Barack Obama has taken on the Africom agenda from his predecessor, albeit without much fanfare.
AFRICA was in a celebratory mood after Barack Hussein Obama became America’s first black President. The continent, like most of the world, had invested a lot of hope in the Obama presidency. But after more than seven months in office, Obama is yet to distance himself from most of the key foreign policy objectives of the discredited George W. Bush administration.
As far as Africa is concerned, one of the most controversial steps taken by the previous U.S. administration was the setting up of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) in 2007. Bush, in a major policy speech in 2003, had said that 25 per cent of the oil that the U.S. imported should be sourced from the African continent. The White House, in a statement, spelt out the reasons for setting up Africom: “[It] will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and set up new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa.” Another stated goal was to strengthen “democracy” on the continent. The most important reasons, to control the rich resources of the continent and to set up military bases there, were not mentioned.
The Obama administration, like the previous one, views Africom as an important tool in the “global war on terror”. The “war on terror” is being used by Washington to strengthen its military presence on the continent. The U.S. military presence in the Horn of Africa has seriously destabilised the region. The bloodletting in Somalia is threatening to spread into neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea. With U.S. backing, Ethiopia has emerged as the regional policeman.
The African Union (A.U.) and other regional groupings such as the Southern African Development Council (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have rejected the very rationale behind the creation of Africom. The fact that no African country has offered basing facilities for Africom despite the best efforts of the Bush administration illustrates the deep suspicion that the continent has towards Africom.
Most African leaders see Africom as an effort at military intrusion into the continent and a crude attempt to counter Chinese influence. China has funnelled massive development aid into the continent and is the biggest market for the continent’s bountiful mineral riches.
It is no surprise that Obama has taken on the Africom agenda from his predecessor, albeit without much fanfare. While candidate Obama was critical of many aspects of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, he was supportive of Africom. Obama had said: “There will be situations that require the U.S. to work with its partners in Africa to fight terrorism with lethal force. Having a unified command fighting in Africa will facilitate this action.”
Africom is a unified command that brings all U.S. Defence Department programmes in Africa under one umbrella. Missions range from anti-terrorism programmes to maritime security initiatives and military-to-military training exercises with many countries. Throughout the Cold War and more than a decade after that, the U.S. did not have a military command for Africa. U.S. military activity in Africa was conducted by three military commands: the Central Command, which was responsible for Egypt and the Horn of Africa along with West and Central Asia; the Pacific Command, which had strong links with Madagascar and other small islands in the Indian Ocean; and the European Command, which was responsible for most of the continent.
Obama, during his recent visit to Ghana, his first official tour of an African country, did not mention Africom. The Obama administration prefers to pursue its military and strategic objectives in the continent in a low-profile manner – it has doubled Africom’s budget and increased funding for counter-terrorism projects in the continent. This includes funding for weapons and military training at a time when American military aid to other parts of the world is drying up.
Most of the funding is going to pro-American authoritarian regimes such as the ones in Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea and Chad. Impoverished Equatorial Guinea and Chad are big oil producers. Ethiopia has been used by the U.S. to prop up the tottering Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The Obama administration is paying special attention to the Counter-terrorism Engagement Programme, the official goal of which is to “build political will at senior levels in partner nations for shared counterterrorism challenges”.
The 2010 U.S. Federal Budget includes $42 million for the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) and the East African Strategic Initiative. The TSCTP links the U.S. with Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. The Eritrean government, which once was the favoured recipient of U.S. largesse on the continent, stated that “the misguided acts of intervention and supply of weapons by the U.S. have not advanced the cause of stability in Somalia”.Much of the U.S. military activity in the Horn is conducted from the Camp Lemonier Base in Djibouti. Observers say that the fact that Obama chose Ghana as his first port of call is indicative of the American agenda. The West African state has started producing oil in commercial quantities and is soon going to be an oil exporter. Other West African states are already big oil exporters. Oil and gas deposits are being discovered in the Gulf of Guinea.
Washington has been trying to convince key West African states to host Africom. Liberia at one time was said to be predisposed to hosting Africom. The Bush administration tried to convince Nigeria to engage with Africom. Obama’s charm offensive in Ghana, African commentators feel, could be a bid to convince the new government there to be more accommodative towards Africom. Ghana, like Nigeria, is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which remains steadfastly opposed to militarisation.
The stated purpose of Obama’s visit was “to strengthen the U.S�relationship with one of our most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa, and to highlight the goal sound governance and civil society plays in promoting lasting development”. But many Ghanaians are wary of the hidden agenda. Ghana is ideally located to serve as Africom’s base as it straddles the vast oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea.
Base Access Agreement
Ghana already has a base access agreement with the U.S., signed during the Bush presidency. Under this, the U.S. has access to local military bases for combat, surveillance and other military activity. Legally, the bases belong to Ghana, but for all practical purposes the U.S. has a free run. Similar agreements have been signed between the U.S. and the governments of Gabon, Botswana, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia. Algeria has allowed the U.S. to fly P-3 “Orion” aerial surveillance aircraft from the Tamanrasset airfield in the south of the country.
This is incontrovertible evidence that though almost all the governments in Africa are ostensibly against Africom, many of them are not averse to lending a helping hand to the U.S. in less visible ways.
The West has a long history of intervening in the region. The proceedings against Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia in the War Crimes Tribunal, have revealed that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a role in his ascent to power. According to Taylor, he was allowed to “escape” from a high-security American prison. Taylor was serving a prison sentence in the U.S. in the late 1980s. Khwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana and a pan-African visionary, was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1966.
France, a former colonial power, has 10,000 troops stationed on the African continent. Between 1997 and 2002, France intervened militarily 34 times in the continent. France has drawn up secret defence agreements with many of its former colonies and these give it access on a priority basis to natural resources such as oil, gas and uranium.
During a speech to the Ghanaian parliament, Obama spelt out the American policy for the region: “We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly in the region and to isolate those who don’t, and that is exactly what America will do.” The Obama administration has not relaxed the draconian sanctions against Zimbabwe despite a unity government being in place there. Ordinary Zimbabweans are in desperate need of essentials such as food and medicine, but the U.S. administration’s priority continues to be to isolate the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe.
Washington has been piling pressure on Sudan by raising the bogey of humanitarian intervention. Among the stated goals of the Obama administration is “ending autocracy in Zimbabwe and human devastation in Darfur”. Obama, during one of the debates in the run-up to the presidential election, said that it was in America’s “national interests” to intervene in places where ethnic cleansing and humanitarian disasters took place. He mentioned Darfur as a region where the U.S. could provide logistical support.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Africans in general view Africom as a distinct threat to their sovereignty and associate it with neocolonialism.
Islamist insurgents patrol a street in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 13. "Intervention and supply of weapons by the U.S. have not advanced the cause of stability in Somalia," states the Eritrean government.