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Doubts Deepen About Acceptability of New US Military Command For Africa

The new US military command for Africa – AFRICOM – recently became operational, but will be based in Germany for the next year. After this, it’s expected to have headquarters in various African regions. However, AFRICOM has already been condemned by many Africans as an attempt by the United States to interfere politically in the continent’s affairs, to create a new arena for its war on terrorism and to compete with China for access to African resources, such as oil. American officials insist that while AFRICOM does indeed intend to serve US interests, its primary aim is to make the world a safer place by giving better training to African militaries. Nevertheless, observers say Washington faces an uphill battle to make AFRICOM acceptable to Africans. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports, in the final part of a series focusing on AFRICOM.

Wafula Okumu, of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, is just one of many observers of the AFRICOM process who describe it as a “public relations catastrophe” for Washington.

General James Jamerson, the former deputy commander of American forces in Europe, says the key to AFRICOM is obviously its acceptance in Africa itself.

“We have to be on the ground (in Africa), working from the bottom up, talking to Africans about this concept. I think we just don’t do this well. But it’s a recoverable kind of thing – if we just get out there and do it,” he says.

But the US, says Stewart Patrick who leads a project on weak states at Washington’s Center for Global Development, has so far failed to “sell” AFRICOM – primarily because of “bad communication.”

Instead of being “direct” and acknowledging that the primary motivation behind AFRICOM is the protection of US interests in Africa – such as oil supplies and its war on terror - says Okumu, American officials have instead concentrated on insisting that the command will promote “good governance” and boost human development in Africa.

If Africans consider AFRICOM to be a threat to their sovereignty, and a political threat, the initiative will fail, Okumu maintains.

Patrick says: “The heads of the AFRICOM transition team, US diplomats and also folks at the Department of Defense have actually not been particularly good at explaining why AFRICOM is needed, and how its mission will affect the other streams of US engagement on the continent.”

In order to ensure that Africans accept the command, he says, the US will have to do a “much better job” of explaining its mission.

“I have been struck, in Washington, despite having attended multiple discussions about AFRICOM – including with officials from the Department of Defense, State Department and elsewhere in government – at the lack of clarity as to what practical difference it will actually make (in Africa) on a day-to-day basis,” Patrick comments.

But observers agree that there’ve been notable improvements in the public relations skills of AFRICOM officials in recent times. Those tasked with presenting the command to the world have appeared far more relaxed in public, and far more candid in their public addresses.

Theresa Whelan, a key planner of AFRICOM and US deputy secretary for African affairs at the Department of Defense, recently told a forum at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington: “I think it’s important for everyone to understand that we do not believe that we’ve gotten this right. We are firmly convinced that we’ve probably screwed it up somehow – but we’re not quite sure exactly how.”

Frankness such as this, says Okumu, is essential to AFRICOM’s acceptance in Africa.

Kurt Shillinger, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, says the “critical element” is “local buy-in. In building a case for AFRICOM by African states, Washington is its own predecessor – and in some cases, its own greatest obstacle.”

He’s convinced, though, that better US public relations won’t necessarily result in Africans embracing the new command.

“Given the nature of the suspicion and the prevailing distrust of the US in Africa, it’s unlikely that any amount of public relations will fully quench anti-imperialist concerns that AFRICOM is fundamentally an attempt to create a bulwark in Africa against transnational terrorism, or China’s appetite for Africa’s oil, minerals and timber,” Shillinger explains.

He does, however, expect that the “dust will settle. The proposed structure of AFRICOM, consisting of four to five relatively small bases with no force deployments, means that these will be largely invisible – even in their host countries and societies. That bodes well for viability.”

Analysts say the command stands a much better chance of acceptance if Africans are convinced that AFRICOM – as its officials have stated repeatedly - won’t result in deployments of thousands of US troops to the continent.

Patrick says the US will have to go to “great lengths” to try to make sure that the creation of AFRICOM does not result in a “very large military footprint” on Africa.

“One way to do that would be to devote less energy to creating actual standing military installations on the continent, and instead go in the direction of negotiating a number of arrangements that would allow US forces to deploy in existing installations under the control of African governments in crises – dependent on the approval of the host government,” he counsels.

If concessions such as these are given to Africans, says Patrick, it could ease their fear that AFRICOM will result in terrorists increasingly targeting Africa.

Okumu says the command’s establishment must secure an “African consensus” – especially through the African Union, and that there should be a guarantee that the sovereignty of African states will not be compromised or undermined by AFRICOM. If such a “formal” assurance is not given by the US, Okumu says, “new and grave threats and challenges to the continent’s peace and security agenda” will occur.

He also advises Washington to make it a “high priority” to open dialogue about AFRICOM with African civil society groups. Many of these organizations, says Okumu, have greater power even than politicians in setting the tone for public debate, and many of them remain vehemently opposed to AFRICOM.

Okumu appeals to Washington to “broaden” its consultations about the command in Africa, arguing that talks about the US military plans have so far been “very limited to bureaucrats within the AU” and that news about AFRICOM hasn’t filtered down to the public. This has created room for opponents of AFRICOM to “speculate” about the nature of the command, he adds.

Okumu says AFRICOM officials have had insufficient contact with the Pan African Parliament, as well as with regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community.

Peter Pham, the Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in the US, also warns that Africans remain “heavily scarred by the role that African militaries have played in their countries’ politics, and that has to be taken into consideration” as well, and could influence AFRICOM’s acceptance on the continent.

Ultimately, says Okumu, the US command will be accepted if it complements existing African initiatives.

But Patrick is convinced that Washington will have to demonstrate action, rather than mere words, if Africans are to eventually accept AFRICOM.

“If the US Department of Defense and other US officials are able to show how, in practical terms, AFRICOM can make a difference in reducing internal conflict, in bringing hope and fighting some of the underlying causes of underdevelopment and misery in different parts of the continent, then I think it stands a decent chance of getting wider acceptance.”

But Jamerson says the US shouldn’t spend too much time on trying to gain “universal” acceptability for AFRICOM.

“There are currents that flow in Africa that are just not going to buy the concept. It doesn’t mean you can’t work with the leaders of Africa; it just means that the public face…. is not going to be as positive as getting the work done. But that doesn’t mean you quit trying,” he states.

General Tsadkan Gebretensae, former Ethiopian Defense Force chief, warns that AFRICOM is at a “crossroads.”

“There is the potential to have a very constructive engagement (between Washington and Africa), and there is a great deal of potential for a very negative effect….”

Okumu agrees that the months ahead will be “critical” for AFRICOM, and will forever change the US’s relationship with the continent.