WASHINGTON - U.S. lawmakers examining the threat that terrorism poses in Africa expressed concern Tuesday that the United States may be overlooking human rights and governance abuses by regional leaders who provide assistance on counterterrorism issues.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a panel of the senators at a hearing convened by the Foreign Relations Committee that countries in the region have critical vulnerabilities and capacity gaps that must be addressed. Terror groups are recruiting foot soldiers simply by offering money, she said, adding that governments must "use every available resource to offer educational and vocational opportunities" to counteract the groups.
Counterterrorism and human rights
The United States is focused on helping countries provide those opportunities. But Senator Ben Cardin, a ranking committee member, expressed concerns that Washington is giving countries a free pass for human rights abuses or poor governance as long as they are useful counterterrorism partners.
"In Ethiopia, for example, they just had parliamentary elections and not a single opposition leader was elected and security forces there have killed hundreds of protesters," he said. "In Chad, dozens of military officers were arrested because they wouldn’t vote for the president. In Somalia, there are reports they are using children for spies. In Nigeria and Kenya, there have been extra judicial killings by the military.
"Yet I don’t see a response by America," Cardin said.
Thomas-Greenfield responded that each of the arguments mentioned above was met by a strong condemnation by the U.S. government but at the same time the U.S. is committed to firmly working with their partners to address efforts to defeat terrorism.
"We can’t draw a line and say we can’t work with you on terrorism because of human rights violation but we reinforce that they must respect human rights and civil liberties," she said.
Another concern came from Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey. While Nigerian people face daunting governance and corruption issues, he said, the U.S. is planning to sell the military A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft to supposedly fight Boko Haram. Yet, he added, the Nigerian military has a long-standing history of human rights abuses, including under the current administration. Markey noted that last month, "Amnesty International accused the Nigerian government of killing hundreds of members of the Shia minority sect in December."
Thomas-Greenfield responded that the U.S. aid is not moving away from fighting corruption. Last year, she recalled, Washington turned down a Nigerian request for Cobra attack helicopters because "we were concerned about their ability to use those and not have an impact on their communities."
She called for a multifaceted approach: "We have to do security but we also have to do the capacity building, the development assistance, etc."
WATCH: Interview with Senator Christopher Coons
Democratic governance as counterterror strategy
Another witness, Christopher Fomunyoh, made the case for democracy and good governance as central components of any counterterrorism and stabilization strategy in sub-Saharan Africa.
Fomunyoh, the National Democratic Institute's regional director for Central and West Africa, said the principal motivation of "today's terrorists in sub-Saharan Africa is deeply rooted in a pattern of religious beliefs. … Governance failures have exacerbated the impact of this phenomenon and created an enabling environment in which extremism thrives."
For example, he pointed out “when a state collapses, as was the case with Somalia prior to the emergence of al-Shabab, or allows for huge swaths of ungovernable spaces, as was the case in northern Mali, or fails to fulfill its basic purpose of providing citizens with access to a meaningful life, liberty, and property, as in northeastern Nigeria, the social contract between the state and the citizenry is broken. Discontent with governments that are viewed as illegitimate or ineffective is a fertile ground for recruitment.”
Therefore, Fomunyoh said, "any counterterrorism strategy for Africa should be grounded in the consolidation of democracy and good governance." He said autocratic regimes should not get a pass from the international community solely because they are good partners in the fight against terrorism.
For U.S. projects trying to improve the capacity of governments in the region, there are also concerns over coordination.
Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, told VOA he anticipated better coordination among agencies in the coming years to track the massive programs aimed at improving life in the region.
"We spent billions of dollars in public health programing, mostly through USAID and in development work, in training, equipping and supporting African militaries through the department of defense and peacekeeping missions through our department of State and I am optimistic we’ll do a better job of coordinating our partnership with African countries in the fight against terrorism," he said.
As countries grapple with how to confront terrorism, they also must consider economic impact. Violent extremism threatens growth of Africa's gross domestic product, said Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, director of the United Nations Development Program's regional bureau for Africa.
"Tunisia’s GDP growth has been cut from 3 percent to 1 percent. Chad’s contracted 1 percent in 2015 from a 5 percent growth in 2014," Dieye said. "Countries like Nigeria and Kenya have seen a reduction of 25 percent of tourism following terrorists’ attacks."
The UNDP estimates that violent extremism has led to about 33,000 deaths since 2011 and has internally displaced 6 million in Africa.