top of page

Rethinking Stability in Africa


As President Joseph Biden’s Administration considers how to update and reinvigorate U.S. policy in Africa, decision makers will find that there is a great deal of room for expanding U.S. engagement with the continent. From better integrating Africa into the overall climate agenda, to moving past outdated trade regimes, to forging partnerships with African states that could help support global governance institutions if only they were updated to make more space for African representation, there is substantial overlap between the broad foreign policy goals of the Biden team and longstanding opportunities in Africa. Looking at U.S. policy intentions and options with fresh eyes also presents an opportunity to rethink some old paradigms that no longer serve U.S. or African interests well. Our understanding of the concept of “stability” on the continent would be a good place to start.

In one sense, the pursuit of stability is utterly noncontroversial and essential. Conflict and chaos—in addition to causing human loss and suffering—provide opportunity to violent extremists and international criminals, prevent the inclusive growth that creates new markets and trading partners, weaken governing structures and institutions such that they cannot effectively manage global health or climate crises and motivate destabilizing waves of migration. Justice, prosperity and respect for universal rights do not thrive in turmoil. Peace and order are essential prerequisites to the most constructive forms of international cooperation.

But it is equally true that, too often, the pursuit of “stability” in principle has translated in practice to support for an existing order and political status quo, regardless of how repressive or how brittle that order becomes. The notion that change would necessarily threaten U.S. interests, or usher in an unreliable or incompetent new partner, locks the U.S. into increasingly uncomfortable relationships that make a mockery of U.S. claims to champion democracy, transparency and respect for civil and political rights.

As a result of this notion, the United States spent years investing in a close relationship with the late President Idriss Déby of Chad and has done the same with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, despite their records of beating peaceful protesters, torturing dissidents, holding sham elections, blurring the lines between civil and military authority and running the government as a family business. When Déby was killed, the unconstitutional installation of his son at the head of government only confirmed that the weight of Chad’s formal laws paled in comparison to the vested interested of a small clique.1 In turn, Washington’s tepid response made it plain that in the case of Chad, defending against

authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights—the three themes at the heart of the Biden plan for democratic renewal around the world2—take a backseat to perceived stability and continuity. But that perception is at best debatable, given Chad’s history of rebellions, coup attempts and violent crackdowns and reprisal killings.

In Uganda, President Museveni’s determination to retain power at all costs feeds a form of clientelism3 that provides little opportunity for the youthful majority of his population, allows senior military figures to dominate parts of the economy and corrodes the link between popular demands and government action. Polling shows that Ugandans are losing faith in elections as a means of holding their leaders accountable4 even as they perceive increases in corruption5 and violent crime. But despite the erosion of public confidence and lack of integrity in governing institutions, for years Uganda’s commitment to countering terrorism in Somalia has helped cast it in the role of “bulwark for stability.” The trendlines in Chad and Uganda read like recipes for states that could easily fall apart. Support for self-appointed champions of stability is yielding a grim long-term outlook.

The damage done by the autocrat not only sets back U.S. interests and actually makes instability more likely, but it also creates lasting ill-will. Inevitably, the leader who has cast himself in the role of bulwark against disorder exits the scene, and the United States is left lugging the baggage of historic association with an often-detested former regime for decades. Any U.S. policymaker who has gotten an earful from South Africans about U.S. support for the apartheid regime during the Cold War, or from Congolese about the Mobutu era, is familiar with the long shadow of history and the skepticism and mistrust that can complicate present-day relations as a result. In Ethiopia today, Prime Minister Abiy’s government and many of its supporters question the good faith of U.S. efforts to promote political dialogue rather than military solutions in Tigray by invoking the United States’ years of support for the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front-dominated government of Meles Zenawi6, which was inarguably repressive and intolerant of dissent. Yet the United States continues to discount the importance of historical grievance as an animating force in U.S.-Africa policy despite near-constant reminders to the contrary.

It should come as no surprise that in the diverse countries of Africa, there can be no sustainable stability without dynamism. African states—with roughly 60% of the overall population under the age of 25, the world’s most rapid rate of urbanization and increasing integration into the global economy—are not natural candidates for comfortable political stagnation. It makes more sense that African politics today would regularly feature transfers of power and ongoing rounds of structural reforms that modernize institutions and respond to the massive social change underway across African states; in fact, popular protests were on the rise throughout the region until the COVID-19 disruptions.7 This does not have to translate to a landscape of instability. Done right, power transfers and civil demonstrations prevent disorder and mitigate the causes of conflict by accommodating popular demands, bolstering consensus around the rules that define civic life and strengthening the connective tissue between the governing and the governed.

In practice, shaking off unhelpful ideas about stability does not necessarily mean abrupt policy reversals; nor does it solve thorny dilemmas in which immediate security interests dictate one course, while commitment to sustainable and accountable governing regimes dictates another. But rethinking stability should inform diplomatic strategies that pay more careful attention to the tensions between the governed and the governing and the degree to which governing institutions are responding to or resisting popular demands. The United States should take care to conceive of, implement and publicly frame our partnerships on the continent as relationships with societies, not with specific leaders.

Finally, if every challenge to a given leader or party is understood as a harbinger of chaos, alarms should be going off in Washington. Evidence of growing state fragility is not a reason to double down on supporting an individual or system of governance that engendered that weakness. When a head of state or government is deemed indispensable, policy has lost its way. Policymakers need to reckon with the truths that change is not synonymous with instability, and that the apparent safety of working with known quantities is often a costly illusion.


AMBASSADOR MICHELLE D. GAVIN is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has over twenty years of experience in international affairs in government and non-profit roles. She was formerly the managing director of The Africa Center, a multidisciplinary institution dedicated to increasing understanding of contemporary Africa. From 2011 to 2014 she was the United States ambassador to Botswana, and served concurrently as the United States representative to the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

[1] Gavin, Michelle. “The Unfolding Consequences of Idriss Déby's Death.” Africa in Transition. Council on Foreign Relations, April 22, 2021.

[2] “President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy.” The White House, August 11, 2021.

[3] Cheeseman, Nic, Claude Iguma Wakenge, Lisa Rolls, Shishuwa Shishuwa, and Phillan Zamchiya. “The Shadow State in Africa.” Democracy in Africa, September 14, 2021.

[4] M’Cormack-Hale, Fredline and Mavis Zupork Dome. “AD425: Support for elections weakens among Africans; many see them as ineffective in holding leaders accountable.” Afrobarometer. Afrobarometer, February 9, 2021.

[5] “Ugandans see increasing levels of corruption, report having to pay bribes to get public services, Afrobarometer survey shows.” Afrobarometer. Afrobarometer, August 26, 2021.

[6] Gavin, Michelle. “Ethiopia Plunges Deeper Into Conflict.” Africa in Transition. Council on Foreign Relations, August 12, 2021.

[7] Kwasi, Stellah. “Africa’s rise in protests is about more than macroeconomics.” ISS Today. Institute for Security Studies, October 7, 2021.


bottom of page