This is a guest post by Catherine Kelly, a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Harvard University; and Jason Warner, a Ph.D. student in African Studies and Government at Harvard University.
Sub-Saharan Africa is an increasingly important theater of operation for the U.S. military. From al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and Ansar Dine, the Department of Defense is recognizing that Africa will be a vital strategic battlefield in the next century.
Yet in discussions of future African security policy, the potential role of opposition political parties in Africa has received virtually no attention. Following are three reasons why the Department of Defense should pay close attention to African opposition parties.
1) Opposition parties can be barometers of domestic opinion about foreign presence. Opposition parties’ rhetoric on U.S. foreign policy and intervention—when it exists—can reveal local attitudes that incumbent governments may not openly share. This is especially helpful in countries such as Djibouti, Niger, and Ethiopia, where the U.S. military is currently engaged in a wide range of activities including military training, crisis management exercises, drone activities against al-Qaeda, and operating the United States’ only military base on the continent; Camp Lemonnier.
Foreign policy debates tend to have scant prominence in African elections, precisely because of the limited range of choices available to some of the world’s weakest states. But major opposition party leaders almost invariably have more social and cultural capital than foreign diplomats, and thus have the potential to function as intermediaries between the U.S. government and the wider African public on potentially contentious issues.
2) Today’s opponents could be tomorrow’s incumbents. Being cordial to (and even cautiously supportive of) opposition parties is deeply important in states where regime changes—electoral or otherwise—are likely. The absence of such a contingency plan in the event of a regime transition limits U.S. policy options. In late March 2012, for instance, the U.S. offered few critiques as Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, repressed supporters of the Union for National Salvation (USN) opposition coalition. Were the USN ever to control the presidency, the U.S. could potentially face expulsion from the U.S. military base Camp Lemonnier. Given Djibouti’s geographic proximity to volatile and strategically important countries in the Horn of Africa, the loss of such a geostrategic foothold would profoundly undermine the United States’ already modest security assistance capabilities throughout the region.
3) Certain opposition members are potential interlocutors on issues of conflict and terrorism. Major opposition party leaders can play integral roles in local conflict resolution efforts, and often exhibit the capacity to encourage or stem particular antagonistic behaviors among the populace. For instance, the leaders of six major opposition parties in southern Sudan recently joined rebel groups in “endorsing peaceful and armed opposition to Sudan’s government;” and in Kenya’s 2007 elections, ethnic violence, allegedly fueled by certain ruling and opposition party leaders, reduced regional stability and inflicted devastating human costs.
Although opposition leaders in these contexts can at times exacerbate delicate security situations, their social networks could also potentially facilitate the resolution of other U.S. security concerns. To this end, Eritrea’s opposition parties—some of which apparently launched an unsuccessful coup attempt in January 2013—could be the key to the U.S. acquiring domestic leverage on President Isaias Afewerki, a known source of regional instability in the Horn of Africa.
This said, although opposition parties might have some role in mediating security outcomes, opposition leaders are almost never the most central players involved in such instances, nor are they necessarily tied to insurgencies that serve as the core security concerns of most African regimes. Nevertheless, cultivating opposition leaders as potential participants in peacebuilding, transparency, or counterterrorism measures could indeed increase the quality of human and state security on the continent.
In summary, although democratization is not yet the norm in Africa, the trends towards greater political opening across the continent signal new opportunities for U.S. military engagement. As such, though it is the Department of State that invariably shoulders the responsibility for crafting U.S. diplomatic policy regarding opposition parties, the Department of Defense—a silent observer on the political front—should be deeply cognizant of the security implications bound up in the politics of African opposition parties. Indeed, given the unavoidable U.S. reliance on a mix of authoritarian and democratic allies for security-related initiatives in Africa, an effective U.S. security strategy must continue evolving to take heed of the unique roles played by opposition parties on the continent.