By DoD News
By Jim Garamone
“Africa matters” was the message that Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III delivered during a speech in Luanda, Angola, this morning.
Austin pledged that the U.S. military will continue to work with African allies and partners to ensure “that Africa enjoys all the protections of the international rules and norms that advance security and prosperity.”
The United States, unlike other nations, sees African nations as partners in building security, stability and freedom.
This was Austin’s first visit to the continent as defense secretary. He visited Djibouti and Kenya before becoming the first defense secretary to visit Angola.
Africa is a diverse continent with more than 50 nations, hundreds of languages and a mélange of cultures. “The Biden administration believes that the future is being written today in Africa,” the secretary said. “And we want to move forward together, through growing partnerships rooted in mutual cooperation and mutual respect.
“I am here because Africa matters,” he continued. “It matters profoundly to the shape of the 21st-century world. And it matters for our common prosperity and our shared security.”
That there are problems on the continent is no secret. African nations face many of the 21st century’s most urgent shared threats, including pandemics, food insecurity, the climate crisis, terrorism, the plundering of resources and the return of autocracy, Austin said.
Still, there are reasons to hope, and Austin said U.S. Africa Command – the combatant command charged with working with partners on the continent – is positioned to provide aid, he said.
The U.S. strategy on the continent is based on real conversations with African partners. “When we all have a seat at the table, when we work as equals toward shared goals, when we listen and not just lecture, when we invest in our common security — then we have the building blocks for a partnership of principle and progress,” the secretary said.
Frank talk is key to progress on the continent. There are challenges in security, counterterrorism and other 21st century dangers. “Now, our military cooperation with our African partners today is far stronger than it was just a few years ago,” Austin said. We’re working to deepen defense relationships that are rooted in equality and mutual respect. We’re joining hands with new partners and building new coalitions to oppose aggression and uphold sovereignty.”
Africom is working with partners to apply African solutions to local, national and regional problems. “These threats include violent extremism, piracy, cyber vulnerabilities and climate disasters — all too often made worse by weak governance, predatory institutions and persistent poverty,” the secretary said. “We’re determined to work with our valued African partners to develop the capabilities that they need to keep their people safe.”
The support includes professional military education, military capacity-building, counterterrorism, logistics and more.
“Many of our partnerships — including with Angola — focus on our expanding cooperation on maritime security,” Austin said. “African coastal nations must be able to tackle threats at sea, from trafficking and piracy to illegal and unregulated fishing. We’re working with our partners to block illicit activity, to deepen interoperability at sea, to protect local fisheries and to keep the commercial shipping lanes free for everyone.”
Terror groups are also a challenge and groups like al-Shabab in Somalia and the various Islamic State affiliates target civilians and wreak havoc on communities across the continent. “Their cruelty propels waves of suffering and instability that spill across borders,” he said. “African security forces must be able to combat these groups, defend their sovereignty to protect their people. That’s a key focus for Africom.”
Austin cited the re-established U.S. persistent military presence in Somalia as a move in the right direction. The group “has let us do far more to advise, assist and train the forces taking the fight to al-Shabab,” he said. “Under [Somali] President Hassan Sheikh, Somalia has made important strides towards retaking its territory and disrupting the group’s vicious attacks.”
Across the continent, the United States is deepening counterterrorism cooperation. “The United States is helping our friends in Africa build stronger institutions to tackle the long-term forces that breed extremism,” he said.
Another important aspect is bringing African women into the security and stability process. “Women and girls often suffer disproportionately from war and conflict,” Austin said. “But when women get to lead, when they can participate, and participate fully as negotiators and peacebuilders, the chances of a just and lasting peace go way up.”
Austin assured the audience that the United States is not looking to force African nations to do anything they feel is anathema to their nations, their cultures or their people. “The United States will never take your partnership for granted,” he said. “The people of Africa deserve to chart their own sovereign paths. And we aren’t asking African countries to choose any side other than their own. Africa deserves better than outsiders trying to tighten their grip on this continent. Africa deserves better than autocrats selling cheap guns, pushing mercenary forces like the Wagner Group, or depriving grain from hungry people around the world.”
The United States wants to work toward long-term stability and freedom. “We want our work together to produce lasting security, and not a brittle status quo,” he said. “And we can all see the damage when leaders turn predatory, or institutions grab resources for themselves.”
Local leadership dedicated to democracy is key to progress. “For lasting success, African countries need responsive, transparent and civilian-led institutions that uphold human rights, defend the rule of law and work for all of the people,” the secretary said. “Africa needs civilian leaders who keep faith with their citizens and heed their voices.”
African military leaders must understand that “militaries exist to defend their people, and not to defy them,” Austin said. “Africa needs militaries that serve their citizens — and not the other way around.”
This is key to America’s engagement with African partners. “We will continue to invest in professional, civilian-led militaries,” he said. “We will work together to deepen the norms against toppling democratic governments. And we’ll be candid with our partners when their security institutions fall short of those universal standards. The United States is committed to supporting whole-of-government policies that advance peace, security, and democratic governance together. And those elements are inseparable.”
He noted that across the continent, autocrats have undermined free and fair elections and are blocking peaceful transitions of power. “I had a brief, 41-year career in a U.S. Army uniform, and every day of those 41 years taught me the importance of civilian control of the military,” he said. “So let me be blunt. When generals overturn the will of the people and put their own ambitions above the rule of law, security suffers — and democracy dies.”
Austin noted that Angola’s first contact with America was as a result of the slave trade. “Today, the ocean that once carried desperate, enslaved people from Angola to America has become a basin of peaceful cooperation,” he said. “We know that the walk to freedom can be long. And no one gets it right all the time.”
Democracy is not perfect and when a democracy fails, the whole world sees it, Austin said. “The genius of a democracy is not that it is perfect,” he said. “The genius of a democracy is that it can always open up space to let its citizens strive to live the universal values of freedom, self-government and human rights. And the genius of a democracy is that it is always a work in progress.”
This is personal for Austin. “I am a child of America’s segregated South,” he said. “I grew up in a time of legalized racist segregation in America. And I stand here in Africa as America’s first Black secretary of defense. I believe with all my soul in the progress that we can make together.”
“I’ve seen institutions move from discrimination to democracy,” he continued. “I’ve seen leaders learn powerful lessons from the tragic past. And I’ve seen democracy become a mighty engine for its own renewal. My story is not your story. And my country’s journey is not your country’s journey. But I believe to my core that our dreams are shared, and our futures are linked.”