Living in South Africa, I watch with morbid fascination at how the US and China are racing to recapture Africa – the US with AFRICOM and China with business development and investment. Africa, despite its many problems, is increasingly becoming of more strategic interest and importance to both the US and China.
Whereas the approaches these two nations are following differ vastly, their ultimate aim is the same: control over Africa’s strategic resources – especially oil reserves.
The U.S Africa Command (AFRICOM), established in October 2007, is described as being a Unified Combatant Command of the US Department of Defence and is responsible for U.S. military operations and military relations with 53 African nations. This overtly aggressive entrance into Africa has been criticised by many African governments.
The Chinese on the other hand are following a much more passive approach with business development and investment. This approach, too, has been subject to much criticism as some view it as the Chinese colonisation of Africa. Several African governments reject this allegation, claiming that the Chinese have never betrayed or destabilised African countries as the US has – and African governments have long memories.
Additionally, many African governments feel that the Chinese have been open about their desires: control over and exploitation of resources for the ever-hungry Chinese economy. On the other hand, the US is using the route of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as their entrance key into Africa but underlying this is the need to control Africa’s oil.
To achieve this, the US African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) was transformed into a new programme called the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA). ACOTA’s aim is to “train military trainers and equip African national militaries to conduct peace support operations and humanitarian relief”. To achieve this, ACOTA is contracting US PMCs, some with little or no knowledge of Africa. This, in turn, is going to cause the US more problems in the long run than solutions or influence. But this approach is seen by others to attempt to detract from the US’s plans to militarise their foreign policy.
The Chinese, on the other hand, have financialised their foreign policy with regard to Africa. This includes the identification, procurement and exploitation of resources and strategic commodities. Included in this financial-driven foreign policy are massive credit lines, infrastructure development, export-development and so forth. The latest Chinese export to Africa is the massive Chinese weapons market.
As the war in Iraq winds down, more US PMCs are vying for a stake in ACOTA/AFRICOM. Whereas there is nothing wrong with such a shift in business development, the problem arises when some of these PMCs have no knowledge or experience of the continent. To illustrate this point, I mention some questions I have recently received from US PMCs:
1. Can I help them find someone who speaks “African”? Africa does not have a common language but literally hundreds of languages and dialects.
2. Can I introduce them to someone who has a licence to “carry and use arms” in Africa as they would like to “piggy-back” on such a licence? Africa is a continent with many countries, each with their own laws and regulations – there is no common licence to carry arms.
3. Can I suggest some “good” Third-Country nationals they can use in Africa? We who live in Africa take exception to being referred to as third-world nationals on our own continent…
Whereas questions such as these are very serious cause for concern, they also illustrate a complete lack of even basic geographical and linguistic knowledge of Africa. Furthermore, this is akin to a company with no engineering background or skills tendering for a massive engineering contract and then scrambling to find people who will carry out the contract if they are awarded it.
Whereas I understand something of business, I also understand something of Africa. It is PMCs such as these that will, more than likely, undermine the efficiency of African militaries as opposed to enhancing them. They will bring with them more chance of conflict than of peace and stability. Then of course, there is the concern that these PMCs will train African troops poorly – in case they ever have to face them on the battlefield.
These issues are not unknown to the Chinese who will, no doubt, exploit them to the hilt when the time comes. They suspect that AFRICOM and ACOTA will eventually create additional chaos and destabilisation and that this will give them free rein in Africa. Added to this volatile mix is the knowledge that the US military’s adventures in Africa have not been very successful.
Africa, however, ought to realise that it is the creator of many of its own problems and that these problems have given foreign governments an influence and power they ought never to have had.
But, whether we like it or not, the battle lines between the US and China have been drawn across the sand in Africa. We who live here must now just wait for the final battle for Africa to begin.