Reuters Edge

U.S. Africa Command: aid crusader or meddling giant?

DAKAR (Reuters) - The U.S. military presents its new Africa Command (AFRICOM) as a helping hand offering aid and training to the world’s poorest continent, but many Africans fear it could bring double trouble to a conflict-racked region.

U.S. officials dress the new regional command to be launched on Monday in a shiny altruistic uniform, saying it is designed to help Africa improve its own stability and security through good governance, the rule of law and economic opportunity.

But Africans, citing Iraq and Afghanistan, see twin dangers from AFRICOM in the form of increased U.S. meddling and possible military intervention, and by making Africa a target of America’s global enemies.

“The U.S. military will only bring more harm to Africa,” said Bile Abdi, an unemployed worker in Somalia, where U.S. soldiers were killed during a disastrous “humanitarian” intervention in the early 1990s.

Some Somalis also criticize recent U.S. support for the Somali interim government and its Ethiopian allies against Islamist forces as bringing more violence to the Horn of Africa.

“If America spreads itself in Africa, its enemies -- Russia, Iran and China -- will definitely come too,” Abdi added.

Analysts see hard-nosed strategic motives behind AFRICOM.

They say the United States wants to secure oil flows from a continent that is already a key source of U.S. energy imports in a volatile world. Gulf of Guinea producers like Nigeria and Angola will soon be supplying a quarter of U.S. oil imports.

The deserts and mountains of the Horn of Africa and the arid Sahel have also become a new frontier in the U.S. global war on terrorism, in which sub-Saharan oil suppliers may be vulnerable to violent Islamic militancy infiltrating down from the north.

U.S. officials say AFRICOM will mean no new military bases in Africa -- beyond an existing one in Djibouti. But some observers see the reinforced U.S. footprint aimed at countering a commercial and diplomatic charge by China to lock up one of the world’s still largely untapped troves of oil and minerals.

“The U.S. initiative is aimed at weakening the increased presence of other powers like China,” said Algerian political sciences professor Ismail Maaref Ghalia.

“There are two major agenda items: one is to secure resource flows, especially oil, and then counter-terrorism,” Peter Takirambudde, Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, said.


He told Reuters that while AFRICOM could boost international capacity to detect and respond with credible force to African humanitarian catastrophes like Darfur and their massive rights abuses, selfish strategic considerations may end up prevailing.

“When you have conflicts involving counter-terrorism and energy security, both tend to trump human rights,” he said.

Although AFRICOM will initially remain based in Germany, it will eventually transfer to the continent, and finding an African home poses a tricky diplomatic problem.

Some U.S. allies welcome the initiative.

“AFRICOM will be a very good idea to enhance stability and fight terrorism on the continent,” Uganda’s minister of state for defense, Ruth Nankabirwa, told Reuters.

At least one country, Liberia, founded by freed African slaves from America in 1847, is offering to host AFRICOM. “The command coming here will mean a lot for both countries,” Information Minister Lawrence Bropleh told Reuters.

But Africa’s southern segment including continental power South Africa appears virulently opposed to U.S. bases.

“There will be no military base in Zambia or the SADC region,” Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, current head of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), said recently.

Zambian chief government spokesman Mike Mulongoti told Reuters: “It is like allowing a giant to settle in your home. And what would you do if you find him with your wife?”.

U.S. officials say AFRICOM staff would be distributed across several African states instead of concentrated in one site.

Kurt Shillinger, an analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs, believes “neo-imperialistic conspiratorial” objections to AFRICOM may eventually fade.

“I think over time host nations stand to gain far more than they risk in terms of more professional militaries, stronger civilian-military relations, better disaster response,” he said.

“Time, I suspect ... will settle the dust,” he added.

Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Lamine Ghanmi in Rabat, Shapi Shacinda in Lusaka, Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Francis Kwera in Kampala and Tsegaye Tadesse in Ethiopia, Wendell Roelf in Johannessburg, Pascal Fletcher in Dakar