The current intervention underway in Libya is the inaugural combat mission for the US military’s AFRICOM. While the Command’s professed primary objective has been to strengthen security cooperation with African countries, many in sub-Saharan Africa see a more ominous agenda at work.
By John CK Daly for ISN Insights
After World War II, the US military carved up the globe outside its borders into a series of Unified Combatant Commands (UCC) to project military power and safeguard interests abroad. The UCC “areas of responsibility” include United States Pacific Command (PACOM, founded 1947 in the wake of the Pacific War), United States European Command (EUCOM, founded the same year), United States Southern Command (SOCOM, founded in 1963 in the wake of deteriorating relations with Cuba) and United States Central Command (CENTCOM, 1983), covering most of Eurasia.
In 2008 they were joined by a fifth UCC when the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) became operational. Except for Egypt, which remains under CENTCOM administration, AFRICOM is responsible for overseeing US military operations and relations across the whole African continent and the island nations of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Prior to the establishment of AFRICOM, responsibility for continental Africa was divided between EUCOM and CENTCOM, while PACOM had responsibility for Madagascar, the Comoros and Mauritius.
AFRICOM was established with the stated intention of strengthening “security cooperation with Africa and creating opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa. Africa Command will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa.”
The Libya conflict marks AFRICOM’s inaugural military combat operation. The Africa Command joins CENTCOM military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as the third major US combat operation in the Muslim world in the last decade.
Promoting security – or a scramble for resources?
Some analysts have pointed to the creation of a specific Africa Command as testimony to the growing strategic importance of Africa to US interests. Terrorism has ranked among Washington’s chief security concerns on the continent in recent decades, driven primarily by the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya and the post-9/11 global “war on terror”. Following 9/11, the US military undertook anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel (the east-to-west belt between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south) and established a military presence in Djibouti. US troops have also helped train anti-terrorism forces in Algeria, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda among other countries.
AFRICOM detractors have remained skeptical about the Command’s true intentions, arguing that furthering access to Africa’s vast natural resources, particularly oil, and offsetting China’s expansive investment in the continent over the last decade are among the US’ chief strategic interests there. Indeed, Africa contains tremendous mineral wealth, huge hydro-electrical power reserves and significantly underdeveloped offshore resources. The majority of the world’s diamonds, gold and chromium are produced in countries at the southern end of the continent. Africa’s mineral riches include copper, bauxite, phosphate, uranium, tin, iron ore, cobalt and titanium.
Of these myriad resources, however, nothing has captured foreign interests as much as oil. By 2013, African oil production is projected to rise to 10.7-11.4 million barrels per day (bpd), and by 2018 to 12.4-14.5 million bpd. The US is currently Nigeria’s biggest oil importer, and the National Intelligence Council predicts that imports from the Gulf of Guinea will increase to more than 25 percent of all US imports by 2015.
The US, however, is in increasing competition with China for access to Africa’s vast natural resource holdings. In fact, China has overtaken the US to become Africa’s largest trading partner, particularly in oil, accounting for 73 percent of African exports. In 1995, Chinese imports from Africa were worth $1.4 billion; 11 years later, their value had soared to $28.7 billion, a 2,000 percent increase.
From its founding, African perceptions about AFRICOM’s ultimate intentions were mixed, and opinion was largely bifurcated – like the continent itself – by the Sahara desert. The Arabic Maghreb, bordering the southern shore of the Mediterranean, came out largely in support of AFRICOM; detractors were mostly from black Africa to the south. African governments, along with many observers in the West, expressed their concerns that AFRICOM was actually a stealth operation to extend US military control across the continent with an eye toward dominating its resources and keeping a closer eye on key competitors like China.
A 2007 US Congressional Research Service report on the creation of AFRICOM laid bare the concerns of many African governments:
There has been considerable apprehension over US motivations for creating AFRICOM, and some Africans worry that the move represents a neocolonial effort to dominate the region militarily. US military efforts on the continent have been seen as episodic, leading some to question a more sustained focus from DOD [the US Department of Defense] now. Reports of US air strikes in Somalia in recent years and US support for Ethiopia’s military intervention there have added to those concerns. Many view US counter-terrorism efforts in Africa with skepticism, and there appears to be a widespread belief that the new command’s primary goals will be to hunt terrorists and to secure US access to African oil. US foreign policy analysts have focused increased attention on China’s role in Africa in recent years, and such attention has led some to question whether an Africa Command might be part of a new contest for influence on the continent.
In the intervening years, not much seems to have changed: In the “frequently asked questions” section of its website, AFRICOM is almost too quick to ask and answer inquries about an alleged agenda to control Africa’s resources, replying to queries like, “Is this [AFRICOM] an effort by the United States to gain access to natural resources (e.g. petroleum)? Is this [AFRICOM] in response to Chinese activities in Africa?” with a simple “No.” But African countries apparently remain unconvinced: Liberia is the only one of the 53 countries covered by AFRICOM’s mandate to publicly offer to host the Command – until now, its headquarters have been in Stuttgart, Germany.
The ongoing operation in Libya only seems to be reinforcing the notion that AFRICOM is intent on promoting US strategic interests – not bringing “peace and security to the people of Africa” as per its mission statement.
The Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia pointed to what he viewed as the capriciousness of the Libyan mission: “The contradictions between principle and national interest … have enabled the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya ostensibly to protect innocent civilians from slaughter, but to watch seemingly helplessly (in Ivory Coast) as …men, women and children are slaughtered in equally, even if less egregious, violence.”
South African President Jacob Zuma stated firmly that his country said “no to the killing of civilians, no to the regime-change doctrine and no to the foreign occupation of Libya or any other sovereign state.” This, even as his country, one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, voted for the resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
It appears, then, that AFRICOM’s inaugural mission – to help establish a no-fly zone over Libya – has not only failed to convince sub-Saharan Africa of its stated intentions to help promote peace and stability across the region, but may actually serve to enhance resistance to US military presence on the continent.
Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident Fellow at Johns Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC. He received his PhD in Russian and Middle Eastern studies from the University of London.
Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN).