Do African Problems Really Have African Solutions?

Anne Lauder, Hilary Matfess
Sunday, April 21, 2024, 9:00 AM
Recent events in Africa are weakening ECOWAS, providing a foothold for Russian influence, and risking an escalation in Somalia.
Soldiers from West African militaries participate in Exercise Western Accord, a joint training exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps, in July 2012 in Thies, Senegal.

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Editor’s Note: Africa has long suffered from outside meddling, resulting in calls for “African solutions to African problems.” But this goal remains elusive. The Korbel School’s Anne Lauder and Hilary Matfess assess three developments—the withdrawal of key states from ECOWAS, the continuation of Russian mercenary activity, and the Ethiopian deal with Somaliland—and argue that African institutions are in decline.

Daniel Byman


For more than three decades, African governments and policymakers around the globe have advocated for “African solutions to African problems.” The phrase was originally a call for African governments to eschew foreign interventions to problems on the continent—though as the years have ticked by, the “African solutions to African problems” framework has been stretched beyond its original intent. With the announcement of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali’s withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the reformulation of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group as Africa Corps, and roiling tensions in the Horn of Africa over state sovereignty, what constitutes an “African solution” is changing. Previously relevant regional bodies, domestic institutions, and continental norms are eroding, and these developments could reverberate in ways that undermine human security, shrink civic spaces, and harm democratic norms intended to bolster peace and resiliency.

Downsizing at ECOWAS

Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali sent a formal notice at the end of January announcing their intentions to leave ECOWAS. However, tensions in the regional body had been ratcheting up for years. While much of the friction can be attributed to the fact that each of these countries is led by a military government that came to power via coup, the roots of the falling-out extend deeper. As a retired general from the Nigerian military, Saleh Bala, noted in a recent episode of the Into Africa podcast, ECOWAS lacks a connection to African citizens. Before the countries announced their withdrawal, frustration was reportedly mounting among African citizens that, while the regional body excoriated the military takeovers, it had failed to address popular discontent across West Africa, including the grievances in the three junta-led states that preceded—and created space for—coups. In response to these unlawful overthrows, ECOWAS has adopted a variety of approaches, which have included calls for the return of civilian rule, sanctions against coup leaders (though some sanctions have since been eased in a bid to encourage dialogue), and even threats of military intervention in Niger following the coup in 2023. ECOWAS also suspended all three members, citing a 2001 protocol that establishes “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means,” a hardline response also intended to deter coups in other member countries. Juntas of a feather flock together, and in September 2023 the three governments announced the creation of a security pact, the Alliance of Sahel States. More recently, they announced a joint fighting force to combat jihadism.

By way of explanation for their departure from ECOWAS, the three governments released a statement that accused the regional body of being “under the influence of foreign powers, [and] betraying its founding principles.” They further denounced ECOWAS sanctions and derided the organization for not providing sufficient support to their fight against extremist rebels. Fissures have also developed on other fronts. Benin, an ECOWAS member, solicited Rwanda’s help to combat Islamic militancy in 2022, indicating faltering confidence in the bloc’s capabilities to tackle security threats across the region.

The three countries’ criticism directed toward ECOWAS, coupled with their distancing themselves from former colonial power France and cozying up to Russia, suggests a troubling throughline connecting these countries’ undemocratic domestic, regional, and international politics. The fracturing of ECOWAS and Benin’s partnership with Rwanda also indicates that the body’s ability to convene regional responses to security and political challenges in West Africa is waning. Though ECOWAS is an imperfect body, its decline in relevance speaks to a degradation in regional cooperation in pursuit of stability and democratic governance.

Africa Corps and Wagner’s Legacy

The reconstitution of the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group as “Africa Corps,” which is reportedly already active in Burkina Faso, raises a number of important questions about the future of Russian involvement on the continent, as well as the future of “African solutions to African problems.” Notably, Africa Corps is reportedly structured differently from Wagner; the group operates under the direct control of the Russian defense ministry, establishing clearer institutional links to Moscow. In some ways, this is a recognition of the worst-kept secret in geopolitics: the cozy relationship between the Kremlin and the mercenary force. Some analysts from London and South Africa and a former U.S. diplomat have suggested that a formalization of this relationship will make it harder for Russia to escape culpability for the forces acting under its auspices, but there is reason to be skeptical.

The reinvention of the Wagner Group was an anticipated but not inevitable development. The future of Wagner was unclear after the death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in an August 2023 plane crash probably arranged by the Putin regime. The organization, which is known to have operated with the stamp of Russian approval, though without Russia’s formal acknowledgment, served as an important vehicle for connecting the Kremlin to African governments across the continent. There is evidence that Wagner had been expanding its presence on the continent, even while Russia’s military was focused on the ongoing war in Ukraine.

While the Wagner Group has unique geopolitical salience, it is far from the first foreign private security outfit to be contracted by African governments. The group, however, was not cut from the same industry cloth as many of its contemporaries. Compared with other private military and security companies, Wagner was a notably more unregulated and amorphous network than corporately structured companies, such as Executive Outcomes. This nebulous structure can increase the likelihood of reckless behavior, including human rights abuses. Wagner operations were consistently associated with deleterious consequences for human security, including civilian massacres and resource exploitation in places such as the Central African Republic and Mali. Such violence against civilians has reportedly been counterproductive and had the effect of “driving local populations into the arms of extremists.”

The expansion of Russian influence on the continent may spur the United States and other Western powers to attempt to counter Russian influence by expanding their own military and security presence. In Sudan, there is evidence that Ukrainian special forces are supporting Sudan’s army in its battle against Wagner contractors aligned with the rebel group Rapid Support Forces. A reemergence of Cold War proxy dynamics is hardly an environment conducive to the implementation of “African solutions to African problems.”

Sovereignty, Security, and the Sea in the Horn of Africa

In January, Somaliland announced “it had agreed to lease land to Ethiopia to build a naval facility on its coast in return for the latter’s recognition of its statehood.” Somaliland is currently an unrecognized state located in northern Somalia, and Ethiopian recognition of Somaliland’s claims to statehood would be a major development in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia stated that the agreement allows it to make an “in-depth assessment” of whether to recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state, somewhat moderating Somaliland’s characterization of the deal, but Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has previously underscored that the landlocked country is willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain access to the sea. The government of Somalia has responded with strong condemnation of the move, threatening military retaliation and claiming that the agreement violates their sovereignty. Some analysts fear that the rising tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia could escalate into military confrontations. According to the International Crisis Group, “Mogadishu has thus far refused to enter bilateral talks with Addis: Abiy reportedly tried to speak with [Somali] President Mohamud, but Mogadishu insists that Addis pull out of the memorandum before the two leaders meet face to face.” However, under international pressure, Ethiopia has since expressed some willingness to retract the deal’s most contentious components while remaining eager for coastal access.

These developments not only affect regional relations but also may subvert Somalia’s decades-long fight against al-Shabaab. While Ethiopia is considering walking the agreement back, there are already indications that al-Shabaab is exploiting distaste for the deal to undercut the Somali government and drive recruitment, calling on Somalis to defend their country against foreign interference. Al-Shabaab may also be able to exploit the rift between Somalia and Ethiopia if Mogadishu expels the Ethiopian troops that have been supporting operations against the terrorist group. Taken together, this could embolden al-Shabaab and risk reversing the hard-won successes of recent military campaigns that have enabled the government to reclaim some territory from the group.

Problems in Search of Solutions

There were never going to be universal or unanimously agreed upon African solutions to African problems, but these developments suggest a weakening of the bodies, relationships, and norms that have underpinned this agenda in recent decades. ECOWAS’s declining stature, the role of Russian mercenaries, and tensions over sovereignty in the Horn all reflect eroding continental norms regarding the importance of democratic governance, peaceful resolution of political disagreements, and the protection of civilians. These changes have implications for civilian safety, regional stability, and influence within the international order.

If ECOWAS’s influence continues to wane, the region will have lost more than a body for economic cooperation. It also will have lost a critical body for spreading and institutionalizing democratic norms. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how the events following the 2016 election in Gambia would have transpired absent ECOWAS’s credible threat to remove democratically ousted autocrat Yahya Jammeh. After initially refusing to accept election results, Jammeh responded to ECOWAS’s threats of military intervention by voluntarily stepping down and departing the country in January 2017. Ineffectual threats and sanctions against Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali suggest that the strength of the anti-coup norm and ECOWAS’s credibility are on the downswing.

The reformulation of the Wagner Group as Africa Corps also portends an expansion of Russian influence on the continent. While foreign engagement across Africa is hardly a novel development, previous experiences with mercenary forces underscore the threat to civilian well-being that they represent. The redesign of Africa Corps and the Kremlin’s disregard for civilian casualties at the hands of Wagner and state forces in Ukraine suggest that Africa Corps’s expansion will expose civilians to mass suffering and increased human rights abuses. Russian-linked forces have thus far been given little incentive from the Kremlin and the countries contracting their services to behave well. While Africa Corps is more institutionalized than Wagner, this is no guarantee of restraint. Africa Corps is also intended to be much larger than its predecessor, creating more opportunities for violence and abuse.

Furthermore, the simmering international tensions in the Horn of Africa could result in war—through either proxy forces or direct military confrontation. The recognition of Somaliland could also embolden separatist movements across the continent, some of which are already involved in protracted conflicts.

These developments suggest a new fight over what constitutes “African solutions to African problems”—with implications for the security of African civilians and the global balance of power.

Anne Lauder recently graduated with an M.A. in international studies from the University of Denver. She is a research consultant at the International Code of Conduct Association, focusing on improving adherence to human rights and international humanitarian law during private security operations.
Hilary Matfess is an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She is also a Council on Foreign Relations term fellow, a research fellow at the Research on International Policy Implementation Lab, and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program.

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