Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The many-headed Hydra beast that is AFRICOM

The proposed U.S. military base in Africa – AFRICOM – has once again reared its hydra head(s) and returned to the front pages of Africa’s newspapers. For those who don’t remember, AFRICOM is a new military command devoted solely to military relations with the continent of Africa, which used to be split up into three different military commands. (A side note: Egypt will not be part of AFRICOM.)

The sticking point, in the eyes of many Africans, is the U.S. military’s desire to station U.S. soldiers somewhere on the continent, “where they can meet face-to-face with their counterparts in African governments and nongovernmental organizations.” The U.S. military currently has official relations with countries in the Sahel and Sahara region, part of the six-year $500 million Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara.

If this base gets the OK from an African nation – which remains somewhat of a long shot – it will become the second U.S. military base in Africa, after Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, which the U.S. government claims holds some 800 special operations troops who combine to do anti-terrorist fighting and small scale development work.

Don’t ask no questions
So, to the press thing. First, the Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, who had been so stridently opposed to placing a second U.S. military base on the continent, seemed to change his tune after a brief trip to the White House. Making things worse, once he returned to Nigerian soil, Yar’Adua abruptly switched sides again, setting off a series of cascading denials and clarifications, all very well documented by Grandoise Parlor.

One oddity in Grandoise Parlor’s post: President Yar’Adua’s infamous quote from VOA – “We shall partner [sic] AFRICOM to assist not only Nigeria but also the African continent to actualise its peace and security initiatives.” – is not present in web version of the December 13 VOA story, although a strong rebuttal remains in the December 16 follow-up. What happened to the quote? Did VOA excise it after the fact? Or, was the quote taken from VOA Hausa service and then elaborated upon for discussion? Nonetheless, everyone in Nigeria appears to agree that President Umaru Yar’Adua may have – however briefly – altered his position on AFRICOM in the presence of U.S. President George Bush.

In the labyrinth that is Nigerian politics, here is a plausible account from Is'haq Modibbo Kawu in Abuja’s Daily Trust of how the U.S. government twisted Yar’Adua’s arm on this matter.

America had been scandalised by the level of fraud which Obasanjo, PDP and INEC perpetrated in the April 2007 elections, and it joined the world to describe the emergence of President Umar Yar'Adua as flawed. While recognizing him as the de-facto president, the Americans also continued to treat him as a president who faces a legitimacy challenge. On the other hand, Umar Ya'Adua and his handlers needed the imprimatur of the only imperialist super power, the USA, to shore up his image in the international scene. It seemed that the USA decided to withhold that imprimatur, calculating rightly, that it would be offered along the line, as a quid pro quo! The opportunity came with the stiff African resistance to the AFRICOM idea. When Nigeria also expressed the rejection of an imperialist military outpost on our continent, the Americans went for the legitimacy challenge which Malam Umaru Yar'Adua faces. We will invite you to Washington only on the grounds that you will accept to collaborate with us on this doggone business of AFRICOM! It was an offer too tempting to reject and off to Washington did our man go; and as they say, the rest is history.

[A primer on Nigeria's 2007 elections can be found here.]

The bottom line is that while the U.S. would like to protect its oil interests in the Niger Delta, the Bush administration understands (or should understand) a majority of Nigerians oppose a foreign military base within their borders. Why? There’s the question of national sovereignty in the face of perceived U.S. hegemony, of course. Also on the minds of many Africans is the belief that U.S. bases could become targets for the country’s growing list of enemies.

First we take Liberia, then we take Nigeria
In Liberia, which admittedly has closer cultural ties to the United States, the rhetoric around AFRICOM doesn’t appear to be as negative. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is certainly not opposed to the idea.

Some Liberians may even go further. They may see the idea of basing AFRICOM on their soil as an assurance their rattled infrastructure (and economy) could be rebuilt with the help of U.S. forces. Even more optimistic Liberians may hope the setting of U.S. troops may dissuade the forces of instability that could enter the country during its prolonged phase of reconstruction.

From Scott Morgan of Confused Eagle:

If the US Places AFRICOM in Liberia what will the benefits be? At the very least, the infrastructure that has been demolished by roughly two decades of internal strife will be repaired. This includes bridges and roads that are in dire need of repair at this time. Water treatment plants and other facilities can also be repaired rather quickly with US assistance. The US can also rapidly deploy troops to avert further escalation of violence in times of crisis.

The downside of having US forces in the region is that it will paint a huge bull’s-eye on the country. Al-Qaida already struck two US embassies in Africa in 1998. And US Forces did clash with Islamist Militias in Somalia back in 1993. The battle of Mogadishu was discussed in the Excellent book Black Hawk Down. An increased US Presence could lead to US Personnel being kidnapped for financial Profits as well. Who knows what other problems that US forces will create as well.

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