Competition and Governance in African Security Sectors

Institutional capacity-building (ICB) efforts have been shown to be critically important to achieving U.S. security objectives in Africa, yet the role that ICB plays in gaining access and influence remains poorly understood. This topic has taken on new importance now that the United States is emphasizing the threats posed by strategic competition, particularly with China, over those posed by terrorism. Can ICB programs improve security governance while simultaneously advancing the United States’ influence in Africa?

Drawing on past research, interviews with stakeholders in ICB programs, and assessment of ICB efforts in four African countries, the authors of a RAND report examine U.S. ICB programs for the security sectors of African partner governments and their potential role in strategic competition. They outline a framework for understanding the relationships between ICB and efforts to gain influence among U.S. partner nations. Finally, they provide recommendations on how U.S. policy can better integrate governance and strategic competition objectives in Africa, emphasizing the need to prioritize resilience in partners’ security sectors, to build relationships through long-term commitments, and to subordinate the transfer of specific military resources to an overarching strategy that emphasizes the first two.

Key Findings

U.S. security sector assistance efforts in Africa lack a common understanding of what ICB is, what it should be used for, and how it fits into a broader strategic framework

  • U.S. Department of Defense personnel typically view ICB in terms of efforts to improve partners’ logistics and sustainment capabilities, whereas U.S. Department of State personnel tend to emphasize broader governance concerns (such as military command and control and civil-military relations).
  • There is a great deal of disagreement among U.S. practitioners about whether the United States does use ICB as a tool of competition and whether it should.
  • ICB programs can be a moderately valued resource for partners in Africa.

U.S. ICB efforts in Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Sudan have met with successes and failures

  • Even where leaders of U.S. partner nations value U.S. ICB programs, they are unlikely to make major sacrifices — including risking offending other potential donor nations or investors, such as China — out of gratitude for U.S. support or a desire to continue ICB programs.
  • Efforts to build resilience in partners’ security sectors appear to have yielded limited results. Among reasonably well-governed states with some commitment to reform, ICB programs might offer incremental gains in resilience.
  • Improved relationships through institutional capacity-building offer some hope for increasing U.S. influence, but they must be nurtured over time.

What might explain the success and failure?

  • Partner commitment to reform is critical.
  • Long-term U.S. commitment greatly improves the odds of success.
  • In-country presence is required to deepen relationships and sustain momentum.


  • Prioritize resilience — but with modest expectations about U.S. impact. Where gains in partner-nation resilience appear unlikely, the United States should strongly consider whether sizable security sector assistance (SSA) commitments are appropriate.
  • Embed the provision of security resources within more comprehensive planning efforts.
  • Codify and actively socialize a common understanding of ICB across U.S. agencies and departments to rectify the current lack of consensus on what ICB is and what it should be used to accomplish.
  • Create an interagency board or council to act as a clearinghouse for ICB programs and integrate them into broader strategies for SSA.
  • Incentivize partner commitment to institutional reforms through selective, graduated SSA, similar to the Millennium Challenge Corporation and with a dedicated line of funding.
  • Build relationships through long-term commitments and intensive in-country cooperation, including through measures such as instituting longer headquarters tours, providing additional resources for U.S. in-country advisors, and making greater use of entities within the U.S. government as well as nongovernmental implementing partners that are able to sustain relationships over several years.
  • Redouble efforts to improve assessment, monitoring, and evaluation, especially of the effects of ICB and other forms of SSA on U.S. influence.

– Stephen Watts, Alexander Noyes, Gabrielle Tarini, RAND

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