US Defense Secretary completes first tour across Africa

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III shakes hands with President of Angola João Lourenço in Luanda, Angola, Sept. 27, 2023. [VOA]

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin returns to the United States Thursday after wrapping up his first tour across the African continent as Pentagon chief.

Austin started his tour in Djibouti, home to the primary U.S. military base on the African continent. There he met with Djiboutian leaders and Somalia’s president, whose forces, Austin said, had made more progress against the al-Shabab terror group in the past year than the previous five years combined.

Austin then turned to Kenya, visiting a base in Manda Bay near the Somali border where a terrorist attack in 2020 killed three Americans.

“Message here being very clear that the war on terror still remains top on the agenda of the American government,” said Vincent Kimosop, a policy analyst with Sovereign Insight.

The American and Kenyan defense secretaries signed a five-year security agreement to support working together against their common terror threat.

Austin also pledged $100 million in support of Kenyan security deployments, as Kenya prepares to lead a multinational peacekeeping mission to Haiti to combat gang violence.

“Kenya is ready, Kenya is willing to lead that multinational peacekeeping force that will go to Haiti,” said Kenyan Cabinet Secretary of Defense Aden Duale.

Austin ended his trip on Africa’s western coast, becoming the first U.S. defense secretary to ever visit Angola. Officials of both nations are hopeful that Angola can dump Russia as its arms supplier and opt for American-made weapons.

“Africa deserves better than outsiders trying to tighten their grip on this continent,” Austin said. “Africa deserves better than autocrats selling cheap guns, pushing mercenary forces like the Wagner Group or depriving grain from hungry people all around the world.”

Austin called out African military juntas without naming Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mali or Niger. It was his most forceful rhetoric since the military removed Niger’s elected president from power in July.

“When generals overturn the will of the people and put their own ambitions above the rule of law, security suffers -- and democracy dies,” Austin said. “Militaries exist to defend their people, not to defy them. And Africa needs militaries that serve their citizens and not the other way around.”

France decided this week to withdraw its military forces from Niger by the end of the year, and analysts say the U.S. could follow suit should the Nigerien military not return the elected government to power.

“Niger has become the key hub, the key center of counterterrorism operations for the U.S. and France in the region,” said Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “And if this is, if it’s cut back, or if it’s reduced, or if it’s ended, there are no other assets in the region that the U.S. can use.”

The U.S. has so far kept its forces in Niger, but the Pentagon has declined to conduct counterterror operations with Niger’s military.