Spartans of Senegal

“Êtes vous fatigué?!”

Marine Corps Sgt. Robert Keane’s French is far from perfect, but he knows how to indignantly bark to his men the question – “Are you tired?!” – as only a recon Marine can.

In unison, the Company Fusiliers Marine Commandos (COFUMACO), along with 14 Marines, four U.S. Navy sailors and two representatives of the West African nation of Togo, shout back in response, “Jamais!” (“Never!”)

Keane grins and asks the question twice more. Each time, the same hearty response: “Jamais!”

Members of COFUMACO grin back at the sergeant, knowing that pushups are next. It was a good morning on the rifle range, so what better way to celebrate than with physical training?

Once everyone has assumed the position, Keane looks around to make sure no one is slacking.

“En bas!” he commands. (“Down!”) Every man shouts out the cadence: “Un, deux, trois ….”

The men are still smiling. For each of the final five pushups, Keane shouts out, “We are ...”

And the Senegalese soldiers shout back in reply, “COFUMACO!”

Beacon of Freedom. This is Senegal. Like most nations bordering the Sahara Desert, its population is largely Muslim, but the government and culture here are more like Islamic countries of the Far East, such as Indonesia, than the violent, unstable regimes of the Middle East and North Africa.

The Senegalese, for example, are free to practice the faith of their choice in whatever manner they wish, with little or no social or political blowback. As my interpreter and tour guide, Chereif Ndiaye, told me, “It’s not all that unusual for a family to have some members be Muslim, others Catholic and even some animists. Occasionally some family members are ostracized, but it is incredibly rare and never leads to outright violence.”

Women have equal rights in Senegal under the law, but literacy rates suggest that the education system needs work. Fifty-one percent of Senegalese men are able to read and write, compared to 29 percent of women. The nation is making progress in this area of equal opportunity by appointing women to decision-making positions within the government and legal professions.

For its efforts, Senegal has been recognized as a developing liberal democracy and potential beacon of freedom in West Africa. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech in Dakar last July, “If anyone doubts whether democracy can flourish in African soil, let them come to Senegal.”

Last March, following a hard-fought presidential campaign only occasionally marred by protests and violence, Abdoulaye Wade was ousted by Macky Sall, the former leader of the Senegalese Congress. In a sign of how far Senegal has come, the loser called to congratulate the winner – a first in Senegal – and put out a statement: “On this day … President Abdoulaye Wade ... wish(es incoming President Sall) good luck in his mission at the head of Senegal in the hopes that he will render the Senegalese happy. In this way, Senegal, through a transparent election, has once again proven that she remains a great democracy – a great country.”

“It was a great day for Senegal no matter who you voted for,” Ndiaye recalls. “It proves that Senegal’s national devotion to hospitality and friendship amongst all Senegalese was more than just empty words.”

U.S. Ambassador to Senegal Lewis Lukens agrees with Ndiaye’s assessment. “What is unique to Senegal (is that its military) does not play a role in politics the way it does elsewhere,” he says. “The army will not enter that arena. (It) only exists to protect the institutions.” A relatively calm presidential succession and the military’s absence from politics “enhances Senegal’s role as regional military experts.”

Senegal, however, has many of the same troubles faced by other African nations – a low-intensity civil war, for example. In the southern Casamance region, an ethnic group called the Jola wants to secede. This year, 20 Senegalese soldiers were killed fighting the insurgent Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance. Restoring peace in that region is a top priority for Senegal, Sall says.

Soft Power. In his 1990 book “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power,” Harvard University professor Joseph Nye Jr. advanced the concept of “soft power,” by which a country uses its ability to attract or co-opt, rather than coerce, use force or give money, as a means of persuasion.

“A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it,” Nye wrote. “In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.”

Decades ago, China made some early soft-power efforts to engage West Africa. Evidence is found across Dakar, including the Léopold Sédar Senghor Stadium, which can accommodate 60,000 soccer fans and is one of the largest structures in the city. Visitors ride on buses the Chinese brought in to provide cheap public transportation; they also built a large hospital in the city.

Even so, the Senegalese don’t gush over their Asian benefactors, largely because China used only Chinese construction workers rather than locals, 50 percent of whom are unemployed. And while Senegal has long been a hub of textile manufacturing, the influx of cheap Chinese fabrics has forced many local producers out of business.

