Over to Africa

Print edition : November 07, 2008

General William E. Ward, head of the United States Command for Africa. Ward has denied any intention of building permanent U.S. military bases in Africa.-FETHI BELAID/AFP

AFRICOM starts operating from Liberia, and now there is fear of increased U.S. interference in the internal affairs of African countries.

ON October 1, the United States Military Command for Africa (AFRICOM) formally started operations from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia in western Africa. This shows the strategic importance that the George W. Bush administration is giving to Africa. In the U.S. State Departments command structure, Africa is now on a par with the Pacific Rim (Pacific Command), Europe (European Command), Latin America (Southern Command), West Asia (Central Command) and North America (Northern Command).

African leaders are critical of the sudden military interest shown by the U.S. The continent is grappling with myriad crises and what its governments want is help of the economic kind. African leaders, barring a few, are united in their view that the days of outside military intervention in the continent are over.

In a bid to allay the widespread suspicions in Africa, General William E. Ward, who is in charge of AFRICOM, said that the new command has no hidden agenda. Interestingly, only Liberia was willing to host the American military command.

During the Cold War, Liberia was an important outpost for U.S. intelligence. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had one of its most important monitoring stations in Monrovia. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hopes that the U.S. embrace will bring in much-needed aid as well as protection for her government. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has already given the exclusive role of training Liberias armed forces to the U.S. Army.

The headquarters of AFRICOM for the time being will formally remain in Stuttgart, Germany, though for all practical purposes it has shifted to Monrovia. The Bush administration has been pressuring many African nations to host U.S. troops on their soil on a permanent basis. Leading African countries such as South Africa and Nigeria have voiced their opposition to the U.S. game plan of strategically embedding the continent in preparation for the looming new Cold War. Many African leaders have opposed the presence of American troops on African soil. South African Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota has refused to meet Gen. Ward despite many requests for an appointment.

Ward claimed that finding a permanent location for AFRICOM was not a problem as Africa was a big continent. The U.S. is already operating a military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. The French also have a long-standing military presence there. As many as 1,800 U.S. soldiers have been deployed there permanently to keep a watch over neighbouring Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. AFRICOM has taken over the European Commands Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism Initiative along with military and maritime training programmes for African countries.

Ward told the media in the first week of October that AFRICOM would not be used to gain control of African natural resources such as oil and gas. He denied that the U.S. had any intentions of building big permanent bases in Africa.

Though the U.S. administration has not spelt out the precise objectives of the new command, American commentators and analysts have said that the move reflects the concern in the U.S. about the growing Chinese influence on the continent. The other key objectives are to secure oil supplies and to combat Islamic extremism.

The Bush administration has so far preferred to use proxies to fight its wars in Africa, an example being the conflict in Somalia. Ethiopia sent its troops to that country at the behest of the U.S. even as peace had just returned.

In fact, it was in February 2007, two months after the aerial bombardment of Somalia by U.S. planes, that the U.S. Department of Defence announced the creation of AFRICOM to coordinate all U.S. military and security interests throughout the continent. The Pentagon has said that AFRICOMs primary mission will be preventing problems from becoming crises, and crises from becoming conflicts.

Bush had said at the time that the new command will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa. The U.S. currently gets 20 per cent of its hydrocarbon supplies from Africa. The figure is likely to increase substantially in the next decade.

Ezekiel Pajibo and Emira Woods, writing in the U.S. journal Foreign Policy in Focus, said that AFRICOM was a reflection of the military-driven U.S. engagement with Africa and the desperation of the U.S. to control the increasingly strategic natural resources of the African continent.

African leaders Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), King Mswati III (Swaziland), Thabo Mbeki (South Africa), Morgan Tsvangirai (Zimbabwe), Jakaya Kikwete (Tanzania), Armando Gebuza (Mozambique) and Hafikepunye Pohamba (Namibia) on September 15 in Harare when the power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe was signed. Many African leaders have voiced their opposition to the U.S. game plan of strategically embedding the continent in preparation for the looming new Cold War.-TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI/AP

Africans have not forgotten the devious role played by previous U.S. administrations on the continent. They propped up the apartheid regime in South Africa and financed and supported right-wing movements. The long and bloody civil wars, which devastated the economies of Angola and Mozambique, are examples.

Washington tried its best to defeat the governments that had vanquished colonialism in the mid-1970s. In other parts of Africa, the West supported corrupt dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo. In those days, too, the real motive of the West was to control the regions resources under the cover of the Cold War.

Now, in the guise of fighting terrorism and Al Qaeda, the U.S. is seeking to exercise more control of the continents mineral resources, especially oil, diamonds and uranium. AFRICOMs location in Liberia in oil-rich western Africa is not a coincidence despite Pentagons assertions that the creation of AFRICOM does not signal a new scramble for Africa.

In recent years, the U.S. has significantly expanded its naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea. A key U.S. military document, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, March 2006, emphasised that Africa holds growing geostrategic importance and is a high priority of this administration. Between 2000 and 2006, the U.S. doubled its military aid to the continent. The armies of 47 African countries receive U.S. training.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, inaugurating the regional headquarters of AFRICOM, said that it was yet another important step in modernising our defence arrangements in light of 21st century realities. He hoped that AFRICOM would institutionalise a lasting security relationship with Africa, a vast region of growing importance in the globe.

The U.S. maintains more than 800 military facilities in 140 countries. Hundreds of thousands of troops operate from these bases, intimidating countries in their neighbourhoods. Nobody believes that AFRICOM is being set up to provide regional stability or security.

The consensus among African leaders is that the setting up of AFRICOM in the region would lead to further U.S. interference in the internal affairs of African countries and also fuel an arms race in a continent that is already awash with small arms. Salim Lone, a Kenyan who was a senior official in the United Nations, wrote that AFRICOM would lead to the militarisation of Africa.

We dont need militarisation of Africa, we dont need securitisation of aid and development in Africa, Lone told the BBC. The African Union (A.U.) has taken a principled stand that the continents problems will be solved by Africans and not through outside interventions.

Aircraft on the flight deck of USS Theodore Roosevelt at anchor in Table Bay off Cape Town on October 6. The U.S. doubled its military aid to Africa between 2000 and 2006, and the armies of 47 African countries receive U.S. training.-RODGER BOSCH/AFP

The conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, and Ivory Coast have been resolved by African leaders. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the regional grouping, the Economic Community of West African States, played a key role. The A.U. has successfully intervened in Ivory Coast and Burundi.

In Zimbabwe, despite meddling by the United Kingdom and the U.S., it was Thabo Mbeki, working on behalf of the South African Development Community and the A.U., who succeeded in breaking the political impasse, during the last days of his presidency in South Africa. In Kenya too, it was the A.U., which took the lead in finding a political solution after things had seemingly spun out of control.

Danny Glover, American actor and a champion of progressive causes, along with Nicole C. Lee of the TransAfrica Forum wrote in 2007 that instead of military strategies, African countries need immediate debt cancellation, fair trade policies and increased development assistance. Civil wars, genocide and terrorist threats, they emphasised, must be tackled by the A.U.

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