pakistan. Providing military aid, education, and training to the average African country is an attempt to empower countries to combat extremism and provide for the safety, security, and stability of their society. For many Western countries, the strategic hope is that such security assistance will transform young democracies into established democracies capable of addressing internal and regional threats.
A competitive security assistance marketplace
Western military assistance is not causing the growing insecurity across Africa. True, the US military has been courting the coup leader, General Moussa Salaou Barmou, for almost 30 years. The seeming correlation between US security assistance and coups leads many commentators to imply that the Pentagon is militarizing underdeveloped nations. However, the July 2023 coup in Niger comes at a time where other strategic competitors, like China and Russia, have been making inroads across the continent for influence via military assistance. Likewise, the 2023 Gabon coup leader, General Brice Oligui Nguema, received some of his military education from the Moroccan military, and seems to have no educational or training ties to the US or other Western powers.
The marketplace of security assistance in Africa is competitive because many powers have an interest in shaping and influencing military leadership, professionalism, and effectiveness. Accordingly, over 40 African countries are receiving various forms of military assistance (e.g., contractors, weapons, advisors, etc.) from China and/or Russia, which is sometimes provided purely out of realpolitik reasons of gaining access to markets, protecting investments, and resource extraction projects. In fact, due to Russia’s preoccupation with its invasion of Ukraine, Russian military assistance has significantly declined, with China boosting its economic and security assistance across Africa to outcompete the US, Russia, and others. The filling of gaps and seams by China is best reflected by the sentiment of one African naval officer: “All Africans want democracy. We all want to be like the United States. We need help with roads and infrastructure, but our governments cannot work with USAID and the World Bank. Who can the people get help from? If not China, who?” With the recent BRICS Summit, there appears to be an attempt at building an alternative system to the US-led international rules based system. Security assistance in Africa appears to be a step in this direction, especially to fill voids (e.g., investments, security, infrastructure, etc.) that the US and other Western powers will not.
It is true that the US provides more foreign military and assistance than any other country. In total, the amount exceeds $400 billion since 2000. Just because the US military interacts with another military does not mean such aid causes coups. Even though there have been over 30 successful military coups around the world since 2000, many of these countries were receiving minimal amounts of US security aid and training compared to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia that collectively received over $130 billion in military assistance. Likewise, Ukraine has received over $40 billion US security assistance since Russia invaded in February of 2022.
However, if money is to blame, one could also blame Canada or Europe for the coups in Mali and Niger. Canada has spent hundreds of millions on aid and training for both countries over the last two decades. Put in context, since 2000, the US has provided about $207 million and $259 million in security assistance to Mali and Niger respectively. Similarly, the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali had been operating since 2013. EUTM training helped “the Malian Armed Forces in restoring their military capacity through of the provision of advice, education and training.” In this same timeframe, the EU conducted Common Security and Defence Policy missions to Mali and Niger – to strengthen the “capacity of internal security forces” – spending approximately €66 million and €69 million on Mali and Niger respectively.
But beyond security assistance, growing evidence suggests other causes may undermine stability, which are precursors to military coups. For example, climate change across the Sahel region, decreased rainfall, and shrinking freshwater sources are leading to increased violence and more extremist groups. In turn, this causes more instability and the perception of failing governance, leading some citizens and military personnel to believe that an overthrow of the regime would facilitate better responses and solutions.
More US military assistance, more coup?
Critiques about the ills of American security assistance abound. There is of course the standard discourse that security assistance, especially to fragile states, undermines the authority, legitimacy, and capacity of the government. There is also the “Fabergé Egg” army problem, where too much US military assistance to a weak state creates a corrupt rent-seeking foreign military dependency, “contingent on advisors babysitting partner forces indefinitely.” Such expensively built militaries (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Vietnam, etc.) eventually “crack” in the face of lesser-equipped insurgents.