Clinton acknowledged that legacy last summer. “The days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over in the 21st century,” she said, reiterating President Barack Obama’s vow during a 2009 visit to Ghana that the United States would offer Africa “partnership, not patronage.”

Lukens said that contrary to the way China handled its construction work in Senegal, the United States has hired 900 Senegalese to help build its new embassy in Dakar, and the project provides job training for workers and managers alike.

AFRICOM’s Mission. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the creation of a unified U.S. military command for Africa that would seek “a more effective and integrated approach than the current arrangement of dividing Africa between Central Command (CENTCOM) and European Command (EUCOM).”

Steven Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said such a command would create new opportunities for the United States, including greater competition with China, India and others for influence and access, and “rising commitments with respect to global health.” And President George W. Bush said AFRICOM would “enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth.”

Headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, AFRICOM covers the entire continent except Egypt, which remains in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. AFRICOM itself has numerous components representing each of the service branches and Special Operations forces, which are engaged in countering al-Qaida in and around the Horn of Africa. U.S. Marine Corps Forces Africa (MARFORAF) has units scattered across the continent.

When I asked who’s doing good work that hasn’t been well publicized, the answer was almost universal: Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) Africa.

SPMAGTF-Africa is a composite unit of about 125 reserve Marines and sailors from 32 different units, “tailored to conduct multiple, simultaneous, small and widely dispersed security cooperation activities, yet retain the ability to quickly aggregate for a larger-scale crisis response.”

The first rotation of SPMAGTF Marines conducted theater-security cooperation missions in Liberia, Djibouti, Burundi and Uganda. The current rotation has had teams of 15 or more Marines in Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Senegal.
Another team of Marines from SPMAGTF is aboard ship, helping train defense forces and participating in community service projects in Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Liberia, Congo, Kenya and Ghana. Finally, several tactical contact teams of two or three Marines each work with partner-nation forces in Tanzania, Kenya, Tunisia, Uganda, Botswana and Liberia.

SPMAGTF-Africa is commanded by Lt. Col. Gerard Wynn of 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company out of Mobile, Ala., who arrived in Dakar to check on his troops about the time I got there last summer. Back home, Wynn works in law enforcement and is generally quiet, until you get him talking about the role of his unit and its mix of active-duty and reserve personnel.

“I have guys who back in the states are bar owners in New York City, a lawyer, one guy who is in medical school with an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a bunch of firemen and paramedics – just a host of guys who bring other skill sets with them from outside the military,” Wynn says.

Wynn’s team leader in Senegal, Maj. Tommy Waller of Louisiana, can top that. “I have a stuntman,” he says, laughing. “He does stuff in the movies. If they ever need a replacement for the Dos Equis guy, this Marine could fit the bill as the most interesting man in the world.”

Friendly and energetic, Waller is described by his men as a true believer. “He will do anything to further the mission of training our African partners,” one Marine tells me. “He buys into the concept 100 percent, and the major doesn’t rest if there is a chance to either improve the training or work more with the indigenous forces.”

Waller’s unit in Toubacouta, Senegal, has 15 Marines and four sailors, all selected for their own special skill sets. Three of the Marines are graduates of the prestigious Reconnaissance Course run by the Marine Corps School of Infantry special ops branch.

One of them is Keane, who, in addition to leading the Senegalese soldiers in their daily regimen of pushups, serves as my guide through COFUMACO training. At 26, he’s exactly what one would expect in terms of physical abilities, and he’s intellectual as well, with plans to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to study aeronautical engineering.

“I didn’t want to waste my parents’ money, so I decided to pay for my schooling,” Keane says. “I went down to the recruiter and signed up for recon. He said I’d do my training and come home ... that was seven years and three months ago.”

Relationship Training. Supplies and equipment can be hard to come by for COFUMACO. On a day devoted to land navigation, map reading and terrain model training, Keane and another recon Marine, Sgt. Erick Constantino, ask the group to pull out their maps, protractors and compasses.

Among the 30 commandos, no one moves.

The Marines go about scrounging up some protractors and compasses. One makes photocopies of the only map available, but the scale gets messed up in the reproduction, making what had been 1,000 meters now 900.
Even without all the proper tools, the squad’s navigator finds all three points marked on the map. The first movement is 590 meters, and using dead reckoning through the jungle terrain, the navigator stops 46 meters from the first objective. The unit silently passes information through hand and arm signals. The Senegalese assault through the objective, stopping at the target and taking up concealed locations around an orange panel that marks the spot.

