WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following opening remarks at this morning’s full Committee hearing entitled “Instability and the State of Democracy in the Sahel and the U.S. Policy Response.” Testifying before the Committee were Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee; Assistant to the Administrator for the USAID Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization Robert Jenkins; and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Chidi Blyden.
“For two decades, the United States and our partners have spent billions of dollars to aid stability efforts by supporting military operations against terrorist actors and by strengthening the military capacity of countries in the Sahel to counter the threat of violent extremists,” Chairman Menendez said. “And while we have invested billions in the security sector, our diplomatic and development efforts have been undercut by a lack of resources and presence. Significant staffing shortages at our embassies, and lack of a robust USAID presence in the Sahel, are limiting our ability to balance our security programs with tackling the root causes of extremism in the Sahel. I appreciate the engagement from the Administration with regards to the requirement to consult with this committee on that strategy.”
The hearing follows from recent Senate passage of Chairman Menendez’s Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2021 and his introduction yesterday of a resolution condemning the April 2021 coup d’etat in Chad and urging the country’s transition to democracy. In addition to calling for General Mahamat Deby and transitional authorities’ pledge not to run as candidates and commitment to organize elections in 2022 in accordance with the timeframe endorsed by the African Union, the resolution also presses the State Department to publicly lay out its plans to hold human rights abusers to account and to suspend non-humanitarian bilateral assistance to Chad until civilian rule is restored via free, fair, and peaceful democratic elections.
Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered below.
“This hearing will come to order.
Let me thank our witnesses for joining us to today to discuss the turmoil and instability plaguing the Sahel.
While the region may not often make front page news, millions of people continue to face threats from militaries that are supposed to protect them, ethnically based militias, and dire food insecurity.
These threats had displaced 2.4 million people in the central Sahel by this May.
And more than thirty million people in the Sahel will need lifesaving assistance and protection this year—nearly two million more than last year, according to the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs.
Unfortunately, some of the militaries in the sub-region—militaries which we trained and equipped by the way—have contributed to the problem instead of being a stabilizing force.
They have undertaken coups in Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali, and attempted one in Niger.
And particularly in Mali, the military has committed gross human rights abuses in the course of counterterrorism operations, with little to no accountability.
Making matters worse, Russia has established a foothold in Mali through the Wagner group, and is also involved in human rights violations—including extra judicial killings of civilians.
In the wake of the coup in Chad, the Junta fired live ammunition at peaceful protestors, killing seven and wounding dozens more. And it has yet to commit to the transition timeline the African Union articulated a year ago.
For two decades, the United States and our partners have spent billions of dollars to aid stability efforts by supporting military operations against terrorist actors and by strengthening the military capacity of countries in the Sahel to counter the threat of violent extremists.
Successive administrations have used both State and Defense Department programs to provide equipment and train militaries, including deploying U.S. forces to assist African soldiers, at the devastating cost of American lives.
All of us remember the tragic deaths of four American Special Operations soldiers who were killed in Niger in 2017 when they were ambushed by militants belonging to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
And our partners have suffered casualties as well.
Scores of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and France have deployed in successive operations and have lost their lives.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is the deadliest in the world—just last month two more peacekeepers were killed by an improvised explosive.
Despite all of our efforts, we have very little positive to show.
In 2019, the head of Special Operations in Africa, General Marcus Hicks, told Voice of America with regards to the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, and I quote, ‘I would tell you at this time, we are not winning.’
Clearly, the situation has only deteriorated.
And while we have invested billions in the security sector, our diplomatic and development efforts have been undercut by a lack of resources and presence.
Significant staffing shortages at our embassies, and lack of a robust USAID presence in the Sahel, are limiting our ability to balance our security programs with tackling the root causes of extremism in the Sahel.
I appreciate the engagement from the Administration with regards to the requirement to consult with this committee on that strategy.
And in the wake of this hearing I, and other members, will provide you all with feedback on your approach.
Yesterday, I introduced a resolution calling for a democratic transition in the Republic of Chad.
It demands General Deby release those arrested during the protests this spring.
It supports the African Union’s push to organize elections by October 22nd.
It calls on the military junta to abide by the African Union’s transition timeline.
And it asks the Secretary of State to identify coup leaders and their accomplices in order to target them with visa restrictions and financial sanctions.
In addition to this, in March, Congress passed the ‘Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2021’ which I sponsored in the Senate.
This legislation aims to ensure that we have a strategy to address the political, governance, and development challenges in North and West Africa.
At today’s hearing, I expect our witnesses to share their frank assessments of whether the U.S. approach over the years has yielded the results that we expected.
And if not, what do we need to change?
With that, I turn to the Ranking Member – both on the subcommittee and for this hearing – Senator Rounds.”