In a strong signal of renewed U.S. engagement in West Africa, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cape Verde and pledged an additional $45 million to combat instability in the region. This investment brings the amount of U.S. assistance to West Africa to $300 million over the last two years, reflecting concerns that broader problems in combating terrorism in the Sahel overall will also likely affect coastal West Africa.

With U.S. attention and the lion’s share of its resources focused elsewhere, the Biden administration must make the most of its modest investment and engagement in West Africa. Bolstering security assistance is certainly necessary. Yet to tackle the roots of these problems, robust support for democratic governance is the linchpin. A good place to start ramping up diplomatic and development attention is in the four West African countries slated to hold national-level elections this year: Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, and Mauritania.

Without effective and responsible democracies, economic conditions deteriorate, corruption abounds, and instability prevails. Democracy is under stress in West Africa and the continent at large, as evidenced by the recent string of coups — including in America’s erstwhile security partner Niger — and last year’s contentious elections in Nigeria. To turn the tide, the United States needs a strategy that balances pursuing near-term increases in stability with supporting democratic governance.

Violent extremist organizations like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) exploit citizens’ grievances over political and economic exclusion to advance their efforts to undermine security partners in the region. Regimes that prey upon their populations and don’t have strong democratic institutions that respond to citizen priorities exacerbate the grievances that drive citizens into the ranks of insurgent groups.

Recent polling found that 53 percent of individuals across 36 African nations were willing to support military intervention in response to abuses of power by their elected officials, with this sentiment representing a majority opinion in 22 of the countries surveyed, and “highly pronounced” in the West African countries of Mali, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. It is a vicious circle, but one that can be broken with the right strategy — one that prioritizes strengthening democracy and the accountability its institutions can bring to leaders.

Leveraging Limited Bandwidth

How can the Biden administration leverage its limited bandwidth to address these problems in a critical region?

To begin with, the United States can help African leaders be more responsive to the governance needs of their people and can support civil society efforts to hold elected officials accountable. The United States needs to support party leaders to not only campaign effectively, proposing policies responsive to citizen needs, but also enable these leaders to deliver once in office. Supporting civil society, which the U.S. government has tended to favor recently, is necessary but not sufficient to bolster democracy in the region. Countries in the region also need parties and institutions that can aggregate citizens’ views into policies and then deliver on their citizens’ needs. In practice, this means using foreign assistance programs to help interested political parties develop policy platforms and to equip government officials with the skills to engage more effectively with their electorate, with a particular focus on subnational-level governance.

The U.S. can look to approaches in the region that have yielded some results. In Ivory Coast, for example, the government’s comparative success in preventing a significant spillover of violent extremism from neighbors into the country’s north through improved governance and associated economic development demonstrates the potential of interventions focused on enhancing core elements of democracy. These more recent positives steps by the government of President Alassane Ouattara, however, are balanced against his serving a disputed third term via the 2020 election, which the opposition boycotted and considers illegitimate.

The Gambia has made incremental improvements in government functioning, delivery, and electoral competition since its transition from authoritarian rule began with the 2017 electoral defeat and subsequent exile of dictator Yahya Jammeh. Civil society deployed scorecards to assess their leaders’ responsiveness to local demands, and successfully elicited government response. This kind of demand-supply relationship is critical to fostering improved governance. However, even though The Gambia scores well on prominent freedom indexes, disagreements remain between the ruling party and the opposition about a new draft constitution, and government leadership has work to do to bring corruption under control.

Election Integrity and High-Level Engagement

Second, the U.S. government should scale up electoral integrity programs and associated high-level diplomatic engagement in West Africa to ensure that upcoming elections are as credible and representative as possible. The Biden administration must also be prepared to condemn fraudulent elections. And while complete divestment of U.S. resources is not the answer, America should pivot away from all direct support to such governments and instead focus exclusively on sub-national governance, political party strengthening, and civil society support.

For the West African countries holding elections this year, the administration should undertake high-level diplomatic visits to demonstrate its commitment to free and fair elections, including through supporting international election observation missions. The Biden administration should start with Senegal, where President Macky Sall announced on Feb. 3 that the scheduled Feb. 25 presidential elections would be delayed indefinitely. Senegal’s parliament subsequently pushed the elections to December, despite protests in Dakar. The White House and State Department should continue to press Sall to hold the elections as close to the original date as possible. Should Sall not reverse its decision, the United States should curtail further direct assistance to his government, including security force assistance and cooperation.  More of the same policy — security assistance irrespective of state behavior and insufficient investment in strengthening democratic governance — will not help.

This shift is not without risks. It would without doubt result in some short-term decline in security cooperation with the government in question. But the gains to stability and strengthened democracy are worth the gamble, since the most reliable and stable counterterrorism partners are the governments that deliver for their own people. For example, U.S. investment in the militaries of Burkina Faso and Niger for counterterrorism purposes was clearly insufficient to halt the coups there and the significant democratic backsliding before and since those overthrows. In both countries, the compounding effects of a worsening economic situations coupled with years of security challenges clearly left people wanting a change.  America’s security-first approach to West Africa has failed to foster stability so the administration needs to pivot. It must encourage leaders to be elected through credible elections, encourage and support governments to deliver governance to their citizens, and hold new governments accountable.

Mobilizing Resources from Across US Government

Lastly, the administration should expand its “Democracy Delivers” (DDI) initiative to West Africa, if one of this year’s elections results in a further democratic opening that additional resources could help cement (the current focus countries for DDI are Armenia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Malawi, Maldives, Moldova, Nepal, Tanzania, and Zambia). DDI involves the U.S. government mobilizing resources from across U.S. agencies to help selected “countries cement early democratic gains, create space for further reforms, and promote the global progress of democracy.” The United States can help show governments and their citizens the tangible benefits that accrue from advancing democracy.

The Biden administration faces no shortage of pressing issues as it enters an election year. Given the continued spread of instability in West Africa, continued investment of modest resources and diplomatic heft can help curb the threat of terrorism that threatens U.S. partners and interests directly. Achieving stability in West Africa depends on prioritizing democracy and governance, and the United States is uniquely positioned to support these efforts — not only because of America’s longstanding and productive relationships with governments in the region, but because the United States remains the partner of choice for most countries in the region.

IMAGE: Protesters burn tires as they block a road during demonstrations called by opposition parties in the Senegalese capital Dakar on Feb. 4, 2024, to protest the postponement of the presidential election. Protesters and police clashed, a day after President Macky Sall announced the indefinite postponement of the election. (Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)