“I was proud to see they remembered what they were taught two months ago and were able to execute a perfect land navigation with rudimentary tools at best,” Keane says. “When you’re using a low-quality photocopy of a map – which changes the scale, in 100 percent humidity, when the paper is falling apart – having the fortitude to not give up on it and do ‘whatever it takes to accomplish the mission’ (a recon motto) is a sign of the exemplary characteristics that these COFUMACO have demonstrated time and again in different circumstances.”

The Marines and sailors in Toubacouta provide the African commandos with a full spectrum of military training, including marksmanship, land navigation and patrolling, and various riverine boat operations such as interdictions, personnel searches and hide setup.

As James Adams, sergeant major of SPMAGTF, said on the anniversary of 9/11 this year, “Our primary mission here is to train our African partners and bridge the gaps through personal relationships.”

Marksmanship training is impressive. “These guys are sent into combat down in the Casamance with a basic combat load of less than 10 percent of what my Marines carry,” Waller says. “They don’t have enough rounds to adequately train their troops, much less enough to give them the full basic complement of ammunition that my Marines generally get.”

Even so, the COFUMACO commandos handle the range with little oversight. “The fact that they can call, shoot, coach and run their own firing line effectively is a sign of huge advancement in their training,” Keane says. “The key for us is giving them the knowledge and motivation to pass down the training to other troops.”

Several days are devoted to waterborne activities. Navy Chief Master-At-Arms Anwar Blakely leads classes on how to operate the Zodiac boats that the Senegalese forces use in the Casamance.

“We learned a lot of new techniques for shooting, patrolling, reconnaissance and riverine operations,” COFUMACO Lt. Giallo Mountaga explains. “Down in the Casamance we do a lot of river patrolling to deny enemy movements, so the boat-operations classes are perhaps the most useful to us.”

The New 300. The weeklong training is capped by a graduation ceremony, which begins with Waller displaying a map showing the locations of the U.S. embassy attacks in Libya and Egypt and other acts of violence across Africa in September.
Pins mark the locations, but most of West Africa is noticeably bare. Senegal and the countries surrounding it are clear. “It’s up to you guys to keep it that way,” Waller tells the commandos.

After presenting the Senegalese sharpshooters with awards and certificates, Waller gives two soldiers special tourniquets. “We gave these guys tourniquets, and they saved lives,” he says. “That means we’ve helped not only COFUMACO, but saved lives doing it. That’s how we will build relationships here.”

Waller concludes his speech by asking the Senegalese if anyone is familiar with the story of the Spartans at Thermopylae. One hand shoots up. The commando summarizes the tale of the 300 Spartan warriors who fought at the pass in Thermopylae, Greece, in 480 B.C., to hold off the invading Persians long enough for the Hellenic states to mobilize to meet the threat.

Waller says that COFUMACO, like the Spartans, numbers 300, and they’re tasked with stopping terrorism from creeping into West Africa. The graduates listen intently, nodding. Their motto is “On nous tue, on ne nous déshonore pas,” which, roughly translated, means, “We can be killed but not dishonored.”

Lt. Col. Daniel Jones, the Army’s military attaché for Senegal, would like to see such partnerships multiply across Africa. “While foremost in our mind is maintaining the strategic vision for the United States,” he says, “we also want to reinforce success in the region by rewarding militaries like Senegal that support democracy, and steer clear of trying to impact the politics in the country or the broader region.”

Earlier in my stay, while driving through Toubacouta – the town in which the Marines trained COFUMACO – Waller noticed that the Senegalese flag in front of the tribal chief’s house is in poor condition. He asked two Marines to purchase a couple of new ones on their next trip to Dakar.

On my last day in Toubacouta, we go into town and deliver one flag to the village elder and the other to the prefect. The elder is responsible for most everything that happens in the town, resolving disputes and watching over the people. The prefect is a representative of the government in Dakar. Each of the men gratefully receives the flag.

The elder, whose son translates for us, asks if we could bow our heads while he prays for our safety.

The prefect is likewise moved. “We recognize that terrorism is moving this way across Africa,” he says. “And so you noticing things like our flag, and coming here to meet with us with Marines, Senegalese gendarmerie, our Togo brothers and others, means a lot to us.”

Waller responds with a nod. “We all want the same thing: to keep our families safe.”

Mark Seavey is editor of The American Legion’s Burn Pit blog.