People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 34

August 23, 2009

 AFRICOM: US Military in Africa.


Yohannan Chemarapally


ON October 1, the United States Military Command for Africa (AFRICOM) formally started operations from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia in West Africa. This move shows the great strategic importance that the Bush administration is giving to Africa. In the US state department’s command structure, Africa is now on par with Pacific Rim (Pacific Command), Europe (European Command), Latin America (Southern Command), West Asia (Central Command) and North America (Northern Command). African leaders have been openly critical about the sudden military interest shown by Washington. The continent is currently grappling with myriad crises but what the governments want is help of the economic kind. African leaders, barring a few exceptions, are united in their view that the days of outside military intervention in the continent are over.


The American general in charge of AFRICOM, General William Ward, in a bid to allay the widespread suspicions on the African continent, said that the new US command has no “hidden agenda”. Interestingly, only Liberia was willing to host the new American military command. During the cold war days, Liberia was an important outpost for American Intelligence. The CIA had one of its most important monitoring stations in Monrovia. The Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hopes that the American embrace will bring in much needed aid as well as protection for her government. The Liberian president has already given the US army the exclusive role of training her country’s armed forces.


The headquarters of AFRICOM for the time being will formally remain in the German city of Stuttgart though for all practical purposes it has shifted to Monrovia. The Bush administration has been trying to pressurise many African nations to host American troops on their soil for the last couple of years on a permanent basis. The leading countries on the continent like South Africa and Nigeria have openly voiced their opposition to the American game plan of strategically embedding the continent in preparation for the looming new cold war. Many African leaders have openly voiced their opposition to the presence of American troops on African soil. The South African Defence minister, Mosiuoa Lekota has refused to meet general Ward despite many requests for an appointment.


General Ward claimed that finding a permanent location for AFRICOM was not a problem as Africa was a big continent. The US is already operating a military base in Djibouti situated in the Horn of Africa. The French already have a long standing military presence there. 1800 American soldiers have been permanently deployed there to keep a watch over neighbouring Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. AFRICOM has taken over the US European Command’s “Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism Initiative” along with military and maritime training programs for individual African countries.


General Ward told the media in the first week of October that AFRICOM will not be used to gain control of African natural resources like oil and gas. He also denied that the US had any intentions of building big permanent bases in the African continent. Though the US administration has not clearly spelt out the precise objectives of the new military command, American commentators and analysts have said that the move reflects the concerns in Washington about the increasing Chinese influence on the African continent. The other key objectives are to secure oil supplies and “combat Islamic extremism”.


The Bush administration so far has preferred to use proxies to fight its wars on the African continent. Somalia is an important illustration. Ethiopia sent in its troops into the country at the behest of Washington just as peace had returned. In fact, it was in February 2007, two months after the aerial bombardment by US planes on Somalia started, that the US department of Defence announced the creation of AFRICOM to “coordinate all US military and security interests throughout the continent”. The Pentagon has said that the AFRICOM’s primary mission will be preventing “problems from becoming crises, and crises from becoming conflicts”


President George W 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 US currently gets 20 per cent of its hydro-carbon supplies from Africa. The figure is likely to increase substantially in the next decade. According to Ezekiel Pajibo and Emira Woods, writing in the US journal—“Foreign Policy in Focus”, said that AFRICOM is a reflection of “the military driven US engagement with Africa” and reflects the desperation of the US administration to control the increasingly strategic natural resources of the African continent.


Africans have not forgotten the devious role played by previous US administrations on the African continent. They had propped up the discredited apartheid regime in South Africa and at the same time had financed and supported right wing movements. The long and bloody civil wars which had devastated the economies of Angola and Mozambique are illustrations. Washington had tried its best to defeat the governments that had successfully vanquished colonialism in the mid-seventies. In other parts of Africa, the West supported corrupt dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo. In those days too, the real motive of the West was to control the resources of the region under the cover of the cold war.


Now in the guise of fighting terrorism and Al Qaeda, the US is seeking to exercise more control of the continent’s mineral resources, especially oil, diamonds and uranium. AFRICOM being located in Liberia in oil rich West Africa is not a coincidence despite assertions by the Pentagon that the creation of AFRICOM does not signal a “new scramble for Africa”. In recent years the US has significantly expanded its naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea and conducts continuous patrols in the region. A key US military document, the 2006 National Security Strategy for the United States had emphasised that “Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this administration”. Between the years 2000-2006, the US doubled its military aid to the continent. 47 armies of African countries receive US training.


The US Defence secretary, Robert Gates, inaugurating the new regional headquarters of AFRICOM, said that it was “yet another important step in modernising our defence arrangements in light of 21st century realities”. He expressed the hope that AFRICOM will “institutionalise a lasting security relationship with Africa, a vast region of growing importance in the globe”.  The United States maintains more than 800 military facilities in 140 countries. Hundreds of thousands of troops operate from these bases intimidating the countries they surround. Nobody believes that AFRICOM is being set up to provide “regional stability” or “security”.


The general consensus among African leaders is that the setting up of AFRICOM would lead to a further increase in US 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 UN, wrote that AFRICOM will lead to the militarisation of Africa. “We don’t need militarisation of Africa, we don’t need securitisation of aid and development in Africa”, Lone told the BBC.  The African Union (AU) has taken a principled stand that the continent’s problems will be solved by Africans and not through outside interventions as was done in the past.


The conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, and Ivory Coast have been resolved by African leaders. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the West African regional grouping---ECOWAS had played a key role. The AU has successfully intervened in Ivory Coast and Burundi. In Zimbabwe, despite the meddling from London and Washington, it was Thabo Mbeki, working on behalf of SADC and the AU, who succeeded in breaking the political impasse. In Kenya too, it was the AU which took the lead in finding a political solution after things had seemingly spun out of control.  Danny Glover, the renowned American actor and a champion of progressive causes along with Nicole C. Lee of the TransAfrica Forum, wrote last year 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 AU.