One could even be contrarian and suggest that the US should actually be providing more military aid and training to foreign militaries in weak states to reduce the likelihood of coups. Similar logic was suggested in a 2018 article in Democratization, whereby young democracies can avoid the coup trap by increasing military expenditures to meet the “corporate interests” (i.e. benefits, weapon systems, etc.) of the military. Likewise, normative arguments arise in the discipline to describe notions of a “good coup, bad coup,” where a coup is deemed good for protecting “against other threats to democracy… paving the way for fresh elections and a handover to a democratically elected government.” But a coup is deemed bad when the “military plays an increasingly assertive and influential role in the country’s affairs… martial law becomes the norm.”
There are also human capital arguments. Jesse Dillon Savage and Jonathan Caverley argued in a 2017 article that US military training leads to increases in the human capital of foreign military personnel, which “alters the balance of power between the military and the regime resulting in greater coup propensity.” While they are correct that a more educated individual might find their corrupt regime bad enough to decide to overthrow it, this should not implicate the US or any foreign education program. Through fieldwork interviews with many officers from African countries, I have discovered that US military and education training programs are the most coveted slots. Thus, sometimes an officer gets a slot to a war college in the US due to regime patronage purposes, and in other cases the officer gets the slot based on merit and motivation.
Others, such as investigative journalist Nick Turse, take a more conspiratorial view of any and all American military activities around the world. For instance, he has suggested that the US Global War on Terror has led to the doubling of extremist groups and stated that American “trained and educated officers are toppling governments and expanding American proxy power.” Such tropes suggest that the US is bent on militarizing these societies, but the core of any Western military assistance curricula is democratic civil-military relations, a non-partisan military, and civilian control of the security forces.
Other outlets appear influenced by such fallacious logic. For example, the United States Institute of Peace and Cato Institute have published articles suggesting that Western military aid contributed to coups occurring in Mali and Guinea. Suspicion of American and Western security assistance is a hangover from the Cold War tropes about the US sacrificing its values in certain parts of the world to out-compete the Soviet Union and defeat communism.
The fallacious Cold War hangover
The Cold War hangover is understandable. The US facilitated 64 covert regime changes during the Cold War. It was a time when the US government supported military leaders in the overthrow of occasionally democratically elected leaders because the country had changed its pro-US alignment to the Soviet Union.
However, continued suspicion of US military assistance in a post-Cold War era to support pro-US regime change, is becoming a shaky assertion. This is because the US has increasingly promoted a rules-based international order, which has meant advocating democracy, human rights, democracy, and rule of law. In fact, the US government indirectly intervened against coup plotters in The Gambia to prevent a coup in December of 2014. Even though Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh was running “The Worst Dictatorship you’ve Never Heard of,” the US chose to preserve the rules-based order in lieu of a Gambian regime change led by some “middle-aged American immigrants.”
To be fair, critics of American military aid can point to Egypt. In 2013, Egyptian Army General Sisi, who is a 2006 US Army War College graduate, staged a coup against democratically elected President Morsi. Due to larger geopolitical concerns, the US continued providing tens of billions of economic assistance and military aid to Egypt, likely because General Sisi was viewed as a better alternative than Morsi, who was perceived by some for growing totalitarianism and Islamic fascism. US interests in Niger are equally caught in the balance of realpolitik and Western values, because the US has two drone bases in Niger that are heavily relied upon for counterterrorism operations in the region.
Unfortunately, geopolitics and strategic competition leads to such a realpolitik outcome. Nevertheless, the US had adopted many policies to discourage coups and punish countries for remaining military regimes. For example, several US laws on the books include coup-related restrictions that cease US foreign aid, and 2022 research illustrated that the presence of deployed US forces in a host-nation country actually decreased the risk of coup d’état. Similarly, Renanah Miles Joyce contends that Liberian soldiers that received more US training were more likely to support liberal norms of democracy and human rights. Finally, laws meant to punish military regimes can be easily manipulated, as happened with the 2008 Mauritanian coup d’état. General Abdel Aziz led the new military regime, retired from the military several months after, and then ran as a civilian to ‘democratically’ win the presidency in 2009.
