Daily Archives: October 24, 2011

Africa: Expanding US interests on the continent

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Washington’s decision to send 100 military advisers to Uganda to assist in the government’s fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has  defence and intelligence analysts keenly interested to see if this may be part of a broader trend to further increase the US military’s presence in the continent…possibly in support of its quest to access African mineral and energy resources.

It is widely perceived that India and China have beaten the US and the West in the race for access to Africa’s treasure trove of natural resources by forging massive bilateral trade agreements. Bilateral US trade with Africa in 2010 stood at about US$82bn, compared to India’s US$44.6bn and China’s US$117.3bn. Combined Sino-Indian trade with Africa outstrips that of the US by some US$80bn.

Although President Barack Obama promised increased trade, investment and development aid for Africa during his presidential election campaign in 2008, the US still lacks a definitive Africa policy. The US has over the past decade focused far more on its strategic military interests when it comes to Africa. However, of late its appetite for oil also seems to be shaping its engagement in Africa, especially in North, East and West Africa.

There have been suggestions that the US’ decision to send military advisers – not combatants, it says – to Uganda was triggered by the substantial oil finds recently in Uganda. The US has denied this.

A recent Norwegian study by Paul Midford and Indra de Soysa found that the US’ arms sales to Africa far outstripped that of China. In addition, it was found that while China prefers doing business with African democracies, the US has been doing business with many African tyrants and dictators.

Washington’s growing interest in Africa from a strategic geopolitical point of view became quite evident when the US established the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. In terms of its strategic threat analyses the US military has divided the world into several military “commands”.

When AFRICOM was established most African nations militated against the idea of a large US military presence in the continent. As a result the US was forced to headquarter AFRICOM in Stuttgart, Germany, where it remains.

But it appears the US military in the interim has been following a strategy of increasing its presence and/or influence in Africa by stealth, most notably so in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti. It has also recently strengthened its military collaborative relationships with countries like Botswana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal, some of them having considerable oil deposits.

While the US has focused much of its military attention on Kenya because of its increased exposure to Islamic terrorism, and on the Horn of Africa and adjacent areas because of the various conflicts and security threats in that region, it has also steadily increased its presence and/or influence elsewhere on the continent. The US also has an interest in energy resources in the Horn of Africa, most notably in Djibouti while it is closely mitoring oil exploration in Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa is also very close to the rich oilfields of the Arabian Peninisula.

The bulk of the US African military presence – estimated at around 3,600 troops – is concentrated in the capital city of Djibouti as AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. These US troops are stationed in the US Naval Expeditionary Base at Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base. From this base the US military says it provides mostly humanitarian and developmental support in the region, but security and counter-terrorism objectives are also high on the agenda with the US task force regularly engaging in training and military exercises.

With Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh himself having been the target of terrorism in the past, he takes a proactive stance against terrorism which accommodates the US’ global strategy of “war on terrorism” nicely. It is from here that the US monitors and acts against terrorist organisations and operatives in the Horn of Africa, East Africa and especially Yemen, the latter located on the Arabian Peninsula just across a narrow strip of sea in the Gulf of Aden.

Trained by the Somali National Security Service and the French Secret Service, Guelleh became the head of his country’s security agency under his uncle’s regime and now rules with an iron fist, making use of a mixture of divide and rule tactics, intimidation and repression. Although a multi-party democracy in theory, Djibouti is pretty much a de facto one-party state where little opposition to the ruling regime is tolerated.

Djibouti’s geopolitical and security significance for the US is its close proximity to trouble spots in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, its good relations with Yemen, its close proximity to Arab oil resources, its strategic maritime location between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and the availability of replenishment and operational facilities for US warships and airplanes, among other things.

The US maintains good relations with Yemen and has refrained from intervening in President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s bloody repression of a popular uprising against his rule since February this year. Yemen has an oil-based economy but is is anticipated that its oil reserves will be depleted by 2017, after which the US expects economic collapse and accompanying social upheavals.

