Dealing with Africom: the political economy of anger and protest.

Author:Fah, Gilbert L. Taguem


The African continent has shifted from the periphery towards the center of international concern. Africa has entered radar screen of the United States as a strategic military and economic interest. Despite the fact that security and humanitarian aid are often presented as the driving forces behind America's push into Africa, the growing interest in Africa is shaped not only by global strategic concerns but also and most importantly the growing demand for oil coupled with the quest for access to foreign markets.

This new engagement with Africa is informed by global competition between the US and China and the post-Cold War challenges that are remapping the global environment. America is creating new institutions to implement its wide range of strategic goals in Africa; the most controversial is the Unified Combatant Command for Africa (Africom). Is Africom signaling the official beginning of post-Cold War American imperialism and hegemony in Africa?

This study is derived from the African peoples' desire to understand and express their discontent with the ongoing militarization of their continent. We seek to understand Africom above and beyond the official rhetoric as well as address the hidden agenda of the US's new foreign policy toward Africa. The hypothesis is that the appropriate and efficient approach to checkmate the implementation of Africom on the continent should go beyond foreign policy options. Our purpose is not to underplay the threat of terrorism or other security concerns that exist in Africa. However, this study posits that America's new and "altruistic" engagement with Africa is in fact a strategy to exert control over the continent to serve its own foreign policy agenda.

The first section of this article explains Africom as a new institutional body in the foreign policy arena. Although Africom is a nascent institution, its function will be a continuation of American militarization. The second part illuminates the devastating impact of American militarization of Africa with particular attention to how it changes local cultures of violence. The third section sheds light on strategies Africa can employ to counter Africom and broader militarization of the continent.

Mapping Out Africom: A Small Portrait

A brief background of the US military is necessary to better understand why and how Africom came into being. The military cartography of Africa prior to Africom was informed by Washington's Cold War lens of geopolitics. U.S. defense operations for Africa were overseen by three different commands: the European Command (EUCOM) based in Stuttgart, Germany, which covered West, Central, and Southern Africa; Central Command (CENTCOM) located in Tampa, Florida-USA whose main field of coverage is the Middle East but also the Horn of Africa; and the Pacific Command (PACOM) located in Honolulu, Hawaii-USA which covered the islands of the western coast of Africa. (1) The birth place of humanity was a low priority for America during the Cold War despite the numerous proxy wars it tacitly or directly supported.

The Cold War ended in 1989 and the logic and rationales governing it became obsolete. Africa had progressively entered the radar screen of the US as "a continent emerging in importance, 22 percent of the earth's surface,... approaching 800 million inhabitants, growing in political clout ... rich in human capital and natural resources." (2) America's policy planners wanted to reconstruct African military cartography to align with America's post-Cold War geopolitical interests. Africa was now seen as a unique "region" and a new command was to represent "a realignment of our organizational construct on how we deal with Africa. And so instead of having three commanders that deal with Africa as a third or a fourth priority, we will have a single commander that deals with it, day in day out, as his first and only priority." (3)

Africom was officially announced by former President George W. Bush on February 6, 2007. According to its genitor, Africom is a unified command that aims to bring together all the security programs the United States supports on the continent. The Pentagon expected the new command to be headquartered inside the continent and fully operational by the fall of 2008. However, under a cloud of heavy international criticism and African skepticism, the US military failed to find a country on the continent willing to host its new pet project. Liberia offered to host the new command but did not match the Pentagon's strategic requirements. Africom is "temporarily" based in Stuttgart-Germany.

It is worth noting that Egypt, which is geographically part of the African continent, will remain associated with America's Central Command. This is due to Egypt's strategic importance to US foreign policy in the Middle East. Egypt's exclusion from Africom is proof that Africom's primary goals are military, geopolitical, and economic; not diplomatic or humanitarian as the official rhetoric insists.

Africom's stated mission is to support humanitarian assistance, civic action, professional development of militaries, assistance in border/maritime security, and natural disaster response. This support is bilateral, sub-regional (ECOWAS for example) and multilateral via the African Union. Such a broad and bold plan of engagement aroused suspicions among African governments. These suspicions were reinforced by America's negative global image under former President George W Bush. The US Military held several informational sessions around the African continent to explain the goals and philosophy of Africom in hopes of finding a host country for the command. Official and unofficial contacts were made with African leaders. Nigeria, South Africa and Libya, were among Africom's most outspoken critics and ostensibly stood against the project.

Skeptics of Africom cite previous US military forays in Africa which led to a disproportionate development of military institutions relative to instruments of civilian rule. Others see Africom as a naked attempt to exert American control over Africa's valuable natural resources. (4)

Many Africans simply believe Africom will hurt Africa (5). There is widespread suspicion (and rightfully so) that America's policy is primarily driven by a need for resources. The high profile US interventions in the Horn of Africa, Middle East, and Asia--which are perceived as resource grabs--have left Africans wary. Furthermore, Africa already contains many volatile regions where militarization could worsen instability and/or undermine peace-building...

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