'Failed States' and 'Ungoverned Spaces': The Thinking behind US Foreign Policy in Africa

By Mandisi Majavu · 5 Aug 2014

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Picture: American President Barack Obama courtesy Press Herald
Picture: American President Barack Obama courtesy Press Herald

The US-Africa Leaders Summit currently taking place in Washington points to Africa’s growing strategic importance to US interests. The theme of the Summit is “Investing in the Next Generation” and aims to advance the US’s focus on trade and investment in Africa. Historically, the US has always adopted a militarised foreign policy towards Africa. When the Bush administration launched the Defense Unified Combatant Command for Africa (AFRICOM) in 2007, that move was consistent with the US history in Africa.

It was a move that was contested by the Pan-African Parliament. In 2007, the members of the Parliament voted in favour of a motion “not to accede to the request of the Government of the United States of America to host AFRICOM anywhere on the African Continent.” The Parliament highlighted the “far reaching negative implications that this Africa Command will have on the political stability of Africa.”

In response, the US and the AFRICOM staff rolled out a public relations campaign to make the idea of AFRICOM palatable to African leaders. Senior US government officials visited several African countries to explain the project. In September 2007, the US Department of Defense hosted over 35 African governments in Virginia “to further explain its plans for the command and to solicit input from attendees,” according to Lauren Ploch, a researcher with the US Congressional Research Services.

In my view the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which the Obama administration dubs the largest event any US president has held with African heads of state, is a public relations exercise in pomp, ceremony and ritual meant to disguise the militarised foreign policy represented by AFRICOM. It has been shown that ever since the 1998 bombing of US embassies in East Africa, which was followed by the US retaliatory strike against Sudan, the US has regarded Africa as the next front in the war on terrorism. According to Ploch, US Department of Defense officials claim that “Africa has been, is now and will be into the foreseeable future ripe for terrorists and acts of terrorism.”

As far as the US is concerned, civil wars in Africa have created “ungoverned spaces” and “failed states” which terrorists groups may use to operate from. Half century a ago, the US was concerned about “dangerous, pro-Communist” African radicals who were supposedly going to turn to the Soviet Union for political support and military assistance. In 1960, when 16 European colonies in Africa became independent, the US Secretary of State, Christian Herter, told the US National Security Council that Africa had become “a battleground of the first order”, according to Piero Gleijeses, a professor of US foreign policy. Gleijeses shows how the ideological struggle for global dominance during the Cold War expanded to include proxy wars in Africa.

For instance, recently declassified US documents show that from 1960 the US launched a covert operation in the Congo lasting almost seven years, which was initially aimed at eliminating Patrice Lumumba. It was that covert operation that gave political birth to the colonial creature Joseph Mobutu more commonly known as Mobutu Sese Seko. The ripple effects of that covert operation have been devastating for the Congo and the Great Lakes.

The US rationalised its covert operations in African countries such as the Congo, Angola and Mozambique as a legitimate fight against communists. In the words of Henry Kissinger, “I don’t see how we can be faulted on what we are doing. We are not overthrowing any government; we are not subverting anyone. We are helping moderates combat Communist domination.”

That was in the 20th century. The point I am making however is that in this century the US is back in Africa to carry out its Global War on Terror. The US-Africa Leaders Summit signals a slight variation of political tactics on the part of the US. However, the mess in the Horn of Country shows that the US has not totally abandoned its Cold War tactics. US air strikes in Somalia in 2007 and America’s support for the Ethiopian invasion of that country partly led to the creation of al-Shabaab, a fundamentalist religious group which has wreaked havoc in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Kenya.

Naturally, al-Shabaab has become a major security concern in the region. The US has funnelled counter-terrorism funds into East Africa and underwritten a stronger Kenyan military, according to Foreign Affairs Journal. The Journal further points out that “the rise of Islamism in the Horn of Africa put Kenya on the frontlines in the global fight against terrorism.”

The US-Africa Leaders Summit is part and parcel of US counter-terrorism efforts in Africa. The business theme which dominates the Summit is partly meant to counter the Chinese economic presence on the continent. The Chinese presence unsettles the balance of economic power between the US and African countries. Hence, the goal behind the Summit is to counter the Chinese business influence, while simultaneously, cultivating “moderate, pro-Western leaders” who will adopt “a generally pro-Western posture” in their dealings with US administrations. 

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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