Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 85: US militarization of the Sahara-Sahel: Security, Space & Imperialism

The origins of AFRICOM: the Obama administration, the Sahara-Sahel and US Militarization of Africa (Part Two)

June 2010

I want to thank Stephen, SOAS and the Royal Africa Society for organising and hosting this event. I am going to be talking in fairly general terms about AFRICOM-leaving as much time as possible for Q&A. I have written extensively on the subject for last thirty years. If you need facts, figures and data, you can go to my website. I will leave my business cards on the desk. If want to follow up on this you can contact me directly.

As you probably know the US inaugurated a new regional combatant command officially over a year ago in Oct 1 2008. But the process of creation actually goes back about ten or twelve years and reflects the dramatic escalation of US military involvement in the African continent. It is hard to get figures on military activity, but the estimate has risen over the last ten years from about $100-200 million a year to current level of $1 billion and a half a year. This does not involve separate funding, which is delivered through the US Department of State for private military contractors operating in Africa as part of AFRICOM and US military involvement in the continent as Steven was discussing.

What is responsible for the growing US military involvement began in the late 1990s? There are two major perceptions of US foreign policy makers. One was that the US was becoming increasingly dependent on resources, particularly oil, coming from the African continent. For example, today the US imports more oil from Africa than it does from the entire Middle East. The US still imports more from the Western hemisphere — Mexico, Canada, Columbia, Venezuela and Ecuador — which has a lot to do with explaining US policy these days towards Latin America and disputes with the Chavez regime. But, after that Africa is the next most important source of imported oil. Nigeria and Angola are now the US’s 5th and 6th largest suppliers of US oil imports. American policy makers began to see this happening in the late 1990s.

Another thing that they figured out was the growing involvement of al Qaeda and armed Islamic groups in Africa, particularly with the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which took place in 1998.

I want to emphasis that these developments began before the Bush administration. This whole process began in the second term of the administration of William Clinton and has continued under the administration of the current president, Barak Obama. So it is not a partisan political issue in the US. Instead it represents a bi-partisan consensus amongst the political elite, that Africa is of growing military importance to the US and therefore requires a growing level of military involvement on the continent and that is what has led to the creation of the new African command.

Prior to the creation of AFRICOM, as Steven mentioned, US military activities in Africa, which until the 1990s were relatively minimal, were actually handled by separate Commands. Like most American military activities in Africa they were conducted through European Command because for the most part the US thought they could rely on their European allies to handle any crisis with their own forces. The US was busy pursuing its global rivalry with the Soviet Union, engaged in the Korean or Vietnam war or in other various military projects in Latin America, as well as forming new relations with Asia. They felt Africa could safely be left in the hands of European allies. But that began to change in the late 1990s: Africa was now of direct importance to the US national security policy.

What is the AFRICOM mission? US policy makers have gone to great lengths to obscure and, to put it bluntly, deceive people about what AFRICOM is for. They talk a lot abut African peace keeping operations, humanitarian relief operations and the like, but the people directly appointed to run AFRICOM, General William Ward, commander of AFRICOM, and his deputy director Vice Admiral Robert Moeller, are under no illusions about what their primary mission is. When they were first appointed and confirmed to office it never occurred to them not to tell the truth. And so in the statement they made in 2008, they talked about US interests in oil and concerns about terrorism in Africa. Since that time they have been pulled to one side and told not be so honest about Africa in public. They are now going much more closely to the official line on AFRICOM, which is to demonstrate a benign US interest in Africa. This is the line which has been most prominently proclaimed by the deputy Secretary of Defence for Africa, Theresa Whelan who held office until the turn of this year and was the highest ranking person in the defence department. She was charged with responsibility of creating AFRICOM. In public she never said anything about the true mission of AFRICOM, but unfortunately other members of the military didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to blow the cover. So, they actually quoted in their own publication statements that she made in a briefing to European command where all she talked about was oil, resources, terrorism, lines of communications access to bases etc. So, people who actually run military activities in Africa, although they will now be much more careful in public not to say these things, were never under any illusion as to what their primary missions were.

What is AFRICOM actually doing in Africa to fulfil these missions? Well, first of all, it’s carrying out a whole series of activities which are designed to strengthen the ability of key African regimes to stay in power, through arm sales and providing military training programmes by American military personnel travelling to America and training African military forces. There are also American military training programmes that bring African military officers to the US for training, as well as various other security assistance programmes to strengthen the military capability of, first of all, regimes — usually oppressive undemocratic regimes — which control countries which are primary sources of oil and other resources. I am thinking countries like Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, (the list of major oil producing countries is fairly long), as well as countries which have been willing and able to serve as proxies for the US on the global war on terror, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia. With regards to Somalia it is a primary area of concern for America. In North Africa, countries like Algeria, Chad, Mali and Niger are known as the Trans Sahara Counter-Terrorism region with regards to the perceived threat of terrorism.

