With little scrutiny from Democrats in Congress and nary a whimper of protest from the liberal establishment, the United States will soon establish permanent military bases in sub-Saharan Africa. An alarming step forward in the militarization of the African continent, the US Africa Command (Africom) will oversee all US military and security interests throughout the region, excluding Egypt. Africom is set to launch by September 2008 and the Senate recently confirmed Gen. William “Kip” Ward as its first commander.
General Ward told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Africom would first seek “African solutions to African problems.” His testimony made Africom sound like a magnanimous effort for the good of the African people. In truth Africom is a dangerous continuation of US military expansion around the globe. Such foreign-policy priorities, as well as the use of weapons of war to combat terrorist threats on the African continent, will not achieve national security. Africom will only inflame threats against the United States, make Africa even more dependent on external powers and delay responsible African solutions to continental security issues.
The US militarization of Africa is further rationalized by George W. Bush’s claims that Africom “will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa” and promote the “goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth.” Yet the Bush Administration fails to mention that securing and controlling African wealth and natural resources is key to US trade interests, which face growing competition from China. Transnational corporations rely on Africa for petroleum, uranium and diamonds–to name some of the continent’s bounty. West Africa currently provides 15 percent of crude oil imports to the United States, and that figure is expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015.
Policy-makers seem to have forgotten the legacy of US intervention in Africa. During the cold war, African nations were used as pawns in postcolonial proxy wars, an experience that had a devastating impact on African democracy, peace and development. In the past Washington has aided reactionary African factions that have carried out atrocities against civilians. An increased US military presence in Africa will likely follow this pattern of extracting resources while aiding factions in some of their bloodiest conflicts, thus further destabilizing the region.
Misguided unilateral US military policy to “bring peace and security to the people of Africa” has, in fact, led to inflamed local conflicts, destabilization of entire regions, billions of wasted dollars and the unnecessary deaths of US soldiers. The US bombing of Somalia in January–an attempt to eradicate alleged Islamic extremists in the Horn of Africa–resulted in the mass killing of civilians and the forced exodus of refugees into neighboring nations. What evidence suggests Africom will be an exception?
In contrast, Africa has demonstrated the capacity to stabilize volatile situations on its own. For example, in 1990 the Economic Community of West African States set up an armed Monitoring Group (Ecomog) in response to the civil war in Liberia. At their height, Ecomog forces in Liberia numbered 12,000, and it was these forces–not US or UN troops–that kept Liberia from disintegrating. In another mission, Ecomog forces were instrumental in repelling rebels from Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
There are a range of initiatives that can be taken by the US government and civil society to provide development and security assistance to Africa that do not include a US military presence. Foremost, policy toward Africa must be rooted in the principles of African self-determination and sovereignty. The legitimate and urgent development and security concerns of African countries cannot be fixed by dependence on the United States or any other foreign power. Instead of military strategies, African countries need immediate debt cancellation, fair trade policies and increased development assistance that respects indigenous approaches to building sustainable communities. Civil wars, genocide and terrorist threats can and must be confronted by a well-equipped African Union military command.
American policy-makers should be mindful that South Africa, whose citizens overthrew the US-supported apartheid regime, opposes Africom. In addition, Nigeria and the fourteen-nation Southern African Development Community resist Africom. These forces should be joined by other African governments and citizens around the world, to develop Africa’s own strong, effective and timely security capacities. Progressive US-Africa policy organizations and related civil society groups have not been sufficiently organized to bring this critical issue before the people of the United States. It is urgent that we persuade progressive US legislators to stop the militarization of aid to Africa and to help ensure Africa’s rise to responsible self-determination.