AFRICOM: The Stealthy Militarisation of Africa

By Glenn Ashton · 21 Feb 2013

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Picture: An American soldier in Djibouti courtesy DVIDSHUB/Flickr.
Picture: An American soldier in Djibouti courtesy DVIDSHUB/Flickr.

The US Africa Command (AFRICOM), assembled under the leadership of President George W. Bush’s hawk Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2007, now flexes it muscle across the continent in earnest. US military interests in Africa are not new. However, the concept of a unified African military command and associated presence to advance US interests is.

AFRICOM arose out of the consolidation of separate US military commands which supervised different African regions. This was spurred by the ideological reassessment of post 9/11 security arrangements, as well as for pragmatic reasons. Further impetus was given by the increasing interest in Africa by emerging powers, particularly China.

Geopolitically Africa holds important resources. Not only is it the source of expanding proportions of the world’s fossil fuel energy resources, it is also a key provider of important mineral commodities. It has massive untapped agricultural potential. It also straddles the strategic divide between West and East, with increased interest from China, Brazil and India.

While Africa maintains strong ties with its historic colonial powers, it has equally strong neo-colonial relationships with the US. Economic relationships with the G77, BRICS and IBSA also continue to deepen.

The formation of AFRICOM was a logical move – from the US perspective - in the face of Chinese economic and military expansionism, and in particular, its increasing investments and role in Africa. Initially AFRICOM was broadly rejected by African governments, yet was embraced by specific strategic allies such as Liberia and Ethiopia. Suspicion of US military involvement harks back to Cold War experiences – everyone remembers Lumumba’s fate - as well as more recent interventions and failures in places like Somalia.

Since its inception AFRICOM has assumed a more placatory approach, epitomised by diplomacy and public relations building attempts to offset negative perceptions and neo-colonial associations. These have paid dividends. For instance, initial SADC rejection of AFRICOM en bloc, has been undermined, to the extent that it now enjoys formal relationships with both South Africa and Botswana.

However, as Dimpho Motsamai of the SADC desk at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says, this pragmatic approach has not yet been backed up by any SADC summit decisions endorsing AFRICOM. This reinforces a 2007 assessment by the ISS, where they noted that the US would bypass multilateral opposition by forging bilateral relationships. This has come to pass, with US military presence in Botswana and elsewhere.

It is interesting to contrast the respective operational models followed by the US and China. China’s expansionism into Africa has ostensibly been under the guise of national and regional non-interference.

The same cannot be claimed of AFRICOM: A military command is by its nature, interventionist, either actively or passively. At the very least it will usually include training, logistical support or supply of materiel. AFRICOM has shown that these are amongst its suite of offerings.

The US has a poor record of African intervention. In Somalia it not only polarised an already unstable situation but lost immense face by its withdrawal in 1994. Interference during the Bush years led to a further decline in stability. The US then reprised this failure, with AFRICOM trainees defecting to the rebel Al Shabaab movement.

More recently its efforts in training the Malian armed forces were implicitly responsible for the coup that destabilised that nation. This led to the loss of the north to extremists, a classic case of double blowback jeopardy; one from direct training, where an AFRICOM trained officer led the coup against the democratic Malian government, the other from its role in the ouster of Ghadaffi. France is attempting to clean up the mess with logistical support from AFRICOM.

Now AFRICOM proposes to open up airfields for supposedly unarmed surveillance drones in neighbouring Niger. This too would appear to further strengthen the hand of extremists, Islamic or otherwise. The US insists on training African officers in the US, a practice with a dubious record of success, as historically witnessed with the infamous Georgia based “School of the Americas” in Fort Benning.

This all belies the original US military PR that AFRICOM is about building relationships and advancing economic ties. Instead it looks like more of the same – locating people of interest, then killing them. Opposition to AFRICOM’s interventionist practices by various nations, faith-based groups and civil society appears well justified. US military involvement in Africa the US has historically exacerbated rather than assisted in reducing tensions.

