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AFRICOM in Action: Undermining Democracy and Promoting Militarism in Africa

Nii Akuetteh
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

On Monday, May 3, 2010, 600 US Special Forces kicked off exercises close to the Sahara Desert. They were not alone. Four hundred soldiers from ten African armies and 150 troops from five European countries participated. The diverse group was beginning Operation Flintlock 2010, the latest AFRICOM escalation of militarism across Africa.

Notwithstanding the exercise’s multilateral nature, AFRICOM privileged one of the countries: Mali. Flintlock’s opening ceremony was held in Bamako and U.S. Ambassador Gillian Milovanovic delivered the keynote.

In favoring Mali, the exercise simply continued an AFRICOM pattern. For example, seven months ago, the US gave Mali $5 million. The quid pro quo? According to the BBC, “Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure promised a ‘total war’ against the Islamists and has claimed several successes.” The BBC reporter observed that “the gift from the US and talk of co-operation with other countries in the region may mean the battle is about to begin in earnest.”

That October, 2009 aid largess for Mali and this year’s Operation Flintlock together highlight two of AFRICOM’s deep flaws—it undermines democracy and, by promoting militarism, it inflames conflict.

Repeating a history of foreign interventions

AFRICOM, short for Africa Command, is the newest of six geographically-focused combatant commands within the Pentagon. In October 2007, the Bush Administration created it to be the single, unified command responsible for every African country except Egypt. It became fully autonomous of the European Command in 2008.

Prior to AFRICOM’s creation, the Pentagon split among three different commands the responsibility for military operations in Africa. AFRICOM is temporarily headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, the home of EUROCOM, and headed by four-star General William “Kip” Ward, an African American.

Not surprisingly, AFRICOM is awash in resources. Being a functioning tentacle of history’s greatest military, AFRICOM has access to military technology, hardware, troops, and money that other armies can only dream of—even major global armies.

For the current fiscal year, the Pentagon requested $300 million for operation and maintenance, $263 million for support and $200 million for Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Additionally, military officials requested $627 million for five military programs the US has long operated in Africa: Foreign Military Financing, International Military Education and Training, Peacekeeping, Narcotics-related programs, and Anti-terrorism and Nonproliferation programs. Theoretically then, AFRICOM has at its disposal at least $1.39 billion during FY 2010.

This contrasts with the $53.9 million that was requested for the entire State Department in FY 2010. Moreover, the Africa Bureau is widely regarded as the most under-staffed and under-funded unit in the State Department.

Ghanaian editor Kwesi Pratt is one within a huge chorus of insistent African voices convinced that AFRICOM’s real agenda cannot be good for the continent. Pratt asserts that the real agenda is to use US military muscle to exploit Africa’s natural resource cornucopia—especially oil—out-compete the Chinese in a new Cold War, and prosecute the war on Islamic terrorism.

Like others, Pratt also charges that AFRICOM means US bases across Africa. AFRICOM denies wanting bases in Africa, just a headquarters. It sticks to this denial despite its major base in the Horn of Africa about which ISN reported in 2007: The current US military presence in Africa is about 1,800 troops, mostly at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, established in May 2003 as part of CENTCOM's Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which began operating in October 2002. CJTF-HOA’s US military and civilian personnel cover the land and airspace in Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen, as well as the coastal waters of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean.

AFRICOM’s denials persist despite the following damning allegation in the same authoritative ISN: “The Pentagon reportedly plans to establish another dozen bases in the region; in Algeria, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Ghana, Morocco, and Tunisia.”

French and US spheres of influence

Foreign militarism (imperialism’s iron fist) did not end once Africa reclaimed her independence. It only morphed, peaking during the Cold War. To ensure Africans did not embrace socialism, Washington and Paris decided that significant parts of Africa belonged to a French “sphere of influence.”

Consequently, under deals both known and secret, France stationed or ferried troops into virtually all its former colonies—and even into non-colonies (Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)). Using these troops, France then suppressed democracy, propped up puppet dictators, and plundered Africa’s wealth.

A reliable 2008 count found that “France intervened militarily in Africa 19 times between 1962 and 1995.” The most notorious were interventions in Chad, the DRC, Gabon and, of course, Rwanda.

Today, Senegal and Gabon host sprawling French bases. Additionally, French troops are currently embroiled in operations in the Central African Republic (Operation Boali), in Chad (Operation Sparrowhawk), and in Cote d’Ivoire (Operation Unicorn).

Who benefits? As British professor Shaun Gregory has observed, “the standard for military support was contingent on an African leader’s willingness to support French interests.” The deeply entrenched system has acquired a name, “FranceAfrique.”

Beyond the French sphere-of-influence deal, the US mounts its own African incursions when it pleases: The Congo crises in the early 1960s and in mid-1990s; President Carter’s 1978 backing of Somali dictator Siyaad Barre during the Ogaden War against Ethiopia; the Chad civil wars especially in August 1983, when President Reagan built a multinational force that installed and protected brutal warlord Hissene Habre who is currently due to be tried for crimes against humanity; and President Reagan’s bombing of Libya in April, 1986. Examples of US intervention in Africa abound.

Still, the prime example must be the December, 1992 incursion into Somalia. It ended in humiliating failure. Upon inheriting the mission in January, 1993, President Clinton came under brutal and racially-tinged pressure from Senator Jesse Helms and other right-wingers. When 18 US troops were killed during the Black Hawk Down battle, Mr. Clinton succumbed and in October, 1993, ordered the US troops out.

