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Skepticism Abounds as AFRICOM Launch Looms - PART 3 of 5

The United States Department of Defense says eight African countries are “very interested” in hosting the U.S. military command for the continent, known as AFRICOM. But there’s sustained resistance from the media and civil society groups in Africa to an increased U.S. military presence. As AFRICOM builds towards its official launch on October 1st, its planners say it’ll make Africa safer, but critics charge it’s an attempt by the U.S. to exploit the continent. In the third part of a five-part series on AFRICOM, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines some of the current African perspectives.

AFRICOM officials insist the continent’s leaders are slowly but surely being won over, but some observers say the continental position remains an overwhelming rejection of the Command.

Professor Gerrie Swart, political science lecturer at the University of South Africa, has been following the AFRICOM debate ever since Washington’s plans to refine its military presence and strategies pertaining to Africa became known in 2006. He says “much confusion, suspicion and mistrust” continue to characterize the continent’s reaction to AFRICOM.

“We’ve had a lot of jargon that’s been bantered about. AFRICOM could be seen as a means of presenting a more approachable, humanitarian side to the U.S. military, but that has not been clearly relayed to the African continent; hence the current apprehension that exists,” explains Swart, who also heads the Conflict and Terrorism Unit of Consultancy Africa Intelligence, a South African security analysis firm.

According to Swart, Africans don’t trust U.S. officials when they deny that AFRICOM is a precursor to steadily increasing numbers of American troops on the continent and U.S. “interference” in African foreign and domestic policy.

Director of Public Affairs at AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart Colonel Patrick Mackin acknowledges, “We have been unable to get across the point that AFRICOM is a bureaucratic headquarters reorganization within the Department of Defense…. It is the administrative means through which the U.S. manages the military-to-military relationships with countries.”

Mackin says when AFRICOM officials have been “able to describe to people how the Africa Command functions as a management headquarters” for ongoing “security assistance programs” – such as counter-terrorism training – and that its staff will be “solely focused on making those programs more effective for our African partners,” people in Africa are “pretty receptive.”

And AFRICOM’s deputy to the commander for civil-military activities, Ambassador Mary Yates, told VOA: “We at the Command believe that a number of the early concerns that were expressed about AFRICOM were based on misunderstandings.”

AFRICOM officials say these “misunderstandings” are being eliminated through regular meetings with African governments, the African Union and regional economic blocs. They say evidence of Africa’s “thawing” towards the Command is that eight countries have indicated that they want talks with the U.S. with a view to possibly hosting AFRICOM headquarters.

Yates says she’s encouraged by this, but adds that it’s too early to reveal the identities of the African countries that appear to be well disposed towards the Command. At this stage, Liberia remains the only country on the continent to have publicly offered to host AFRICOM.

“Deep Rooted” African Pessimism

Ezekiel Pajibo, the former head of Liberia’s Center for Democratic Empowerment and a strong critic of AFRICOM who’s currently furthering his political studies in South Africa, says there are good reasons why many people in Africa continue to oppose any increase in U.S. military presence on the continent.

“The Americans are not doing this because they are interested in the wealth of the African people; certainly they are interested in protecting American interests. And American interests and African interests do not necessarily coincide.”

Like many AFRICOM skeptics, Pajibo’s convinced that the true drivers of AFRICOM are America’s growing need for African oil, Washington’s desire for a “new front” on which to combat terrorism and the U.S.’s wish to negate China’s increasing influence in Africa.

“America’s chief interests are stopping terrorism and gaining access to African oil. Africa’s main interest at this point in time is reducing poverty and underdevelopment. They are not the same. How do they coincide? They do not,” Pajibo emphasizes.

AFRICOM spokesman Vince Crawley responds: “It should be noted that the United States already has access to African oil, so there is no particular need to gain this access.” U.S. officials concede that the Command wouldn’t exist if it were contrary to the U.S.’s broader security and economic interests. They also acknowledge their concern about China’s expanding presence in Africa, especially in light of the Far East giant’s support of anti-American regimes such as Sudan and Zimbabwe.

But AFRICOM planners insist the Command will be established primarily to train African militaries so the continent will better able to respond to its own crises. The U.S. military is currently training thousands of African troops in peacekeeping, counter terrorism, ways to combat maritime piracy and other skills across the continent.

Washington says a safer, more secure Africa is in the best interest of the whole world. AFRICOM officers say the Command will help to prepare and equip the continent’s armies to prevent conflict, stifle insurgencies, participate in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction and help during times of natural disasters. The Bush administration has also presented AFRICOM as a vehicle to support such organizations as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in humanitarian relief and development work and to fight disease in Africa.

Pajibo, like many African analysts of the situation, isn’t convinced.

“I believe that if the U.S. is really interested in promoting peace and stability in Africa, then it should provide better resources to the peacekeeping units of the United Nations and the African Union. If the U.S. does this, then there’s no need for AFRICOM,” he states.

Crawley says AFRICOM is precisely the U.S. mechanism for providing more resources to A.U. and U.N. peacekeeping units. And the U.S. Department of Defense says through AFRICOM it’s looking to prevent instability on the continent, not to simply be reactionary and throw resources at crises when they arise. AFRICOM officers say their Command is based upon the premise of “prevention is better than cure” and that “war prevention” and not “war fighting” will be central to AFRICOM’s strategy.

But Swart says, “There would be no point to AFRICOM if it didn’t get involved in military actions, or so-called war-fighting. Many of the African states that have expressed concerns still ultimately see that AFRICOM is, above all, part of the Pentagon’s military structure and will therefore have to play some kind of mlitary role. But what that role will be is particularly the concern.”

