June 20, 2024

U.S. Africa Commander General Stephen Townsend blames “insufficient governance” and “corruption” for myriad of coups and attempted coups in Africa, does not see involvement of China, not sure about Russia

Commanding General Stephen J. Townsend of the Army Traning and Doctrine Command observes cadet training at Camp Buckner, 02 Aug, 2018 at the United States Military Academy at West Point. U.S. Army photo by Michael Lopez

Army General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the U.S. Africa Command, on Thursday, blamed “insufficient governance” and “corruption”, among other reasons, for the myriad of coups and attempted coups in Africa.

General Townsend, who became the 5th commander of U.S. Africa Command in July 2019, also said there was no intelligence suggesting that the Chinese were behind them, although he was not too sure about the role being played by Russia.

The top U.S. general for Africa was addressing journalists via teleconference from Rome, Italy, following engagements between senior African and American defense chiefs on the major security challenges facing the continent and U.S. partnership.

Townsend asserted that after 20 years of low levels of coups, he could not exactly explain what was happening, why the coups and attempted coups were taking place now, but added that insufficient governance and corruption could explain a lot of it.

He said while he did not see the involvement of Chinese in the various coups, “with Russia, it’s a little less clear.”

He, however, clarified that He did not think the Russian government was the main force animating all the coups and attempted coups in Africa, although Russian Wagner Group mercenaries were involved in Mali in their hundreds, and were probably elsewhere in the continent.

Responding to the question” Can you tell us why there are so many coups in Africa recently?  Are the Russians and the Chinese involved in this, and what can the U.S. do?,” General Townsend said, “The simple answer is no, I cannot tell you why there are so many coups.  I’m not sure anyone really knows the answer to that. I think we’ve enjoyed nearly 20 years or so of very low numbers of coups or irregular or unconstitutional changes of government, but here in the last year we have seen a number of them and to include a number of attempted coups. 

“So I don’t know why all that is, but I would – I would – my guess is that it has to do with insufficient governance, a lack of good governance, and corruption. I think that’s probably the most of it.”

He added, “The U.S. does not support or condone these unconstitutional changes of government and the broader effect they have on democracy and the progress of democracy.  But I think that corruption and a lack of good governance is probably behind much of that. 

“You asked about the involvement of the Russians and the Chinese in these coups generally. We have not seen that – have not seen any involvement by the Chinese in any of these coups.  I don’t think they’re doing that, furthering that or promoting those. With Russia, I think it’s a little less clear.  I think I have received reports of Russian involvement at least in Sudan in the not too distant past.

“So I don’t know. I think the jury is out on that. I don’t think China is behind any of these coups and I don’t really think that Russia is the main animating force behind most of them, but the hand of Russia may be visible in one or two of these.”

The Wagner Group, also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner, or CHVK Vagner, is a Russian paramilitary organization, operating clandestinely in various parts of the world, including in the Sahel.

On how the United States was responding to all coups around the world and in Africa, General Townsend said according to U.S. laws, once it is established that a coup has taken place, there are consequences, including the suspension of military to military assistance to the country involved.

He cited the example of Mali where U.S. assistance to Mali has been suspended following the recent coup d’etat there.

Journalists then wondered whether suspending that assistance was giving the Russian mercenaries a smooth ride to wreak havoc on the continent.

General Townsend, whose previous assignment was commanding U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command where he oversaw all recruitment, training and education for the U.S. Army, said the Wagner mercenaries were there for the money and were leaving areas where they have operated in much worse.

In Burkina Faso, another West African nation where the military overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, General Townsend said the United States was still evaluating the situation.

He explained that U.S. Africa Command’s missions include strengthening U.S. strategy relations on the continent with African nations, countering threats, responding to crises, including protecting U.S. embassies in Africa and developing partnerships with U.S. allies in Africa.

General Townsend also lamented the expansion of ISIS into Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique, which borders the neighboring country of Tanzania and the provinces of Nampula and Niassa. The region is an ethnic stronghold of the Makonde tribe, with Makua and Nwani as leading ethnic minorities.

Townsend said Cabo Delgado is the site of the largest energy deposits in Africa, if not in the world, and the expansion of ISIS there was a big security risk for Mozambique and Tanzania.

He said the United States has responded by providing a small deployment to train local forces on counterterrorism and Portugal has also established a training mission there that has been transformed into a European training center. He added that southern African countries have also deployed forces to counter the threat posed by ISIS.

General Townsend acknowledged that piracy has greatly reduced in the Horn of Africa, especially since the establishment of an international maritime task force began operating there. He said, however, acknowledged that smuggling remains high in the region.

He said piracy also remains “a significant problem” in the West Coast of Africa, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, a vast maritime area including Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Guinea and several other nations.

He said the U.S. has also responded by training African partners and helping them to better monitor their waters and enforce laws there.

On Ghana and other countries in West Africa, General Townsend said majority of the security problems there are caused by terrorists not bandits. He said from Mali to Burkina Faso, now there are attacks in Benin, Togo and even Ivory Coast.

He said the United States was offering concrete support for Ghana and would continue to do so, noting that historically, Ghana has been “a very important” ally of the United States.

He said, eventually, to address the security challenges facing Africa, multiple countries must work together with African nations taking the lead.

He noted that the discussions with African security chiefs also emphasized the role of women in peace and security and the role of China in Africa.

He said the United States would commend China where they are helping African nations but also shine a spotlight when African are being exploited by the Chinese.

For instance, he said, in the Gulf of Guinea, China aspires to have a naval base there to prevent piracy and illegal fishing, however, most illegal fishing activities are conducted by the Chinese themselves.

General Townsend has had a long and distinguished career. From Griffin, Georgia, Townsend was commissioned as an U.S. Army infantry officer upon graduation from North Georgia College in 1982. He has led and commanded troops at every echelon from rifle platoon to infantry division and U.S. Army corps as well as two combined/joint task forces.

Townsend’s operational experience includes Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada; Operation Just Cause, Panama; Operation Uphold Democracy, Haiti; Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan; and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq. In 2016-17, he led the multi-national effort to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.

His career includes service with four U.S. Army divisions, the 82d Airborne, 7th Light Infantry, 101st Air Assault and the 10th Mountain; the 75th Ranger Regiment; the separate 3d Stryker Brigade, 2d Infantry Division; as well as command of the XVIIIth Airborne Corps. His past joint duty assignments include U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Central Command, the Joint Staff, Regional Command-East in Afghanistan and Combined/Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.

Townsend holds two master’s degrees and military qualifications and awards appropriate to his service as a career infantry officer.

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