Despite security threats to the US emanating from Yemen, President Obama and the US military have said they have no plans to send US forces to Yemen. Instead they are keeping them in Djibouti. But Yemen’s geopolitical significance regarding its oilfields and strategic maritime location, are keeping it within the US sphere of strategic interests and the Obama administration has increased military aid to the country, the same as it has done in Djibouti.

The decision to do so may have something to do with US oil interests and its strategic influence in the Arab world being threatened by popular uprisings in a number of Arab states, but probably also with the fact that China is trying hard to increase its influence and presence in this region on both sides of the Gulf of Aden.

The increased US military presence in and military aid to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya has also allowed the US military to effectively establish a ring of fire around Somalia where its main target is al-Shabab with its alleged al-Qaeda links.

Al-Shabab is fighting to overthrow the transitional government in Somalia and is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, Britain, Australia and several other Western countries. It has training links with elements in Afghanistan, and has been responsible for a bloody terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda, and also the frequent abduction of foreigners from Kenya, among other things.

The organisation has recently grown bolder in its activities, something that may have prompted greater US involvement in the region. The US has in the past targeted its leaders, with at least one prominent leader killed in a US missile attack on the Arabian Peninsula.

However, the US has not been successful in finding support from African nations for it to headquarter AFRICOM on African soil. Initially only Liberia showed some interest, while the US was hopeful at one stage that Ethiopia, together with Djibouti, would play host to AFRICOM. But those plans also fell through. Countries like Nigeria and South Africa voiced considerable opposition to a large US military on African soil.

The issue again made headlines recently when Julius Malema, the president of the youth wing of South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, said his organisation would work for regime change in neighbouring Botswana because Botswana was a “puppet of US imperialism”. Malema claimed the US was about to establish a military base there. Botswana strongly denied this and Malema was repudiated by the ANC and the South African government.

Although Botswana had been a contender to host AFRICOM some years ago, it decided against such a move. Malema may have based his claim on disinformation fed to him by Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF. Robert Mugabe’s party strongly dislikes the Botswana government of Ian Khama because the latter called for new elections in Zimbabwe after the disputed and violent elections of 2008. Khama has also been one of the most vocal African critics of Mugabe.

According to a secret US embassy cable recently published by Wikileaks, Botswana asked the US for military equipment in 2008 to arm itself against what it believed was an imminent military attack by Zimbabwe. However, the US decided against doing so because it would not serve its strategic and diplomatic interests in Southern Africa.

But General William E. Ward, until March the commander of AFRICOM, had also paid several visits to Botswana between then and 2011, ostensibly to beef up military cooperation in an effort to off-set any damage caused by turning down the weapons request.

While AFRICOM remains in Germany for now, the concentration of US forces, advisers and military training and aid in Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya has considerably strengthened its presence in the Horn/East Africa region – a region originally targeted by the US for its AFRICOM headquarters. Many defence and security analysts believe it is just a matter of time before the US realises its dream of basing AFRICOM on African soil, and most probably in this region.

A Congressional Research Service paper for members and committees of the US Congress dated July 22, 2011 says a decision will be reached next year regarding AFRICOM’s headquarters. In the meantime the US military has a presence in all five African regions.

US forces have access to Co-operative Security Locations, referred to as “lily pads” in military jargon, in Algeria, Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Sao Tome, Sierra Leona, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.  According to the paper the US also has military ties with countries designated “areas of interest” and which apart from Kenya and Uganda include Burundi, Chad, Comoros, the DRC, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and, strangely enough, Yemen which is not part of Africa, although only about 50km across the Gulf of Aden.

Few people realize this, but AFRICOM itself has already engaged in warfare in the African continent, its jets having fired the first shots in Libya earlier this year before it handed over all military operations to NATO. The US is, of course, also eyeing Libya’s vast oil resources.

So, in the final analysis it would seem that the US is definitely engaged in expanding its military presence and influence across Africa – something China and India have not yet attempted. And the US is doing this in tandem with its covetous evaluation of access to Africa’s mineral resources and huge energy reserves. Seeking the same access, India and China however, by contrast, are going the trade and development route.

Stef Terblanche

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