The United States’ new military Command for Africa, AFRICOM, is to become “fully operational” in October. According to U.S. officials, growing numbers of African leaders are warming to the idea of hosting offices of the Command in their countries. AFRICOM planners say the Command will make Africa more secure, especially through U.S. training of African militaries. But security analysts argue that AFRICOM is failing to convince the African public, media and civil society groups that the Command will ultimately benefit Africans. In the fourth part of our five-part series on AFRICOM, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses on the Command’s public relations drive.
American soldiers are no longer an uncommon sight in West Africa. They’re vaccinating thousands of people and animals against diseases. They’re renovating dilapidated schools. They’re even playing soccer with local kids.
“This is part of the U.S. Defense Department’s escalating use of the concept of ‘soft power’, by means of which the U.S. is trying to win favor in non-military ways. It’s happening in many parts of the world, not just Africa,” says Gerrie Swart, who directs the Conflict and Terrorism Unit of Consultancy Africa Intelligence, a South African security analysis firm.
“The Pentagon considers ‘soft power’ to be AFRICOM’s essential ingredient and very important to winning hearts and minds in Africa,” he adds. “There’s a new belief that the way to prevent conflicts and to stifle America’s enemies is to make allies of certain countries by providing better training to their militaries in things such as counter terrorism and for the U.S. military to help populations in underdeveloped nations by giving them more humanitarian aid. AFRICOM is very much a part of this new philosophy.”
The American soldiers recently patrolled the West African coastline for six months on the U.S.S. Fort McHenry – described by U.S. military officials as a “floating military classroom and training center” –as part of the U.S.’s Africa Partnership Station (APS) program – a precursor to AFRICOM. In addition to the humanitarian work the soldiers have been doing in countries such as Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, they’ve also been training the region’s poorly resourced militaries in self-defense, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy techniques.
“The Americans are certainly filling a vital gap in limiting the generous space so far afforded to West Africa’s hordes of drug traffickers, transporters of illegal immigrants, illegal fishermen and pirates,” a diplomat based in the region told VOA.
AFRICOM’s Deputy Commander for Civil-Military Affairs, Ambassador Mary Yates, says the work being done by U.S. military personnel stationed on the U.S.S. Fort McHenry offers an indication of what AFRICOM is going to be doing throughout Africa in the near future.
“I think it’s an excellent example because it was U.S. military, the African militaries from the West (African) coast, NGOs, our allies and international partners all working together to bring about more understanding (and) some training in maritime security. We’re very pleased with the success of that and if our African partners want more, we’re going to work and lobby to get funds to try and do that,” Yates says.
But, despite all the good work being done in Africa by the U.S. military, the former head of Liberia’s Center for Democratic Empowerment, Ezekiel Pajibo, says newspaper headlines on the continent continue to be “overwhelmingly negative” towards AFRICOM.
“A lot of the media even see European support of AFRICOM as a neo-colonial alliance designed to exploit Africa and her people in a variety of ways,” says Pajibo, who’s furthering his education in South Africa and following the AFRICOM debate as part of his political studies program.
“They say the Americans just want Africa’s oil and they’re concerned that having a bigger U.S. military presence on the continent will attract terrorists,” he continues.
Some skeptics claim the U.S.S. Fort McHenry initiative is merely part of a broader public relations campaign that Washington has launched to gain African acceptance of AFRICOM ahead of the Command’s official launch on October 1st.
“It’s a public relations spin,” Pajibo snaps. “I don’t think the U.S. State Department is in the business of humanitarianism. (AFRICOM’s) an army that is supposed to protect and safeguard U.S. interests. Those things that (the Fort McHenry sailors) are doing now in my mind is pure gimmickry and it doesn’t amount to much.”
Yates denies that the Fort McHenry’s presence in West Africa was a P.R. strategy to polish AFRICOM’s image. She says the U.S. military’s work in the region is focused primarily upon preventing piracy and other crimes in the Gulf of Guinea.
“We have been working on a maritime strategy in West Africa since I was in Ghana (as U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 2002 to 2005)…. I think the timing is right. I just hope that we can find the resources to keep accomplishing programs like this. And especially if it’s something that the Africans want.”
But Swart says the “good work” the U.S. military is doing in Africa “simply isn’t reaching the ears of ordinary Africans.” He maintains that AFRICOM’s chief failure so far has been its “atrocious” public relations effort.
