For years, the U.S. never considered Africa as a priority foreign policy agenda. The only context in which Africa came up in Washington was for preferential trade as in AGOA (Africa Growth & Opportunity Act) or in AIDS funding from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and of course humanitarian assistance. Despite its continued use of the term “partnership with Africa” no administration viewed Africa as anything but a source of extractive resources and a perpetual conflict-ridden region with few business opportunities.
So now, when the US declares Africa is a very important region and pays special attention to it, one has got to be suspicious. With little fanfare, on October 1st, the U.S. officially launched a new militarized initiative for Africa that’s come to be known as AfriCOM, or the Africa Command. The announcement was held in a small press conference at the Pentagon where Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated “AfriCOM represents yet another important step in modernizing our defense arrangements in light of 21st century realities.”
According to William (Kip) Ward, the African American General who’ll be heading the Command, AfriCOM is about ensuring security and interventions to prevent war and conflicts. He admits the increased need for an Africa Command came in the post 9/11 “global war on terror” where Africa is seen largely as “ungoverned” states where extremists are posing a threat to US national security. A special case that is frequently used to depict these “lawless” states is Somalia. The southern region of Somalia has remained in internal conflict since the last president was deposed in 1991. When finally an indigenous civil society group re-instated order and stability, the U.S. (and its ally Ethiopia) declared them “Islamic extremists.” In January 2007, the U.S. bombed innocent Somali civilians, which went unreported and uncondemned, and continues its military interventions either directly in the country or through its alliance with Ethiopia.
With the prerogative of openly using military power against states that “threaten the US national security,” AfriCOM will operate with little oversight from Congress or international bodies like the United Nations. Prior to the announcement of AfriCOM, Africa was treated as a side region and U.S. military command was divided between the European, Pacific, and Central Commands. In fact, the headquarters of the newly launched AfriCOM is still based in Stuttgart, Germany, but will not be for long. When fully operational, the new Africa Command will not only be based in the continent, but will “network” and militarize all aspects of U.S. policy with Africa.
If you’re thinking traditional bases with thousands of military personnel, think again. General Kip Ward has said it is not about “bases” and “garrisons” but a network of sophisticated military operations strategically placed throughout the continent which can be moved around and utilized for any purpose. General Gates called AfriCOM is “a different kind of command with different orientation, one that we hope and expect will institutionalize a lasting security relationship with Africa.” It is “a civilian-military partnership” where diplomatic and humanitarian relief by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will get directives from the Department of Defense. Imagine U.S. military personnel delivering emergency aid and conducting diplomatic missions, and the appropriate term is “colonization.”
AfriCOM is being sold to the public as a good thing for Africa, one that will bring lasting peace and stability to a continent rife with conflicts and disasters. Many African heads of states are not buying this and have rejected the move, including the most powerful 14 state-member Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) which publicly denounced AfriCOM. Typical of past US historic missions in Africa, there was no prior consultation with African leaders and many heard about it when it was officially announced on February 6, 2007. The Department of Defense sent medium-level delegates to “sell AfriCOM” to heads of state after it had been finalized but African leaders rejected it as a threat to their sovereignty and a move to further militarize Africa — the last thing Africa needs is more militarization!
The only exception is, ironically, the first and only democratically elected woman president in Africa, Liberian President Madam Johnson-Sirleaf. When heavily criticized about it, she admitted it is an unpopular move but one she has had to take to secure high infusion of U.S. capital for her country’s beleaguered economy.
Why is the U.S. suddenly interested in “prioritizing” Africa? The answer is the same one that has motivated countless interventions into the continent in the past centuries — control of resources. The need for the U.S. to secure oil from the Niger Delta where it is estimated, by 2020, a quarter of the US oil imports will originate. Equally important are “strategic minerals” on which the US has substantial dependency. Without cobalt, manganese, chromium, and platinum, among others, most U.S. technological and military industries would come to a halt.
Another perceived threat and rationale for AfriCOM is China’s increasing presence in Africa. It is not “new” as it may seem to be: China has been building industries and accessing oil and extracting minerals for at least decades. Despite the growing criticism of China for its military and industrial activities in Africa, many say it at least provides African countries with an alternative to the dominant Western capital push which had remained unchallenged until recently.
When fully operational, AfriCOM will in effect have a sophisticated and well-networked military capability throughout 53 African countries (except Egypt). The Department of Defense will oversee “civilian” activities that were previously the mandate of diplomatic and humanitarian agencies. We can also count increase in private military activities which, as seen in Iraq, remain unregulated with no congressional oversight.
This fundamental shift in U.S. relation with Africa has come under tremendous attack by civil society and policy research groups in the U.S. and Africa. A national coalition, “Resist AfriCOM,” is conducting massive education and mobilization to send a clear message to Washington, in solidarity with African civil society: an unequivocal “no” to AfriCOM.
How does one say no to a policy that was announced a year ago and has been, for all intents and purposes, officially operationalized already? Through continued response from the grassroots in the U.S. (working in partnership with African civil society), beginning with the progressive Africa-justice community and the peace movement.
As a good friend from the anti-apartheid movement always states, the U.S. had officially sanctioned and supported the racist apartheid state of South Africa politically and economically. To those that were working actively to oppose it at the time, it seemed like an impossible task to change these policies, and indeed it took decades to do so. But logic and morality prevailed, and eventually, through national grassroots pressures, the U.S. made radical shifts to its policy and denounced apartheid.
AfriCOM is nothing new — it is an initiative to ensure “command” of land and resources that in the past was called just plain “colonialism.” As the competition for global resources tightens, not only for oil and minerals, but for basic rights to land and water, we can expect increased focus on Africa as the new frontier. Joining this increasing Africa resistance movement and speaking out against Africa Command is everyone’s responsibility.
Nunu Kidane is Network Coordinator for Priority Africa Network based in Oakland, California (Web site: www.priorityafrica.org).