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US Africa Command Meets With Skepticism

The head of the U.S. military's new regional command for Africa said Monday that the initiative is still under construction. One of AFRICOM's biggest challenges is where to move its headquarters. So far, several African countries have expressed reservations about having AFRICOM on the continent, claiming it could signal an expansion of American influence there. Tendai Maphosa attended a conference in London where General William Ward spoke about AFRICOM, and filed this report for VOA.

U.S. General William Ward said any apprehension about the U.S. military's new regional command for Africa is misplaced. He explains that AFRICOM is a just consolidation of three regional commands.

"In the previous situation the Department of Defense divided the continent in three separate commands, the United States European Command, the United States Pacific Command and the United States Central Command and each command had a different part of the continent and its island nations in its area of responsibility," said General Ward.

But the September 11 terrorist attacks made the U.S. military realize it needed to focus more attention on Africa. Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who organized the attacks, lived in Sudan for several years in the 1990's, where he allegedly plotted strikes against U.S. interests overseas.

General Ward said security on the continent is a major component of AFRICOM. He said the command, created last October, will work with officials from the U.S. State Department and USAID in an inter-agency effort to improve governance and development on the continent.

But it's the military component of AFRICOM that seems to be the problem for Africans. The Southern African Development Community, or SADC, has said it will not welcome American forces on any of its member country's territory.

General Ward said the United States over the past few months has been discussing with African countries the goals of the command. He says the talks are focused on working together to improve security capacity on the continent.

"Africa is not against the command, what we are doing as we engage Africa is explaining what this command is about and that is the delivery of programs that are programs that are being asked for by sovereign entities on the continent of Africa and programs that are in keeping with stated U.S. foreign policy objectives," he said.

Ebenezer Asiedu of King's College in London also attended the conference. He told VOA that the problem with AFRICOM is that it was conceived by the United States government and then presented to African government "behind closed doors."

"The whole discussions and consultations have been held with African governments and not Africans as the populace," said Ebenezer Asiedu. "Unfortunately the content of such discussions were not made known."

He said if the objective of AFRICOM is to benefit ordinary Africans then they should be part of the discussion regarding its presence on the continent.

To date, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the only African leader who has offered to host AFRICOM. Francis David of the University of Bradford says other leaders in the West African region have reservations about AFRICOM.

"The majority of African states are concerned about the intentions of AFRICOM," said Francis David. "In fact its being characterized as a Trojan horse because the intentions and the strategic vested interests of the United States are not made apparent in relationship to African security."

The U.S. has held a series of consultations with African countries over the past few months about AFRICOM, but General Ward says no country has been asked to host the new command's headquarters.