Even though General Barmou is the Niger junta leader that previously trained at Fort Moore (then Fort Benning) and graduated from the US National Defense University in 2008, this does not mean he was primed for coup-making behavior. One could just as easily conclude that General Barmou’s previous experience in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions similarly primed him for the coup. In fact, Jamie Levin, Joseph MacKay, and Anthony Sealey wrote in a 2020 article that “developing states where UN peacekeeping remuneration exceeds per-soldier costs, deployment produces a windfall for militaries … and fearing the loss of them in the future, they may act to depose the incumbent regime.” Knowing that many military personnel in underdeveloped countries become dependent on additional pay through peacekeeping deployments creates a cycle of dependency, creating incentives for the military to maintain the status quo of such high-paying deployments as seen in countries like Burundi.
Returning to the thoughts of my interview with the senior Nigerian military officer, he confided that many of these countries experiencing coups have “limited resources and opportunities” and that military officers in these countries are usually the only “empowered” people in that country. Once being educated or trained anywhere abroad, “most return bitter and feel the only way to enhance their status is to plan a coup.” This begs the ultimate, unanswerable paradoxical question: Should Western governments and militaries not educate or train military personnel from poor, underdeveloped countries because this ‘enlightenment’ might lead to their own self-destructive ‘coup’ behaviors once back in their home country?
Entanglement and fragile states
To overcome the Cold War security assistance hangover, the US and the West must increase transparency and sustain training efforts on respecting humanitarian and international law and deference to civilian control of the armed forces.
For instance, since 1996 the US has released data on how much security aid was spent and the number of foreign military personnel trained. Since then, the International Policy program has compiled that data into an open-access database known as “Security Assistance Monitor.” However, there are few open-releases of how much military assistance Western countries have provided to other countries, besides one database tracking support to Ukraine from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
If not a military approach to weak states, perhaps Western military assistance missions could focus less on developing partner military capacity, and instead focus on peacebuilding and whole-of-society solutions. Such peacebuilding activities could be an effective tool for stabilizing a political context by fostering dialogue and a shared consensus for shared security across the spectrum of formal and informal powerbrokers.
Similarly, the US and its allies and partners could also emphasize the development and professionalization of many African militaries by helping build engineering corps. Many commentators that critique the role and value of militaries tend to forget that the US Army Corps of Engineers played an important role in the development of the United States in the 1800s, as did West Point. By giving each military a domestic purpose through a Sustainable Development Engineering Corps, it would put the human capital of the military to constructive use. Botswana and Senegal present a perfect example of countries that have engineering corps military units dedicated to domestic development purposes. Most importantly, Botswana and Senegal have never suffered a military coup attempt.
Regrettably, there will be more coups this decade and beyond in the developing world. The question is not whether to stop providing military education and training, but rather how the US and its allies and partners can provide whole-of-society approaches (e.g., interagency) to these fragile states. Improving such an approach to weak states will address the root causes of underdevelopment, corruption, and violent extremism – but security assistance will still be an important part of the equation in helping the host-nation security forces maintain peace, security, and stability. Achieving this might allow many of these countries to escape the coup trap by achieving harmonious civil-military relations whereby society and the military is astutely committed to civilian, democratic rule no matter what. Removing US security assistance from the global equation will do more harm than good. Effective American strategic competition in Africa and other underdeveloped parts of the world means identifying where the US can out-compete China and Russia through the right blend of soft and hard power that fosters the Western rules-based order.
Lieutenant Colonel Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek, PhD, (@JaharaMatisek) is a military professor in the National Security Affairs department at the US Naval War College, fellow for the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and US DoD Minerva researcher, having published over ninety articles and essays on strategy, warfare, and security assistance.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Naval War College, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.
Main image: Forces Armées Nigeriennes soldiers conduct close quarters combat training with U.S. Special Forces advisors during Flintlock 2018, on April 13, 2018 in Agadez, Niger.