Why AFRICOM Has Not Won Over Africans

The Bush Administration announced the creation of the long-discussed U.S. Command for Africa (AFRICOM) on February 6, 2007. For months before the announcement, policy makers and policy analysts in Africa had been divided over this new unified command, and the debate has not subsided. Nonetheless, AFRICOM was formally established on October 1, 2007, with its temporary headquarters at Stuttgart, Germany, for an initial 12 months. AFRICOM’s commander, General William E. Ward, the highest ranking African-American soldier, visited the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 8, 2007 in an attempt to obtain more African support for the command, but the AU remains divided over the desirability of the force.

AFRICOM is the sixth U.S. geographic combatant command to be established. The others are the European Command (EUCOM), the Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pacific Command (PACOM), the Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Prior to creating AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s presence in Africa involved three geographic commands. EUCOM had responsibility for 42 states, stretching from Morocco in the north to South Africa; CENTCOM covered the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region, stretching from Kenya to Egypt; and PACOM monitored strategic developments in the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles.

Thus, before AFRICOM, the United States had complete military coverage of Africa, but the entire continent did not come under a single command. Even with AFRICOM, the entire continent is not under one command because Egypt remains within CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. Most U.S. officials regard Egypt as a non-African country, which is wrong. Egypt is a founding member of the AU and its predecessor the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and it has the potential to influence significantly strategic outcomes in Africa. Former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser claimed that Egypt belonged to three circles: African, Arab, and Islamic. The fact that Egypt participates in the UN as a member of the African group and has been seeking a Security Council seat as an African state, suggests that it takes its African identity seriously.

If, before the creation of AFRICOM, the U.S. military already had Africa “covered” in the sense that it was under the purview of three U.S. commands, why have many African analysts and policy makers taken such a negative view of the shift to AFRICOM? Answers to this question vary widely among African sub-regions and states, and among individuals within the same state. Based on a review of the growing literature on AFRICOM and on my recent discussions with various observers in East Africa, Egypt, Ghana, and South Africa, I have found that the answer to this question has three parts.

The first is that U.S. government officials have not sufficiently explained the case for a new command and its nearly continent-wide mandate. Some well-informed Africans, who are not necessarily against AFRICOM, believe that the failure of U.S. officials to provide a rationale for AFRICOM has indirectly fueled myths and speculation about the U.S. Government’s motives. They believe the U.S. officials who have testified on AFRICOM before congressional committees, such as Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christopher Ryan Henry and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Stephen Mull, among others, have not offered a clear and positive vision of how AFRICOM might actually contribute to African security. The African Union has important new security institutions, most notably the Peace and Security Council, which is charged with monitoring and preventing conflicts around the continent. In 2004, African leaders agreed to a Common Defense and Security Policy in order to enhance defense cooperation and ensure a collective response to threats to Africa and African states. Perhaps AFRICOM has a contribution to make in helping Africa achieve these objectives, but if so, this has not been explained by American officials.

Rather than a clear vision, U.S. officials have painted a confusing picture of an organization that seemingly plans to mix economic development and governance promotion activities, heretofore the responsibility of civilian agencies, with military activities. Africans, given the history of military coups that once plagued the continent, tend to regard this militarization of civilian space with great misgivings. Yet spokespeople for AFRICOM continue to speak of the inclusion of experts from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other civilian agencies in AFRICOM as if it were a virtue. Why have U.S. officials insisted that the command’s role would include addressing such issues as political instability, human rights abuses, good governance, poverty alleviation, the building of health clinics and schools, and the digging of wells?

These issues represent serious challenges in Africa, but a cross-section of people believe the military should be used to tackle them only in cases of emergency. Proposing them as long-term goals of the new combatant command has given the impression that the United States does not fully understand the concerns of Africans. It has also opened the way for critics to suggest that the American government’s good governance, development, and security rationales for a military command are a smokescreen intended to hide other and possibly nefarious objectives for AFRICOM.

Africans know that the militarization of political and economic space by African military leaders has been one of the factors that has held Africa back for decades. While African states are trying to put the culture of military rule behind them, the United States appears determined to demonstrate that most civilian activities in Africa should be undertaken by armed forces. To some African policy makers, this suggests that the U.S. Government lacks sympathy for what Africans so deeply want today, namely democratic systems in which the armed forces remain in the barracks.

Had AFRICOM backers in Washington restricted the new command’s agenda to counter-terrorism, the training of African military forces, military intervention for humanitarian purposes, the protection of oil and other energy sources and related strategic matters, their arguments would have been regarded as more credible. This is not to suggest that advancing credible arguments would have made AFRICOM acceptable to all African observers, but it would have made Africans feel they were participating in an honest debate.

The second part of my answer to the question of African reactions to AFRICOM revolves around the lack of transparency with which the initiative has been presented. U.S. officials claim that AFRICOM will help improve transparency and strengthen democracy in Africa, but African analysts and policy makers point out that in Africa today there is little or no transparency in discussions of AFRICOM or of U.S. military relations with African states generally. They note that while AFRICOM has been debated extensively in the U.S. Congress, it has not been freely and openly discussed by the legislatures of the African states, even in countries that have been mentioned as possible sites for AFRICOM’s headquarters.

This prompts the question: what governance ethos would AFRICOM foster in the future if its current relationships with African governments are shrouded in secrecy? The contradiction between claims about AFRICOM’s role in governance and its actual relationship with Africa became obvious after General Ward’s visit to the African Union headquarters in November. Afterward, it was claimed that 23 African ambassadors to the AU had pledged overwhelming support for the command. But Africans still don’t know which African states have offered this support, apart from Liberia, whose President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has said that AFRICOM “would undoubtedly have a most beneficial effect”.

While the need for secrecy is imperative in some military matters, it is in the interest of the U.S. Government and its African partners to let the African people, civil society organizations, and parliaments know as much about AFRICOM as their American counterparts do. As Dr. Wafula Okumu, head of the security analysis program at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, argued in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health on August 3, 2007: “AFRICOM will not be accepted in Africa if it does not take into account the desires and aspirations of the African people for peace, security, and development”.

The third part of my answer as to why Africans have not embraced AFRICOM revolves around the perception that the architects of AFRICOM disparage or fail to recognize the advances Africa has made with respect to its own security through the African Union. African analysts and policy makers believe that the Americans are taking the AU for granted and neglected consultation with AU officials before its announcement. They claim that one of AFRICOM’s Achilles heels is that it has no plans to cooperate with the AU’s Peace and Security Council and that AFRICOM has the potential to undermine the Common Defense and Security Policy, which prohibits the establishment of foreign military bases on the continent. If AFRICOM has no mechanisms for dealing with the AU, it also has no way of cooperating with the regional security mechanisms based on organizations such as the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which have played significant roles in conflict prevention and management.

Belatedly, in his November visit to the AU, General Ward expressed an interest in listening to what the AU had to say. It is possible that AFRICOM could cooperate with the AU on African peace and security problems. However, since AFRICOM was constructed by planners who did not pay attention to the interests, mechanisms, and sensitivities of the AU, effective cooperation between the two is going to be difficult. This reality underlines the point made by many of AFRICOM’s African critics: the main reasons for Africa’s generally negative reaction to AFRICOM lie in Washington, not in Africa.

Samuel Makinda, the Chair of Security, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Studies at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, writes a weekly column in the Nairobi-based Business Daily.

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Samuel Makinda