“AFRICOM’s public diplomacy strategy has been sorely lacking…. It was set up in a rather haphazard way, in a sense. Apart from the few military visits that (AFRICOM Commander) General (William) Ward undertook thus far to the continent, I don’t think that the diplomatic strategy in selling AFRICOM has been clearly thought out,” says Swart.
Louis Mazel, director of the Office of African Regional and Security Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told a recent public meeting on AFRICOM at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.: “What AFRICOM needs at this point is much better public diplomacy and strategic outreach campaigns to inform African audiences, African leaders, African partners of what AFRICOM is going to be.”
Lauren Ploch, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, says public opinion in Africa is very important to AFRICOM and could impede the Command’s mission.
“Public diplomacy is not always a key role of the Department of Defense, but it’s clearly going to be an important one for this Command,” she says.
Swart says the “major weakness that continues to haunt the Command is that it allowed itself to be open to such overwhelming and severe criticism before it has even undertaken a single operation or action on the African continent.”
He says AFRICOM did this by initially “overemphasizing” its plans to “help with humanitarian development” in Africa and by “vigorously downplaying” the U.S.’s possible future military role in the continent’s affairs.
“This made many Africans suspicious and resulted in many conspiracy theories. Africans started wondering: what’s really behind this AFRICOM thing? And then all the speculation started, and it’s yet to die down,” Swart explains.
“The spokespersons for the Command have gone to the utmost lengths to overemphasize what AFRICOM is not, while in many respects critically neglecting to stress what AFRICOM will actually be and what it will be doing on the continent once it is operational.”
Yates responds that AFRICOM officials have repeatedly explained at various forums internationally, including some in Africa, that the Command’s primary mission will be to train African militaries so that they’re equipped to respond to their own crises.
AFRICOM ‘losing the PR battle’
Swart is convinced that AFRICOM, at this stage, is “completely losing the battle” over its image. He’s also of the opinion that should the Command fail to win the support of “critical role players” in Africa such as Nigeria and South Africa, it will have “major trouble selling its mission to the continent as a whole.”
Yates reiterates that AFRICOM officials have visited Africa repeatedly to talk with leaders, regional bodies and the African Union about the Command and have held meetings in Washington with African ambassadors.
Ezekiel Pajibo responds, “AFRICOM may be successfully informing presidents and governments about its plans, but African publics aren’t hearing anything. It’s African civil society and the citizens of this continent that hold the future of AFRICOM in their hands. Not the continent’s leadership. But there seems to be no recognition of this from the U.S. side.”
But AFRICOM spokesman Vince Crawley says the Command has made intense efforts to communicate with Africans other than the continent’s political leaders.
“Reaching out directly to the African public, Africa Command officials have conducted news conferences at the African Union, in Botswana, Egypt, Cameroon, Zambia, Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Working with U.S. Embassies, the command has conducted two-way video news conferences with nine African nations, and has hosted reporter visits from Angola, Cameroon, Ghana and South Africa,” Crawley highlights. “In addition, General Ward and his deputies have repeatedly conducted radio interviews with the BBC, Voice of America and other broadcast media. U.S. Embassy staffs have conducted numerous news conferences related to U.S. Africa Command.”
But Swart still warns, “If AFRICOM finally comes to Africa and it has entire populations against it – then it’ll be in real trouble and who knows what form such resistance could take.”
Yates acknowledges that AFRICOM should do more to communicate its messages to the African public and says efforts are underway.
“We’ve only been at this for six months. I think we’ve made some progress…. I (recently) did 10 press conferences with (African) embassies based out of our service in Paris so that I could talk with individual countries about some of their own concerns. I will be going back to do some more of these press conferences with other embassies so we can reach out directly to the publics.”
Swart says this isn’t enough. He suggests the U.S. hosts a “joint U.S.-Africa Defense Summit to communicate AFRICOM’s mission statement a bit more clearly.” He says African media and civil society representatives should be invited to attend such an event.
Theresa Whelan, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, says AFRICOM will soon establish a liaison office in Addis Ababa, where the AU headquarters are situated.
Louis Mazel is optimistic that once AFRICOM explains its mission “better” it’ll receive a much warmer reception in Africa.
“Once our African military partners realize this is not (about) large military bases on the continent; that some time in the future it may involve offices (in Africa) but will remain in Stuttgart for the foreseeable future, and once they understand it’ll mean better training, better exchange programs, more focused partnerships in East Africa on the problem of piracy, better programs to working with coastal patrols (in the Gulf of Guinea), then all will be well.”