Global Policy Forum

Skepticism Over US Africa Command


By Dulue Mbachu*

International Relations and Security Network
February 19, 2007

Some analysts argue that the US' Africa command signals the continent's emerging strategic importance, but others believe it is a sign of an oil-fueled power grab.

Africa appears set to transform into a place of strategic importance in global affairs with Washington's recent decision to set up a special military command dedicated to the continent. Announcing the move on 6 February during a congressional briefing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the force, which should be up and running by 2008, would "oversee security cooperation, building partnership capability, defense support to non-military missions, and, if directed, military operations on the African continent."

Currently, responsibility for US military operations in Africa is shared between its European, Pacific and Central commands, with different regions of the continent assigned to each. The African command will replace this arrangement carried over from the Cold War era and seek a more effective and integrated response to military situations in Africa. US officials have portrayed the plan as being beneficial for Africa, denying suggestions that the move is part of a new scramble for a continent where its security interests include protecting vital oil supplies and the global war against terrorism.

"The importance of Africa is the reason we are establishing this new unified command," Theresa Whelan, US deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of African affairs, told reporters last week. "This isn't about a scramble for the continent." But many African affairs analysts remain unconvinced, perceiving a race with China for control of the continent with potentially unsavory consequences for Africans. China's growing influence on the continent as a countervailing political force and a keen rival for its resources has been a major concern for the US in recent years.

China has also stepped up an aggressive effort to secure raw material supplies, particularly oil, from African producers who traditionally supplied the West. Visits to Africa by Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2006 and earlier this year have been aimed at forging new cooperation ties, creating new businesses and markets for Chinese companies and their products.

"This is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab," Nicole Lee, who heads TransAfrica - the leading African-American group focusing on US foreign policy on Africa - said of the creation of the new command. According to Lee, nothing could be further from the truth than US claims that strengthening its military presence on African soil will lead to greater peace and security on the continent.

"This new Bush plan is an expansion of a policy that has brought destruction and terror to the peoples of the Middle East," Lee told ISN Security Watch, arguing that fairer trade rules, development assistance and respect for the sovereignty of Africa will be more beneficial to Africa than expanding military operations.

Supporters of the move, however, see the setting up of an African command as a long overdue measure, not only to protect oil supplies to the US and further counter terrorism efforts, but also to check China's growing influence. "Beyond the security and resource concerns, Africa is also an arena for intense diplomatic competition with other states with global ambitions, like China," says J Peter Pham, a US security analyst and director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs, in justifying the move for an African Command.

With the end of the Cold War, US military policy toward Africa, articulated in a 1990 national security review, envisaged "significant opportunities" as well as obstacles to its interests and saw the need to remain militarily involved in the continent. This was the rationale for the 1993 intervention in Somalia in which 18 US troops were killed. After the Somali debacle, the US became reluctant to get involved in African conflicts. But the Rwandan genocide in which nearly a million people were killed a year later generated a collective international feeling of guilt for non-intervention and resulted in a rethink of US military policy in Africa.

Subsequently, the US instituted an African crisis response scheme aimed at improving the capacity of African countries to intervene in the continent's conflicts without requiring its direct military involvement. The Bush administration upgraded this program under its African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program to include the provision of lethal weapons to participating African armies.

Since the terrorist bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, curbing the influence of militant Islamic groups in Africa has been one of Washington's major military objectives. Much of this effort has been coordinated out of the US military base located in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. It is from this base that the US carried out its recent air strikes in Somalia against suspected al-Qaida militants.

Additionally, the US has also tried to address concerns that vast areas of the Sahara Desert linking North Africa with West Africa could become fertile terrorist grounds by working closely with regional militaries. Through the US$500 million Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Initiative, the US has in recent years sought to boost the capacity of West African countries to deal with conflicts and terror attacks.

Perhaps the biggest US worry in Africa is the security of oil supplies. At present, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than 15 percent of US oil supplies, a share expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015, according to the US National Intelligence Council. Nigeria - the continent's leading producer which accounts for about 10 percent of current US oil imports - like other leading African producers such as Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo, is located in the Gulf of Guinea.

While the US considers this region a potential alternative source of supply to the Middle East, the area remains largely unstable. In 2006 alone, insurgents seeking local control of Nigeria's oil resources - most of which comes from the oil-rich Niger Delta region - have cut the country's exports by more than a quarter. With US companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron pumping nearly half of Nigeria's oil, the country's southern oil region is widely seen as a likely target of US military intervention.

Militants in the delta, angered by decades of neglect and corrupt rule by a succession of governments and fighting to wrest control of the region's oil wealth, believe they could be the first targets of direct US military actions."Of course, it is evident that oil is the key concern of the US in establishing its Africa command," Jomo Gbomo, a spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main armed group in the region, told ISN Security Watch. "We will fight everyone who goes on the side of the Nigerian government, regardless of who."

Some African analysts fear that increased US military presence in Africa may simply serve to protect unpopular regimes that are friendly to its interests, as was the case during the Cold War, while Africa slips further into poverty. According to Peter Egom, a research fellow at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, US military and security designs in Africa can only last if it will help bring about prosperity in the continent and not prop up corrupt and oppressive regimes.

During more than 500 years of relations with Africa, the West took human beings, natural resources and in recent times financial resources through the debt trap and, therefore, owes a moral obligation to develop the continent, said Egom."We have a relationship with the West; we don't want the Chinese because the devil you know is better than the one you don't know," Egom told ISN Security Watch. "But if America is setting up a protective umbrella over Africa to protect those who have raped Africa, it cannot last."

About the Author: Dulue Mbachu is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch based in Nigeria. He has reported Nigeria for international media outlets including The Washington Post and the Associated Press.

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