When the US government announced the authorisation of an independent unified combatant command for Africa - known as AFRICOM - on 6 February 2008, they had evidently forgotten one very basic factor in their appreciation and planning: Where would this newly-established instrument of US foreign policy be based?
Asked Africa in return: Forgive our scepticism, but what is its true aim?
Some African governments went even further and claimed that AFRICOM was aimed at a continued destabilisation policy of the US towards African states – something Africa has great experience of. Others said that the US had applied gross arrogance in assuming that AFRICOM would be given a base in Africa as there had been no prior consultation with them.
Theresa Whelan, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence for African Affairs, has stated that AFRICOM’s focus will be on diplomatic, economic and humanitarian aid. Few, if any African governments seem to believe this. If that is the case, they argue, why call it AFRICOM and why have such a large Department of Defence (DoD) component? Are all of these humanitarian-soldiers going to be doing diplomatic and economic work in Africa? If so, what are the US diplomats and aid agencies then doing in their countries?
Many African governments are in agreement that AFRICOM was most probably established as a knee-jerk reaction to the Chinese resource-hungry invasion of Africa and the likely threat this will hold for US interests – which are also primarily centred on resource exploitation. This seems to have sent Washington’s planners into over-drive. Additionally, the window of opportunity to establish a significant US presence in Africa was open to the US government all along but they simply chose to ignore it. When approached with options for establishing themselves in Africa, they ignored that too.
In a strange way, it reminded me of the warning we (a source and I) had given to the US in the Saudi Embassy in Pretoria concerning the imminent bombing of the USS Cole while it was docked in Yemen. The warning was there, the window to stop it was there but it was simply disregarded – until it was too late and lives had been lost. AFRICOM’s planners appear to have fallen into the same trap. The end result is that it is a little too late.
However, as America proclaimed the establishment of AFRICOM, Africa in turn greeted it with incredulity. Can anyone really blame them?
A senior African politician once said to me: “When we asked the US to help us, they helped the rebels instead! How can we trust such a nation?”
AFRICOM nonetheless forged ahead and appointed General William “Kip” Ward as its commander. Despite being an African-American and no doubt a very competent officer - many African governments found this appointment amusing. Whereas the US may view General Ward as an “African”, Africans don’t. This became apparent when General Ward toured Africa looking for a home-base for his humanitarian-diplomatic-economic mission. He didn’t understand the complexities of Africa, the politics, the people, their traditions, their distrust and their beliefs. The US, believing that Africa would find instant rapport with General Ward due to his historic “Africanness”, was wrong again.
General Ward’s tour through Africa in search of a base was not very successful, despite the Voice of America (VoA) elaborating on the “friendship”, “strong ties” and “goodwill” General Ward encountered in almost every country he visited. These strong ties and goodwill General Ward encountered throughout Africa have, as yet, yielded no base for AFRICOM – apart from the existing US base in Djibouti (Camp Lemonier) with its 2 300 troops that was immediately inherited from the US Central Command.
This did, however, not stop the establishment on 1 October 2008 of the air support component of AFRICOM, the Seventeenth Air Force which is currently based at Sembach Air Base in Germany.
Looking at the various successive US administrations’ record in Africa, it is one long script of betrayal, destabilisation, political blackmail and even worse. Is it then therefore such a surprise that Africa is concerned about its formation? Of course, the bigger African powers also see AFRICOM as an attempt to overshadow their hegemony and undermine them and their interests in Africa. African governments are willing to accept the US Dollar in times of financial crisis but, at the moment, that is as far as it goes. They remain extremely reluctant and wary to allow the wolf to guard their sheep.
As for the few whites that remain in Africa, they too have seen and experienced US betrayals first-hand. AFRICOM is therefore not seen as their saviour either in any shape or form. Instead, they know that their advice and knowledge of the continent will be turned down and thus they view it as another disaster in the making.
US foreign policy has in many ways been shaped by the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) (mis)adventures in Africa, both covert and overt. Whereas there have no doubt been some successes, the failures have been spectacular. Casting a look at the continent, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda and many others immediately spring to mind. Indeed, the US Special Forces are still active in Africa – training the Rwandan Armed Forces (amongst others) – nothing wrong with that - but who in turn are accused of providing support to the rebels in the DRC. “Are they part of AFRICOM?” asked an African minister.
The inability of the US to realise that Africa is a very volatile and complex continent, and not a large country with a common language has furthermore compounded their mistakes. The complexities are further evident by the mad dash by all and sundry to seize its natural resources for their own development with the West blaming the East and visa versa. Africa is indeed blessed with an abundance of natural resources - but this blessing is also its curse.
Unlike the Chinese who have made extensive use of human agents in gathering information and intelligence on Africa – as well as influence, the US has relied primarily on Satellite- and Technical Intelligence (SATINT and TECHINT). But Satint and Techint have many limitations – one of them being unable to see opportunities and correctly assess them. In the past, the CIA operatives in Africa were mainly concerned with recruiting Russian diplomats and didn’t pay much attention to Africa itself, apart from some poorly-hatched covert operations. By neglecting the value of human intelligence (or in the case of Iraq placing all their trust in a single disinformation agent – another post for another day) and influence, the US has been unable to gauge the mood of Africa and its likely reaction to AFRICOM.
This misjudgement becomes even more serious when it is considered that the US took their eye off the African ball and focused it entirely on the Middle East pavilion. During this period, the Chinese seized the moment – with India and Russia following in their wake - and several Asian- and Russo-African pacts were entered into, effectively shutting out the USA.
So for now AFRICOM remains firmly entrenched in Stuttgart, Germany – a LONG way away from heartbeat of Africa.