This time for Africa

Published : Sep 07, 2012 00:00 IST

At a demonstration in the Kasenyi military base in Kampala on August 3, an Ugandan soldier holds a small U.S.-made drone that the Ugandan military uses in Somalia to fight Al Qaeda-linked militants.-JACQUELYN MARTIN/AP

At a demonstration in the Kasenyi military base in Kampala on August 3, an Ugandan soldier holds a small U.S.-made drone that the Ugandan military uses in Somalia to fight Al Qaeda-linked militants.-JACQUELYN MARTIN/AP

The United States makes a scramble for the African continent to set up a string of military bases.

It was clear by 2007 that Washington had once again turned its attention to the African continent with renewed vigour. The decision that year by the George W. Bush administration to set up the Africa Command (AFRICOM) was a signal of Washingtons intent to set up a string of military bases in Africa. American interest in the African continent had waned considerably after the end of the Cold War.

Until the early 1990s, the United States and its Western allies tried their best to derail the liberation movements that had come to power in countries such as Angola and Mozambique. The West propped up authoritarian, corrupt and racist regimes during this period. Until the very end, the Ronald Reagan administration supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and its occupation of Namibia. Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptomaniac who controlled the vast riches of the Congo, was a long-standing ally of the West.

In the past decade, as countries such as China, Brazil and India turned their diplomatic and trade focus on the continent, which is blessed with a great variety of mineral resources, the U.S. decided to make its mark forcefully. Since 2007, Washington has used the war on terror to extend its military reach. Initially, its military moves were restricted to the Horn of Africa, where Islamist militants have emerged as the main fighting force in the long-running civil war in Somalia. Today, however, American forces operate covertly and sometimes overtly in sub-Saharan Africa. There were overt operations in Somalia and Libya, where U.S. Special Forces helped tilt the balance in favour of puppet regimes.

The emergence of South Sudan as an independent client state of the U.S. has come as a boost for policy planners at the Pentagon. The creation of the new state was virtually the handiwork of the Bush administration, which forced the central government in Sudan to agree to the dismemberment of the country in 2005. Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti and Ethiopia are now firmly aligned with the U.S. and are facilitating the American build-up in the region.

The regime change in Libya has been a feather in the cap for U.S. military planners. Slain Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had played an important role in convincing the African Union to protest strongly against the presence of AFRICOM on the continent. Operation Odyssey Dawn, the military operation that led to his overthrow, was led by AFRICOM. The new Libyan regime is indebted to the West for its existence. The strategic location of the country will be of vital importance for the U.S. military as it expands its footprints on the continent.

Speaking at a conference in 2008, U.S. Vice Admiral Robert Moeller declared that the setting up of AFRICOM was to preserve the free flow of oil and natural resources from Africa to the global market. Two years later, in an article in Foreign Policy magazine, he was even more explicit: Let there be no mistake. AFRICOMs job is to protect American lives and promote American interests.

As of now, the U.S. only admits to having one formal base on the continent Camp Lemonnier in the small Republic of Djibouti located in the Horn of Africa. But it is common knowledge that U.S. soldiers operate from other countries in the region, helping the troops of client states in their ongoing battles with various rebel groups. Ethiopia launched a full-scale invasion of Somalia at the behest of the U.S. to dislodge a moderately Islamist government that had briefly brought an end to the civil conflict. Last year, it was the turn of the Kenyan army to invade Somalia, again at the U.S instance, to liberate towns and areas that were under the control of Al Shabab, the Islamist militant group that has emerged as a powerful resistance force. American drones and planes are being used freely to target the leaders of Al Shabab. Military drones take off on assignments in Somalia from the U.S. base in the island nation of Seychelles.

