Leading Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were critical of the United States’ response to a series of coups in West Africa since President Biden took office, during a hearing on Tuesday.
There has been a wave of coups in the region, including in Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Gabon, and Mali. Although the U.S. government initially refused to label the military takeovers in Niger and Gabon coups, it has deemed both a coup this month.
But senators including committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said it was clear that the U.S. government needed a “critical evaluation” of its policies on handling coups.
“I would just argue the fact that we don’t have a consistent response to those who participate in coups has led to the view that you can commit a coup and still remain a relationship with the United States,” Cardin said.
In countries like Niger, where the United States has large military bases, the coup designation posed tricky questions about military ties with the new junta, likely contributing to the delay. And in places like Gabon, the US halted non-humanitarian aid even before officially acknowledging the coup.
Cardin said the U.S. must stop sending mixed messages and “take a principal stance when coups occur.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) also called out America’s “intelligence failure” in the region, noting that several US-trained military officials took part in the coup efforts, including in Niger, where American provided weapons and gear were used as well.
Appearing before the committee, Molly Phee, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, admitted that those links were concerning, but said was not representative of the Department of Defense’s training program, which has trained thousands of foreign soldiers.
“I want to say that we all share the disappointment that military leaders with whom we have worked would make a decision to support a coup,” Phee said. “Generally speaking, they have positive results. It’s certainly something we can review.”
Several senators expressed concern over the delay in recognizing the coups in Niger and Gabon, and asked why the US was not hitting the new leaders with sanctions, as the European Union has done in Niger.
“Some of us think [the delay] may have shown the military authorities that the consequences of a coup are not going to be felt,” Cardin said. “They look at the fact that we have not imposed sanctions on any of the individuals involved in coups. To me, it’s giving the wrong signals… that the consequences won’t be there.”
Phee said U.S. allies in the region have asked to delay sanctions as they try to restore Niger’s democracy on their own.
“Our friends and partners in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) all asked us to delay making our formal assessment because they were fully committed to trying to restore President Bazoum to power, and they thought that our statement would derail their efforts,” Phee answered. “We were trying to support the subregion in its efforts to promote democracy and the restoration of democracy.”
The official U.S. designation of a coup triggers the application of Section 7008, which bars direct aid to governments in countries where the “duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup d’état or decree.”
However, in some cases the U.S. has sought to continue varying levels of humanitarian aid or, in the case of Mali, ongoing support for law enforcement. But Phee said the State Department had learned from that experience.
“We have adjusted our policy because what we did in Mali didn’t work,” Phee said. “So, what we are doing now in Niger and Gabon, we are applying 7008 but also incorporating other US government assistance and cooperation so there’s an across-the-board suspension.”
“We believe we were making a very positive impact in Niger, but we have suspended those activities because of the coup, and we have told the authorities that our partnership was making a difference and if they’d like to resume that partnership, they need to make changes,” Phee added.
Another challenge facing America’s present in West Africa is vacancies of ambassador posts, due largely to a hold from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
According to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), “In Africa alone there are 11 vacant ambassador posts.”
“When we are not there, we cannot compete with China and Russia,” Shaheen said, asking Phee to assess the impact of the vacancies.
“When we are missing that voice, we are diminished in all of our efforts,” Phee said.
“I ask you to support the administration’s budget requests and confirm ambassadors.”