Ever since then, US politicians consistently use Black Hawk Down to veto any hint of having US troops fight to save African lives. It is unlikely therefore that a newly found appreciation for African lives is a motivation for AFRICOM’s creation.

Failed Congo mission

Does this mean US troops don’t intervene in Africa? Hardly. Since 1993, US soldiers have ventured into Africa on 29 separate occasions to perform varied missions—except to save African lives.

Assisting friendly tyrants remains a favorite mission. Consequently, AFRICOM’s December 2008 assistance to Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni should surprise no one.

Ignoring the 24-year dictatorship’s own role in fueling the rebellion and other regional conflicts, AFRICOM helped plan a raid approved by President Bush himself. Called Operation Lightning Thunder, its purpose was to destroy Joseph Kony’s rebels then hiding in the Congo. President Bush personally pressured Congo to permit this territorial violation. In implementation, Lightning Thunder was bungled and the rebels escaped. Weeks later they resurfaced and slaughtered 900 innocent Congolese. They mutilated an even greater number.

In the disaster’s aftermath, US military leaders denied responsibility, pointing fingers at the Ugandan army. Still, the important US role is unmistakable—as The New York Times makes clear in a February 7, 2009 story: “The United States has been training Ugandan troops in counterterrorism for several years, but its role in the operation has not been widely known. It is the first time the United States has helped plan such a specific military offensive with Uganda, according to senior American military officials. They described a team of 17 advisers and analysts from the Pentagon's new Africa Command working closely with Ugandan officers on the mission, providing satellite phones, intelligence and $1 million in fuel.”

Seventeen months after Lightning Thunder brutalized Congolese, a Congressional bill seems poised to repeat the tragedy. In March 2010, the Senate passed an otherwise decent bill concerning the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Two months later, the House has followed suit. President Obama is under Congressional pressure to sign it.

House and Senate supporters—both Republican and Democrat--dismiss deep, disfiguring flaws: The bill practically requires AFRICOM to undertake more raids to help Museveni eliminate Kony. And the bill ignores two enduring causes of conflict in Uganda: Museveni’s dictatorship and regional grievances. Left unexplained is why any new raids would not crash and burn, destroying innocent Congolese lives as did Lightning Thunder.

Grumbling by federal bureaucrats and passionate appeals by both US and African civil society all failed to remove the militaristic provision from the LRA bill. And currently, an Obama veto is not even a forlorn hope. Critics of militarism and of AFRICOM are therefore despondent.

An ocean of opposition

During a March 10 House hearing this year, Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson posed this question, “how are AFRICOM and the US military efforts in Africa perceived by Africans?”

In response, General Ward stated “[African] perception is increasingly favorable. It has been rising over the last two years. And they are continuing to increase in the most favorable way, their perceptions.” Watching the exchange, I silently begged for the obvious follow-up, “Risen from what base to what current level?” It never came.

Like General Ward, The Congressional Research Service (CRS) also underestimates African hostility to AFRICOM. An April 2010 CRS report characterized African attitudes as “mixed.” That is similar to saying that the US attitude towards Iran’s president is mixed.

These and other misleading rosy pictures probably result from bad sampling. AFRICOM seems to listen mostly to a narrow, unrepresentative slice of African elites--the rare right-wing activist, top military brass, and a few politicians. This is a small minority with something to gain, with an agenda. Consequently, it says whatever proponents of AFRICOM want to hear.

The truth about broad African attitudes is less sanguine. African opinion leaders are overwhelmingly suspicious and opposed. Kwesi Pratt’s The Insight in Ghana; Business Day in Johannesburg, South Africa; The Nation in Nairobi, Kenya; and The Post in Zambia—these are just a few of African media outlets that have published blunt anti-AFRICOM opinions.

What is it about AFRICOM that worries Africans? The harms that US military presence will inflict on Africa (as they have from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti to Okinawa in Japan to Subic Bay in the Philippines to Vieques in Puerto Rico) constitute one worry. Specific harms include degrading the environment; fostering prostitution, abuse and even killing of women; militarizing and inflaming local quarrels; undermining African sovereignty; and encouraging dictatorship.

“Of course, it is evident that oil is the key concern of the US in establishing its Africa command," so says Jomo Gbomo. He is a spokesperson for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main armed group in the region opposing the pillaging of the Delta’s crude oil and the resulting environmental degradation. He went on to tell International Relations and Security Network (ISN) on February 19, 2007: “We will fight everyone who goes on the side of the Nigerian government, regardless of who.”

Demanding a different approach

As the recent progress made in the Niger Delta between MEND fighters and the late Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua demonstrates, today’s African security and conflict challenges call for approaches that are consensual, consultative, and respectful, transparent, peaceful, supportive of democracy, and resolving of conflicts.

AFRICOM’s actual approach thus far has been unilateral, deceptive, militaristic, undermining of democracy and, by inflaming and weaponizing African quarrels, counterproductive.

Above all, AFRICOM is continuing an old, dangerous, counterproductive foreign policy habit: propping up brutal African dictators that Washington cynically labels as “friendly tyrants.” Beyond the very short term, this policy unfailingly inflicts grievous harm on both African and US interests.

Nii Akuetteh is an Africa analyst in Washington, DC. Previously he was: Executive Director of Africa Action; Founder of the Democracy & Conflict Research Institute, DCRI, in Accra, Ghana; founding Executive Director of West Africa arm of the Soros Foundation; Professor of African Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC; and Editor and Research Director at TransAfrica Forum in Washington, DC.