There are reports that the Americans are now getting ready to help Ethiopia launch another war of aggression against neighbouring Eritrea. The U.S. describes the country as a destabilising force in the region. Eritrea is among the few countries on the African continent to have refused to kowtow to the diktats of Washington. In 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatened to take action against Eritrea for allegedly helping Al Shabab. The United Nations monitors dispatched to Eritrea, however, found no evidence of this. The U.S. then persuaded the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on the impoverished country. Despite the absence of any evidence to back the American claims, the sanctions on Eritrea have not been lifted. The U.S. claims that the punitive sanctions have forced the Eritrean government to stop aiding the Somali resistance, and, therefore, they should remain.

Lily pads

The Americans admit to having lily pads on the African continent. Though not formal bases, these are small facilities with a limited number of troops and pre-positioned weapons. One such is on the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, just off the West African coast. U.S. officials compare this base to the Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia has played an important role in ensuring American military domination in the Persian Gulf region.

There has been pressure on India too from the U.S. to secure lily pad facilities. Around the world, from Djibouti to the jungles of the Honduras, the deserts of Mauritania, the Pentagon has been pursuing as many lily pad bases as it can, as fast as it can, wrote David Vine of Washington University.

There are reports of injured American soldiers being flown in from the Horn of Africa to military hospitals in Europe. There have been many U.S. Special Forces and commando missions inside Somalia in recent years. The Ugandan airport in Entebbe has been increasingly used since 2009 for surveillance missions in the African continent.

Within a month of the killing of Qaddafi in October 2011, the U.S. announced that it would be sending troops to four African countries Central African Republic, Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.S. has already deployed some 100 to 200 troops in Uganda to help the government there defeat the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and capture or kill its notorious leader, Joseph Kony.

The remnants of the LRA troops are mostly concentrated in neighbouring South Sudan and Central African Republic. The U.S. is believed to have a troop presence in these countries too. A senior U.S. military official told Nick Turse, an American investigative reporter, that the soldiers had been positioned in these countries at the request of the host governments.

There were reports in the American media of three Special Forces personnel being killed in northern Mali in April. Since an American-trained military officer led a coup in Mali in March this year, the country has been witnessing a conflict as the northern part dominated by the Tuareg ethnic group declared independence. Today, the dominant force in towns such as Timbuktu and Gao are militant Islamist groups like Ansar Dine, which Washington has deemed to be hostile to its interests.

Training exercises

Washington also conducts counterterrorism training in many African countries and arms their armies. They include the armies of Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. AFRICOM is scheduled to complete 14 important training exercises in 2012 with countries such as Morocco, Cameroon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal and Nigeria.

The U.S. has been funnelling increasing amounts of military aid to friendly African states to fight terrorism. The Pentagon has given $82 million in counterterrorism aid to Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Djibouti. According to reports in the American media, the U.S. is planning to introduce more conventional forces into Africa next year. Special Forces have a particular capability in this area, but not the capacity to fulfil the demand, and we think that we can fulfil the demand by using conventional forces, Col. Andrew Dennis of the U.S. Army told a reporter. The U.S. newspaper Army Times reported that 3,000 American soldiers would be deployed in Africa by next year.

President Barack Obama rarely mentions AFRICOM in his speeches despite turning the continent into a military playground for the U.S. Army. Along with his Secretary of State, he has kept on lecturing Africans that all the problems they face are because of bad governance and corruption. The main priority of the U.S., according to its President, is building democratic structures.

Partnering the U.S. enthusiastically on this issue is the Indian government. In many countries, especially those aligned with the U.S., Indian officials are actively involved in training government and civil society members with the help of funds coming from the U.S. State Department in many instances.

Hillary Clinton, on a tour of friendly African countries in early August, suggested in a speech in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, that some countries were out to exploit the natural resources of the continent while America stands up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier to look the other way and keep the resources flowing.

Countries such as China and Brazil prefer to invest in infrastructure projects in a big way while loosening their purse strings to give developmental aid at very low interest rates.

By the way, Washingtons closest allies in the region today are authoritarian rulers who brook no dissent. They include Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda; Yoweri Museveni, the long-ruling President of Uganda; and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who has been rigging elections ever since ousting Mengistu Haile Merriam in the early 1990s.

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