What else can be said about AFRICOM and every African countries (except Liberia) refusal to allow the U.S. to base more troops on the continent? For this we can certain: the U.S. already houses about 1,500 troops in Djibouti at Camp Lemonier. President George Bush’s admission in Accra was about the fact the U.S. would not be looking for a second (or third) base for American troops.
As a plan, AFRICOM ties training militaries to fight terrorism along with the more controversial, albeit softer side of Pentagon power: Providing development assistance for locals, like digging wells and vaccinating animals and conducting other projects. Development agencies worried that deliberately blurring the role of soldiers, who are trained to serve and protect and occasionally kill, with other, more humane responsibilities would be harmful. The Pentagon countered that U.S. soldiers toiling in the field and directly helping villagers would be a long-term benefit in the fight against terror. (Win over the local population and hopefully they won’t accept terror groups operating in their territory.)
There were other worries about this hearts-and-minds approach. First, is Africa really that much at risk for terror groups? Exactly, how lawless are the vast spaces of the Sahara? But the hearts-and-minds approach of AFRICOM seemed palatable for most Africans. (Acceptable, mostly because it was small-scale and conducted in out-of-the-way locales. Cynics will point out that Africans don’t turn down many handouts.)
The sticking point was the base(s) the Pentagon proposed. The governments of Africa began making noises early on against permanently stationing anymore troops on the continent. One could argue that through this process, not only did African heavy weight governments learn to flex their collective muscles, but the game of political brinkmanship is mostly about confidence: feeling good is much more important than actually good health. (To outsiders, a place like Nigeria may appear to be politically dysfunctional, but on the continent its words and actions carry a significant amount of weight.)
Another issue: The prestige of the U.S. has decidedly taken a turn for the worse, and not in ways always easily definable. Of course, regular Africans would love to take part in a real “coalition of the willing” to help bring about some change in different countries. But Africans themselves know too well that one often cannot pick and choose the nature of one’s leaders. Take Iraq, for example. The stated implication that the U.S. was actually only going to war against Saddam Hussein and not the Iraq people was seen as either a farce or a cruel, sick joke to most Africans. Saddam’s few minutes of agony during his execution aside, who has paid the greater price in the war in Iraq?
Staying on this topic for a little longer: One of the many unintended consequences of the Iraq war has been the increased price in oil, which a Ghanaian journalist presciently predicted in the weeks before the 2003 invasion. Africans have been paying heavily for that post-Iraq oil, not only at the gas pumps – a pretty regressive price increase here – but through the increased prices of commodities and staples – which must be shipped from distant – and products like fertilizer, which is often petroleum-based.
Then there is the constant war-like tones emanating out of Washington, which, sadly, probably won’t decrease with a new administration. (We live in complicated times.) If you’re going to invite someone new to your block, you’re certainly not going to invite a reactionary bully. Americans will point out – George Bush certainly has – that America will not stand down to an aggressive power in the name of its interests. Good enough. But does this attitude coincide with the interests of most Africans? Presently, that answer appears to be no.
Finally, and this has been said elsewhere: Nobody ever got around to defining AFRICOM and what its base would mean. In its present iteration, a small number of soldiers make up AFRICOM, traveling the continent, searching for militaries to train; handing out a few guns and trucks and other equipment in the fight against terror. Putting a base on the continent meant, to many Africans, crossing a certain line. How would the Pentagon react to new African emergencies? What would U.S. soldiers do in Chad? Would Kenya be a target? What about Darfur, where the administration has beat the drum against “genocide,” but decidedly has other more pressing issues to attend to.
In and of itself, I don’t think AFRICOM is that bad of an idea. What makes it work, however, is keeping the footprint small and its resources mobile. A base – even if populated with many civilians working in “development” – would only complicate matters and provide enough drag to its sails that it would easily become another American adventure in a tropical clime.
In the end, however, those grumbles were all made moot. The people of Africa have spoken, and they mostly distrusted the whole plan. And, reassuringly, that was good enough for George Bush to face the facts and say “no.”