The United States? new military command for Africa, known as AFRICOM, is preparing to launch officially on October 1st, when its staff is expected to assume control of military programs on the continent currently being managed by other U.S. commands. Nevertheless, AFRICOM officers say the Command will likely continue to be based in Germany for ?several years? until African countries have agreed to host regional offices. Command officials say increasing numbers of African leaders are supporting them in their efforts to make Africa safer. But some African leaders, media and civil society continue to regard AFRICOM primarily as an attempt by Washington to gain more access to African oil and to create a ?new front? in the U.S.?s ?war on terror.? In the first of a five-part series on AFRICOM, VOA?s Darren Taylor looks at the Command?s present structure and possible African locations for it.

Analysts, journalists and civil society leaders continue to speculate about Washington?s alleged ?sinister? motives in creating AFRICOM as it prepares to become ?fully operational? on October 1st.

But according to AFRICOM?s Deputy Commander for Civil-Military Activities, Ambassador Mary Yates, the concept of a separate military command for Africa is nothing new.

?I?ve been associated with Africa for almost 20 years, and for at least 10 or 12 of them we have discussed the idea of having a Command dedicated to the African continent, because the European Command with its (responsibility for) 92 countries was just growing to be enormous and we were having more and more engagement working with the militaries in Africa.?

Yates is a former ambassador in Ghana and Burundi, who?s also served as the U.S.?s political officer in Kinshasa and has been involved in a number of African peace processes. She says through AFRICOM, the U.S. is simply trying to be ?more efficient? in its military and developmental aid to Africa.

Her fellow deputy commander, Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller, characterizes AFRICOM as ?very much a work in progress ? or, to use the naval terminology, under construction in many ways, like a ship.?

?Substantial? AFRICOM presence in Africa by October 1

The Command?s Chief of Public Information, Vince Crawley, says 550 of AFRICOM?s final staff contingent of 1,300 have so far taken up their posts. The Command will be based at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, for the ?foreseeable future,? he says - although some military staff working at various U.S. embassies throughout Africa, who currently report to U.S. European Command, Central Command and Pacific Command, will begin reporting to Africa Command later this year.

Moeller elaborates: ?Come the 1st of October, in fact, there will actually be substantial (AFRICOM) presence on the continent. And that will be in the form of the Offices of Security Cooperation that are part and parcel of the embassies that are in a number of countries around the continent.?

He anticipates that by the 1st of October, AFRICOM will have ?on board? all the people that it needs in order to meet its responsibility to contribute to a more stable and secure Africa.

Moeller adds that AFRICOM officers are currently involved in ?very, very detailed planning? with the U.S.?s European, Central and Pacific Commands ? which were previously responsible for U.S. military maneuvers in Africa ? for AFRICOM?s assuming all military ?missions, programs, activities and exercises? on the continent. This includes training African militaries in peacekeeping, counter terrorism and anti-piracy techniques.

?We?re doing a significant amount of consultation with our African partners, as well as, quite frankly, a number of U.S. audiences ? in particular, members of Congress. They have a lot of interest, and ultimately they will provide the resources for all that we look to do together with our African partners,? says Moeller.

According to Lauren Ploch, of the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Congress is presently considering a ?$400 million budget for 2009 for AFRICOM? and is also looking at expanding counter-terrorism training for African militaries.

?This funding in Africa has grown from $13 million in 2006 to 45 million in 2007. I don?t know what the final 2008 numbers are yet, but clearly this is a role that is growing,? Ploch told a recent meeting at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

U.S. military planners foresee that AFRICOM will eventually have five regional headquarters in Southern, Eastern, Western, Central and Northern Africa.

?It has been expressed to us by our African partners that in some point in time there would be value added by having presence on the continent,? Moeller states.

?We believe AFRICOM will be more effective if some members of staff are physically living and working on the continent, where they can meet face-to-face with their counterparts in African governments and nongovernmental organizations,? Crawley says, before emphasizing: ?Any additional presence on the continent will take place only in full diplomatic consultation and agreement with potential host nations.?

Fueling the speculation as to which African countries could eventually agree to host AFRICOM headquarters is a persistent belief throughout the continent that the Command?s creation will result in massive influxes of American troops into Africa and the eventual construction of U.S. military bases around the continent.

As AFRICOM prepares to become official on October 1st, its leaders are again trying to dispel what they consider to be a ?damaging myth.?

?On the first of October we?re not deploying forces to the continent or establishing any additional bases from what is already on the continent,? Moeller asserts.

The U.S. base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti is currently home to about 2,000 American troops, and Moeller says AFRICOM won?t build on this. He says the ?only thing that really changes? after October 1st is that the U.S. forces presently in Africa will report to AFRICOM, and not to the U.S.?s European and Central Commands, as was the case before.

Possible AFRICOM locations in Africa

AFRICOM planner and the U.S.?s deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, Theresa Whelan, says eight countries on the continent are ?very interested? in talking with Washington about possibly hosting the Command. She emphasizes, however, that the U.S. hasn?t had any ?formal discussions with any country on the continent to date specifically with regard to location.?