Yet the US continues to succeed in winning converts through a combination of PR and good old carrot and stick diplomacy. Select benefits clearly trickle down to those who accede to US wishes. This unequal relationship enables the US to continue to play the great game largely on its own terms. For example AFRICOM leaders and Angolan military have recently held discussions. This in a nation with significant oil reserves, where vast amounts of the consequent wealth remain unaccounted for. Clearly not a harbinger of assisting democratic transparency but rather bolstering its own interests by securing oil, while entrenching the ruling oligopoly.

AFRICOM’s primary interests presently lie in the trans-Saharan region, focused on containing growing extremism – blowback from the ouster of Ghadaffi. The greater Gulf of Guinea region - between Angola and Liberia – is also of interest because of oil reserves. Central East Africa is also critical in order to maintain stability in Kenya and the Congo basin with its essential electronics and mineral supplies – and the site of the most deadly conflict since World War Two. The US has been notably silent on that conflict, as long as Coltan – essential for cell phone technology - continues to flow out of the region.

The early supporters, particularly Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, have enabled the start of a material shift of AFRICOM into Africa from its Darmstadt, Germany headquarters and its toehold in Djibouti. Bases are opening up throughout the continent, from Morocco to Botswana.

While Africans rightly remain deeply suspicious of the ongoing ingress of US military support, Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation asks pointedly what other options are there to engage constructively with the US? Clearly the US has direct interests, or AFRICOM would not exist. He suggests that this is part of an ongoing debate where the roles must be clarified and professionalised around both the economic and defence relationships. This implies equipping Africa to settle its own conflicts, not fighting them for us, as well as enabling more equal diplomatic relationships. As Mills says, this is a challenging and difficult situation.

The problem of course is that suspicions of US intentions are well founded. The US has historically fostered its commercial, corporate interests. Its diplomatic staff consists of well-connected business leaders supported by bureaucrats, intelligence and military staff. While business leaders come and go the military/intelligence component remains constant, as borne out by WikiLeaks documents detailing US interventions in Africa.

To date AFRICOM and US leaders have often said one thing and done another. While the US is a champion of democracy, self interest is writ large. AFRICOM is a force multiplier, closely connected to NATO and friendly, resource rich interests. This commercial imperative rules all relationships; it is naïve to believe otherwise.

If the US wants to be taken seriously, it needs to move beyond duplicity. It cannot dump subsidised US grown crops and US Aid, destroying local and regional markets, and not expect logical consequences – unemployment, instability and radicalism. This myopia cannot be corrected by military action. US food aid policies clearly need to be reframed to the same extent as AFRICOM.

As President Mandela told President Clinton during his 1998 visit to South Africa, the US can expect to be told to go and “jump in a big pool” if they wish to dictate how Africans run Africa and choose their friends. If AFRICOM specifically, and US detetente with Africa more generally, is to succeed, it must be on a far more equal and nuanced basis.

However Africa too must learn to negotiate from a position of strength and unity. While the US clearly wishes to engage, this must be in the collective interest. There is competition out there. China, India, Brazil and the G77 all beckon strongly and arguably far more meaningfully than a fading superpower throwing its weight around.

Africa has as much, if not more to offer the US than vice versa. It is time for the US to realise that the days of neo-colonial dictatorship and policy intervention are drawing to a close. Rumsfeld and his neo-conservatives are gone. The world has changed. The US will be left behind if it fails to internalise these changes.

Neither can Africa be expected to assume the costs and impacts of US or AFRICOM’s failures. Expecting to play the militarist card and succeed is so yesterday in this age of asymmetrical warfare. Surely the US has learned this after its failures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan? Africa cannot allow itself to become the latest expansionist playground for US military hubris.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Warren_G Verified user
31 May

The world has changed...

A great article and an issue that bears greater scrutiny... I'm not really sure about the observation that "Rumsfeld and his neo-conservatives are gone. The world has changed"... For one thing the US right and the money behind it is as strong as and perhaps more virulent than ever. Backed up by swelling support in Europe, and more than a few 'libertarian' themed movements from the UK through to Brazil... Another relates to your US business/intelligence link. The same interests lie behind e.g. oil and mining as always, while their tactics might change, why would their interests?

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