AFRICOM: A New Paradigm in US-Africa Relations

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Sept 17, 2007


The announcement a few months ago by the US government to create a central military command to be based in Africa has been received with mixed and not so-subtle reactions both in the US and Africa. In the US, humanitarian organizations and their partners worry that the military will take over their role as distributors of humanitarian aid and overseeing development programs, while in Africa some voices, particularly in South Africa and Libya, clearly warn against any US military presence on the continent. The minister of defense of South Africa recently issued warning threats against any country on the continent that might host the American military, adding that South Africa’s position was shared by the African Union.

In some other quarters in Africa, some opponents of the project argued that the presence of US troops would lead to terrorism activities on the continent, stating that terrorists follow the US everywhere. Others said that Africans would rather deal with the Peace Corps, USAID and other humanitarian organizations from the US rather than have to deal with American military.

The US government has been trying to allay fears, by stating that this was a small contingent and that it would also be under civilian command and would participate in humanitarian work.

Besides the apparent fear of terrorism activities on the continent, opponents also see this as the beginning of a new Cold war between the US and China in their rivalry for the takeover of the rich minerals and energy resources of the continent. Another argument advanced is that AFRICOM poses a threat to united African defense policy. Finally, they express the fear that the force could be used to undermine countries that are not friendly with US. These opinions were all expressed during the hearings held by the US Senate and Congress earlier this year.

Many of these arguments, remnants of past ideas of the Cold War and colonial eras, reduce US-Africa relations to humanitarian aid on the one hand and colonial exploitation on the other. Many African policy makers and western African “specialists” seemed to have locked the continent in that paradigm of dependency, as if Africa was to remain the perpetual colony or hungry entity, incapable of dealing with complex issues. This dichotomy of aid and exploitation mentality is what keeps the continent from taking responsibility for its own problem. This old paradigm, based on a certain romantic notion of Africa, is the most dangerous for Africa’s self-determination.

The counter-argument can be made that:

1. Terrorism has not risen in other places where American troops exist, be it in Korea, Kuwait or Germany;

2. The rivalry between China and the US about the extractive resources of the continent could and should be a positive development for Africans because it creates competition in the market place. Having learned the lessons of the Cold War era, the new generation of African leaders should be better prepared to negotiate better deals for their people.

3. AFRICOM poses no danger to a continent-wide defense policy. France has maintained military bases in many countries, including Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire Gabon, and other places. This fact seems to be accepted on the continent.

Libya and South Africa both have their own expansionist ambitions on the continent and small countries like Liberia need to be wary of this new type of brotherly predator that re is sometimes as dangerous as past colonial masters. It was Libya that trained, armed and funded the rebellions that destroyed both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Besides continuing to preach empty slogans about African brotherhood, Qaddafi never made a move to reconstruct those countries that his surrogates Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh ruined.

4. Neo-colonialism was another argument raised by opponents. For example, two Liberian political analysts, Ezekiel Pajibo and Emira Wood write: “By placing a military base in Liberia, the United States could systematically interfere in Liberian politics in order to ensure that those who succeed in obtaining power are subservient to the U.S. national security and other interests. If this is not neo-colonialism, then what is?” The US intervention in Liberian politics is not a new thing, and to a certain degree, most Liberians welcome it. What is needed is a transformation of that interference from paternalism to partnership, a change that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been calling for since she came to power.

The lack of political will to assert sovereignty on the part of past Liberian and other African leaders in their dealings with other nations of the world should be more an issue than the (neo) colonial attitude of the US.

5. Finally, the fear that through AFRICOM the military would take over certain development functions rather than the civilian authority is a turf battle between elements of the US government that should not really concern Africans. In the case of Liberia, the two most important infrastructures that stood the passage of time and survived the destruction of the war are the Freeport of Monrovia and the Roberts International Airport, and both were built by the American military.

The question should not be about US intentions but rather how Africans can negotiate the presence of AFRICOM on the continent. For example, can Liberia negotiate terms favorable to Liberians, taking into account that there would be two sovereign nations negotiating for their national interests?

It seems that debate is rarely about AFRICOM, the true nature of its function and a recognition of a long-term military cooperation between the US and Africa. The US military has been directly or indirectly involved in every peacekeeping effort in Africa, and shouldered a quarter of the UN peacekeeping budget. Rather than operate from the European command, AFRICOM will be based in Africa, dealing directly with Africans. Africans usually complain that the US looks at Africa from the European perspective rather than developing its own set relationships with the continent. AFRICOM just as AGOA are steps in that direction.

Liberian Ambassador to the US, Charles Minor says that “for too long certain European countries perceived that Africa is their domain. In too many international organizations, certain countries' nationals feel they have exclusive rights to represent or take responsibility for Africa. So if the US decides to link the command, why should we be against it?” argued Ambassador Charles Minor.

Reactions to AFRICOM are rather, based on a certain perception of US foreign policy, much linked to the Iraq war. Also, big countries such as Libya and South Africa are playing the “protector” of African sovereignty when they are actually and simply creating a smokescreen to mask their own hegemonic tendencies. These two countries could show their respect of African dignity or freedom by repairing the damages Libya caused in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and South Africa helping to put an end to the Mugabe cancer in Zimbabwe.

Like AGOA and the many protocols put forward by recent US administrations, it seems that there is a willingness in Washington to take US-African relations out of the paradigm of aid and dependency. However, many Africans fail to move out of the alcove of colonial mentality and lock themselves in old fears.

As President Sirleaf put it, AFRICOM is about American interests, but that does not mean that Africans cannot benefit from it. Liberia has everything to gain in welcoming AFRICOM. The only risk here may be that Liberia will not negotiate strongly enough to gain. She says: “A well-designed AFRICOM will enable smarter, more strategic engagement of African states as true partners, rather then end-recipients of aid and programs.”

Africa needs to grow out of fears and traumas caused by colonialism and enter a new era where relations are not determined by dependency syndromes caused by 400 years of domination and exploitation. Emerging from the aid-dependency dichotomy means that Africans would stop naively believing that charity amongst nations is free. A break from that belief would lead them to learn that between nations, there can only be permanent interests and not permanent friends.

AFRICOM is not about African security, it is not about African stability or development. AFRICOM is an instrument for the protection and expansion of America strategic interests that are now embedded in African resources today. Looking at it from this perspective, Africans may be able to make a judgment as to how to negotiate terms and benefit from the process.

Liberia has historical and social relationships with the US like no other country in Africa. There are currently anywhere between 300,000 to 400, 000 Liberians in the US, representing more than 12 percent of the total population. It is probably the only country on the continent where US is viewed both by government and the people as a “natural friend.” If AFRICOM is looking for a home, Liberia is certainly the most and best suitable place. And Liberia should make that decision based on its national strategic interest and negotiate terms that will benefit its people, unlike prior bilateral arrangements where Liberia was always at the receiving end. This may be the first test at international negotiations for the Sirleaf government, if the US decides to accept her offer.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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