Ambassador Mary Yates says it?s too early to disclose the names of the African countries that are apparently interested in hosting AFRICOM. Liberia remains the only one so far to have offered publicly to host the Command, and the nations? representative in Washington, Edwin Sele, says AFRICOM could contribute to enduring security in Africa.

Professor Gerrie Swart, a South African security analyst and political science lecturer, is convinced that AFRICOM hosts will emerge from the ranks of African countries that have been cooperating ?intensively? with Washington in specifically counter-terrorism initiatives. He doesn?t foresee that U.S. officials will have a problem finding a host country in the East Africa-Horn region, where Washington enjoys good relations with all countries except Eritrea, which the U.S. accuses of fomenting terrorism and perpetrating gross human rights abuses.

Swart points out that Ethiopia, seat of the African Union, is ?especially friendly? with the U.S. right now. Washington is supporting the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia, in their battle against what the U.S. has called terrorist militias trying to overthrow Somalia?s transitional government. The U.S. also is training and supporting A.U. peacekeeping forces deployed to Mogadishu to support the transitional government.

Kenyan media, civil society and parliamentarians have heavily criticized AFRICOM, but a senior diplomat in Nairobi says the country is also a ?good bet? to eventually host a regional office of the Command.

?There?s a big American presence here. But first the authorities? fears that AFRICOM will attract terrorists ? as the U.S. presence in Kenya did (in 1998), when al-Qaeda bombed the American embassy (in Nairobi) ? must be pacified, and Kenyans must be convinced they?ll benefit,? he told VOA.

He adds that the U.S. is doing ?a lot? at the moment to boost the Kenyan military?s ability to combat terrorism, particularly with regard to providing it with skills aimed at collecting intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks.

Referring to a recent visit to Uganda by AFRICOM officers, Swart says: ?The U.S. military was very quick to stress that they will not be seeking to base any military presence in the country. So it?s very hard to say at this stage which of these countries have openly availed themselves to host a physical presence with regards to AFRICOM. Things are still very secretive and sensitive.?

Ezekiel Pajibo, the former head of Liberia?s Center for Democratic Empowerment, is also monitoring developments surrounding AFRICOM. He thinks Ghana ?could be open to the idea? of hosting the Command. He points to the Ghanaian government?s recent hosting of a meeting in Washington between AFRICOM Commander General William Ward and African ambassadors in the U.S. as evidence that Ghana may be ?favorably disposed? towards AFRICOM.

Pajibo says the same could be said about Zambia, even though President Levy Mwanawasa has said that no southern African country should consider hosting the U.S. Command. AFRICOM spokesman, Colonel Patrick Mackin, says Washington has a ?strong military partnership? with Zambia, pointing to the U.S.?s training last year of 550 Zambian peacekeepers and this year providing $382,000 from the U.S. for military training and education.

?When General Ward?s deputy visited Zambia in February, three U.S. Coast Guard instructors were conducting a week-long port security course for two dozen Zambian military personnel, police and security forces,? Mackin adds.

?Don?t count Nigeria out?

There?s been vehement opposition to AFRICOM from Nigeria?s civil society and media. But Swart says Africa?s most populous country is ?extremely important? to the U.S. ? not least because it?s the world?s eighth-largest oil producer.

Analysts also say Nigeria could become another factor in Washington?s global war on terror, with the instability in the oil-producing Niger Delta and the region?s disaffected communities, producing an atmosphere ripe for exploitation by groups such as al-Qaeda. The organization has previously encouraged Nigeria?s 50 million Muslims to revolt against the government.

Another factor leading to increased U.S. interest in Nigeria is the International Maritime Bureau?s recent characterization of the country?s waters as the worst in the world in terms of piracy.

Lagos has repeatedly rejected the possibility of AFRICOM being based in Nigeria;c  yet last December, when President Umar Yar?Adua visited Washington, he indicated his willingness to ?partner? with the Command to ?actualize? Africa?s ?peace and security initiative.?

However, following the public and parliamentary outrage in Nigeria upon his return, President Yar?Adua stated: ?I did not agree that AFRICOM should be based in Africa. What we discussed with Bush is that if they have something to do for Africa that has to do with peace and security, they should contribute. I told him that we African countries have our own plan to establish a joint military command in every sub-region?.?

But Swart points out that Nigeria continues to be ?extremely well disposed? to military cooperation with the U.S: ?Nigeria, despite its opposition to hosting AFRICOM, still continues to participate in U.S.-led naval exercises such as we recently saw in the Gulf of Guinea.?

Swart says it?s ?foolish? to ?count Nigeria out? as a possible location for AFRICOM.

Pajibo says, ?if push comes to shove? for Washington, it could scrap plans for regional AFRICOM offices and eventually move the Command from Stuttgart to the existing U.S. military base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.

But he says the odds of such an ?emergency move? being made are very low, and he expects a number of African countries to soon agree to host AFRICOM.

Swart says: ?It?s just a question of time and the right noises being made by the U.S.?