WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered opening remarks at the Committee’s hearing on the implications of instability in the Sahel and West Africa on U.S. foreign policy.
“We need to lead with our values as we try to advance an agenda of good governance in the region,” said Chair Cardin. “I think we need to make our position crystal clear: military takeovers of civilian-led governments are coups. We shouldn’t mince words. And anyone engaged in coups should be personally sanctioned. The failure to sanction, a policy shift that has clearly taken place here in our government, sends the wrong message.”
A copy of the Chair’s remarks, as delivered, have been provided below.
Five nations in the region are suffering coups since 2020. This includes Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, and most recently, Niger. Mali and Burkina Faso have actually had two coups. At the same time, there has been an alarming increase in terrorist attacks by militant Islamist organizations.
So today, we are going to examine this recent wave of coups and violence—and what it means for U.S. policy. I welcome Assistant Secretary Phee. I want to thank you for the work that you and your team are doing in this area. Your efforts to support this region as it responds to the situations in West Africa and the Sahel are vital.
The challenges are great, but we must acknowledge the current trajectory is grim. It requires a critical evaluation of our policies. Congress demanded that when we passed the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act.
The junta leaders justified their coups by pointing to their elected governments’ failure to improve security. But they themselves have failed to deliver as well. In both Mali and Burkina Faso security has sharply deteriorated and civilian deaths have skyrocketed. Incidents in Niger are on the rise as well.
The spiraling security situation is already impacting coastal West African nations. Attacks in Ghana, Togo, and Benin are increasing. Sudan and Gabon have both had coups. Instability now stretches from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. Why? What is driving this dynamic?
It’s hard to say our security assistance has been effective in the Sahel or in countries in West Africa. We certainly have very little to show in terms of improved security, stability, or stronger democratic institutions. And quite frankly—there is an uncomfortable truth in all this.Across the Sahel, the United States trained militias and militaries responsible for the coups. We trained the very people overthrowing civilian governments. So it is critical that we take a brutally honest look at our approach to date.
Assistant Secretary Phee, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Is it time for the United States to change its strategy? Is our security assistance helping or leading or contributing to the negative outcomes? How should we adjust these policies? We also need to be consistent to our response to coups in West Africa. I understand one size doesn’t fit all. But it’s important for the United States to take a principled stance when coups occur. We need to lead with our values as we try to advance an agenda of good governance in the region. I think we need to make our position crystal clear: military takeovers of civilian-led governments are coups. We shouldn’t mince words. And anyone engaged in coups should be personally sanctioned. The failure to sanction, a policy shift that has clearly taken place here in our government, sends the wrong message.
The presence of the Russian Wagner mercenary group presents an additional serious threat. The impact of Wagner’s operations in Mali have been disastrous for civilians. Wagner and the Malian military stand accused of massacring as many as 500 people in Moura in 2022. Moscow is making overtures in the military regimes in Burkina Faso and Niger. Russian expansion—coupled with the expulsion of the French and United Nations peacekeepers in Mali—could trigger chaos that would be difficult to recover from.
I know we don’t want to lose ground to Russia or China. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of giving free passes to authoritarian and military regimes for the sake of Great Power competition. We made that mistake too often during the Cold War. Mistakes for which our foreign relations still suffer with some countries today. I hope you will speak to how we are responding to these challenges.
I understand that ultimately, the course of history in other countries is up to the people who live there. However, we have the responsibility to at least do no harm through our approach. And to stand in solidarity along with millions of Africans with democratic aspirations living in dictatorial regimes. Just as we supported the people of Eastern Europe for decades after World War II in their fight for democracy.
So Assistant Secretary Phee, we have lots to discuss. I look forward to that discussion. This has been a hearing that we had planned. It’s an extremely important subject. We hope that we can have a frank discussion during this hearing.