Why AFRICOM Has Not Won Over Africans
Nov 26, 2007 - 2:29:51 PM
By Samuel Makinda
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
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
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.
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.