People's Democracy

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


No. 38

September 23, 2012


US Scramble for Africa


Yohannan Chemarapally


DESPITE the Obama administration’s stated policy of “pivoting to the East,” the African continent remains very much on Washington’s radar. The decision to set up the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007 by the Bush administration was a signal of Washington’s intent to set up a string of military bases in Africa. 




American interest in the African continent had considerably waned after the end of the Cold War. Till the early nineties, Washington and the West had tried their best to derail the liberation movements that had come to power in countries like Angola and Mozambique. The West had propped up authoritarian, corrupt and racist regimes during this period. The Reagan administration till the very end supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and its forcible occupation of Namibia. Mobutu Sese Seko, the long ruling kleptomaniac who controlled the vast riches of the Congo, was a long standing ally of the West.


In the last decade, as countries like China, Brazil and India turned their diplomatic and trade focus on the continent which is blessed with a great variety of mineral resources, Washington decided to forcefully make its mark. 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 have been covertly and sometimes openly operating in sub-Saharan Africa. The overt operations have been in Somalia and Libya, where American Special Forces have helped tilt the balance in favour of puppet regimes. The emergence of Southern Sudan as an independent “client” state of the US has come as a boost for the policy planners at the Pentagon. The creation of the new state was virtually the handiwork of the Bush administration which had 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 Washington and are facilitating the American build-up in the region. The regime change in Libya has been the real feather in the cap for the military planners in Washington. Muammar Gaddafi was the staunchest opponent of AFRICOM and had played an important role in convincing the African Union to strongly protest 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 country which is strategically located will be of vital importance for the US military as it expands its footprints on the continent. US Vice Admiral Robert Moeller, speaking at a conference in 2008, had 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. AFRICOM's job is to protect American lives and promote American interests,” he wrote.




As of now, the US 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 American soldiers are operating from other countries in the region, helping the troops of client states in their ongoing battles with various rebel groupings. Ethiopia had launched a full scale invasion of Somalia at the behest of Washington to dislodge a moderate Islamist government that had briefly brought an end to the civil conflict. Last year it was the turn of Kenyan army to invade Somalia, again at Washington’s request, to liberate towns and areas that were under the control of the Al Shabab, the Islamist militant group that has emerged as the most powerful resistance force. American drones and planes are being freely used to target the leaders of Al Shabab. There is a US base in the island nation of Seychelles from where the military drones take off on assignments in Somalia.


There are reports that the Americans are now getting ready to help Ethiopia launch another war of aggression against neighbouring Eritrea. The country has been described by the US as a “destabilising” force in the region. Eritrea is among the few countries left on the African continent that have refused to kowtow to the diktats of Washington. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had threatened to “take action” against Eritrea in 2009 for allegedly helping the Al Shabab. UN monitors dispatched to Eritrea found no evidence of this. The US had persuaded the UNSC to impose sanctions on the impoverished country. Despite finding no evidence to back up the American claims, the sanctions on Eritrea have not been lifted. Washington claims that it is the punitive sanctions that have forced the Eritrean government to stop aiding the Somali resistance and that therefore the sanctions should remain.   


The Americans do, however, admit to having “lily pads” on the African continent. These are small facilities with a limited number of troops and pre-positioned weapons and supply. One of the important lily pads is on the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, just off the West African coast. US officials have compared this base to the Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia has played an important role in ensuring American military domination over the Persian Gulf area. There has been pressure on India too from Washington for “lily pad” facilities. “Around the world, from Djibouti to the jungles of the Honduras, and 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 region to military hospitals in Europe. There have been many US Special Forces and commando missions inside Somalia in recent years. The Ugandan airport of Entebbe has been increasingly used since 2009 for surveillance missions over the African continent.




Within a month after the killing of Gaddafi, Washington had announced that it would be sending troops to four African countries --- the Central African Republic, Uganda, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. The US has already deployed around 100-200 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 LRA are mostly concentrated in neighbouring South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The US is believed to have a troop presence in these countries too. A senior US military official told Nick Turse, an American investigative reporter, that the soldiers have been positioned in these countries at the request of the host governments.


There were reports in American media of three American 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 like Timbuktu and Gao are militant Islamist groups like Ansar Dine which Washington has deemed to be hostile to its interests.


Washington is also conducting counter-terrorism training and arming many armies in Africa. 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 like Morocco, Cameroon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal and Nigeria. The US has been funnelling increasing amounts of military aid to friendly African states to fight terrorism. The Pentagon has already given 82 million dollars in counter-terrorism aid to Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Djibouti. Next year, the US, according to reports appearing in the American media, is planning to introduce more conventional forces into the African continent. “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 US Army, told a reporter. The US paper Army Times reported that 3000 American soldiers will be deployed in Africa by next year.


The current US president rarely mentions AFRICOM in his speeches despite turning the continent into a military playground for the US army. He along with his secretary of state has kept on lecturing Africans that all the problems they face are because of bad governance and corruption. The main US priority, according to the American president, is on building “democratic structures.”




Partnering Washington enthusiastically on this issue is the Indian government. In many countries, especially those aligned with the US, Indian officials are actively involved in training government and civil society members with the funding coming from the US State Department in many instances. Hillary Clinton, on a tour of friendly African countries in early August, suggested in a speech in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, 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 like 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, Washington’s closest allies in the region today are authoritarian rulers who brook no dissent. One of them is Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda; the other is Yoweri Museveni, the long ruling president of Uganda; and Meles Zenawi, who has been rigging elections ever since ousting Mengistu Haile Merriam in the early nineties.