Pajibo says Africans are “very worried” that AFRICOM will be used to crush insurgencies that governments friendly to the U.S. call “terrorism” but which are in fact construed as “legitimate freedom struggles” by significant parts of affected populations.

He cites as an example the situation in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where the Nigerian government is battling armed groups who want a greater share of oil wealth for themselves and local people. Pajibo says in the event of Nigeria agreeing to host AFRICOM, “it’s obvious that U.S. forces will be on the side of the Nigerian government – at the expense of the people of the Delta.”

The U.S. State Department says militants in the Niger Delta have been responsible for “terrorist acts,” such as attacks on oil installations and abducting foreign oil workers.

Gerrie Swart says the “deep rooted skepticism and fear in the international community” that surrounds the U.S. war on terror, and specifically U.S. military action in the Middle East, is “translating” into concerns about AFRICOM. Pajibo agrees, citing the presence of U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces in Somalia, who are supporting the country’s transitional government and its troops in their battle against militias that Washington says are allied to the al-Qaeda terror network.

In the face of all the criticism and skepticism surrounding AFRICOM, Yates says, “We have not found the negativism that we read about in the press when we go and visit these (African) countries. It’s just (that) we can’t be on the road talking to all the audiences. Africa is an enormous continent…. We’re making progress, but we have more work to do (to convince Africans that AFRICOM will benefit them).”

Regional Powers “Not on Board”

Those against AFRICOM make much of the fact that regional African powerhouses such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are apparently opposed to the Command. Pajibo says its “proof” that there’s “no credibility in AFRICOM.”

Swart says the rejection of the Command by such “important” African countries as South Africa and Nigeria especially “could potentially harm” its ability to safeguard the continent.

“If the big players do not come to the party, this will severely harm AFRICOM’s mission, if there’s not enough confidence from those African countries who have considerable weight in terms of decision-making on security issues, especially within the African Union.”

Louis Mazel, the director of the Office of African Regional and Security Affairs at the U.S. State Department, says much of the anti-AFRICOM feeling that remains in countries like South Africa and Nigeria is due to a misconception that the Command’s creation will result in military bases springing up around Africa and thousands of American troops pouring into the continent.

The most recent statements on AFRICOM by African regional blocs, such as the 25-member Northern African Community of Sahel-Saharan States, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States, indicate opposition to the Command.

SADC Defense and Security Ministers have stated that “sister countries of the region should not agree to host AFRICOM and in particular, armed forces, since this would have a negative effect.”

President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia has embraced a similar view, to which Colonel Mackin responds, “The U.S. never asked Zambia or any other SADC country to host the command. So I’m not sure how you can reject an offer that was never made.”

He adds, though, that the U.S. enjoys a “strong military partnership” with Zambia, training the country’s army in peacekeeping, for example.

Ambassador Mary Yates says that judging from her private meetings with African leaders over the past few months, they’re becoming increasingly supportive of AFRICOM as they come to understand its potential benefits and are assured that the U.S. will not build more bases in Africa and flood the continent with its soldiers. She adds that “persistent dialogue” and “quiet diplomacy” will eventually prevail over the pessimism surrounding AFRICOM.

Mackin acknowledges “frustration” at what he regards as continued misunderstanding of the Command by various interested parties in Africa. He denies that AFRICOM is “something to be ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected.’” He points out that both the U.S.’s European and Central Commands have had offices and troops in Africa - in Djibouti - since 2002, yet no calls have been made to “reject” these forces.

Mackin says AFRICOM will oversee the “U.S. security assistance that African partners themselves (including Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya) have requested.”

“Critical Stumbling Block”

Ezekiel Pajibo says one of the most significant factors in the continued “negativism” towards AFRICOM is Africans’ perception that the Command is being “forced upon them.”

“The U.S. announced AFRICOM before any formal consultations had taken place with African leaders. This is very arrogant. Also, African leaders were not part of the conceptualization of AFRICOM. They should have been.”

Swart says: “I think much more consultation should have been undertaken, and I think that is probably one of the critical stumbling blocks that will harm AFRICOM in the long run and will determine whether the Command will be building bridges or burning them with key African states that it would need to work together with AFRICOM to have the mission succeed.”

He adds that the Command will be hampered if it doesn’t maintain an “excellent” relationship with the AU.

Yates responds that the AFRICOM chief, General William Ward, visited the AU immediately after he was confirmed as commander last November.

“We want to work with the African Union, we want to work with the regional offices that they are working to develop – and the standby forces in particular. But only as our African partners want. When they want to invite us and have us work and plan with them, we want to be there and work with them.”

AFRICOM officers deny the assertion that the Command is being established without sufficient input from African leaders. Yates says the U.S. Department of Defense recently hosted a gathering of African leaders near Washington to discuss their concerns.

“A majority of the African nations were represented by civilian and military representatives and the African Union and some of the regional economic communities. It’s very important to be able to listen to what they have to say – both about the Africa Command, but also about our policy towards Africa.”

She says senior AFRICOM staff continue to travel regularly to the continent to meet with leaders. Yates and her fellow deputy commander, Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller, have met with Nigerian leaders and the country’s media. She says General Ward also recently met with a number of African ambassadors to the United States at the Ghanian embassy in Washington.

“He had a chance again to answer some questions about AFRICOM and have a dialogue and he was pleased and we were pleased that there seems to be growing understanding about the Command.”

But Pajibo’s convinced that despite the U.S. officials’ attempts to win acceptance of AFRICOM by Africans, resistance to the Command will continue to grow.

“We want to witness more opposition to it, especially if they decide to locate anywhere on the African continent. I think there are going to be serious people-based opposition to those efforts,” he warns.