But professional military officers who run US military activities in Africa know that this is a strategy which is likely to fail over time. You can only keep these regimes in power for so long, as they tend to collapse with the growing movement of democratisation in Africa or simply fragment and self destruct, which is a primary concern for the Pentagon. The day may come when the US may have to use its own forces to intervene directly in Africa. It is the same trajectory as we have seen in the Middle East under the US Central Command, which was established in essentially the same way in 1979. Central Command was created to fulfil the pledge made by President Jimmy Carter that the United States would be willing to use military force if necessary to protect the free flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf. And the pledge that has been known as the Carter doctrine has been the basis of US military involvement in the Middle East ever since. Central command started out as a small headquarters based in Florida. It had no control over or command of troops, but as I am sure you are all well aware it’s now running two major wars in the Middle East and major military bases in the region.

AFRICOM is essentially following the same trajectory. In addition to the assistance already mentioned, there has been a dramatic build up of US naval forces off the coast of Africa, particularly off the oil rich coast of Guinea and also off the coast of Somalia. The US has established, essentially as part of Central Command, a base on the African continent in Djibouti, which originally focused on US involvement in the Middle East but is becoming increasingly focused over time on the Horn of Africa and East Africa. It’s the base from which the US launches military strikes into Somalia, for example. In addition the US has concluded what are known as ‘access agreements’. It’s understood that its not desirable for the US to build a lot of expensive highly visible military bases around Africa. Rather, what they need is access to as many local military facilities as possible. The US therefore concluded these base access agreements with governments right across the continent, because it has no way of knowing which part of Africa it might have to intervene in directly. What the US needs is access to as many different bases as possible. And, when asked if it has a base in Botswana or Ghana, it will say ‘no we don’t have bases in those countries’. And technically these people are telling the truth, but what they aren’t obviously going on to explain is that we have already reached agreements with governments in those countries, in that anytime we want to we can use their military bases. The US has the capability to set up very large military bases literally in a matter of 24-48 hours and that’s essentially what happens when an American president visits an African country. They take along a US military base with them and establish it for the duration of the trip and then remove it when they leave. They bring in thousands and thousands of marines for security, they bring in whole stock piles of military equipment and other supplies. They bring in their own power generating system because they know they can’t rely on local power grids; they bring along sophisticated communication equipment systems because they need to communicate back and forth with Washington. In addition to that they have begun doing contingency planning and other preparations for direct military intervention in Africa. It’s not because of the fact that they want to do this, but they understand that the time is coming when they are going to get the order to do this.

One important example of this was at what is known as a war games scenario, which was conducted by the US Amy War College in May 2008. They had never done these scenarios for Africa before, but it was part of the build up to the inauguration of AFRICOM. In spring 2008 they did a total of four scenarios, with two of them for Africa. One of those was Somalia, although we don’t know very much about that because the people involved in it didn’t have much to say in public about it. But the people who were involved in the Nigeria scenario were so disturbed by the prospects they were facing that they went very public with a lot of detailed information about those scenarios. First of all the scenario was set in the year 2013, five years from now, and what it anticipated was that all oil supplies coming in from Nigeria would be coming to an end. That would mean that the US would loose access to roughly 10% of its oil imports. A lot of oil would still be coming to the US, but the loss of 10% of America’s total oil imports would thoroughly disrupt the US economy. People would go to their gas station and there would be no gasoline. People would go to their stores and there would no food because it’s all brought in on trucks. More and more of it is brought in to the US on ships. The US depends on access to petroleum, so they understood the implications if that happened. What they were thinking in terms of was not that the disruption was caused by MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) or insurgent movements in Nigeria, but by the fragmentation and destruction of the Nigerian government, which they considered was bent on committing suicide. What they anticipated was that the government would fragment, with the situation degenerating into a struggle for control of the oil resources and various elements of the Nigerian government. The Nigerian military would start fighting for control of the Niger delta and that is what would bring Nigeria’s oil production to a halt, at which point the president of the US would essentially have two options, in their point of view. They explored all alternatives, such as getting the South Africans to intervene, or maybe the CIA could find a way to reach a resolution, but they eventually concluded that there were really only two options. One is that the President of the United States could get up in front of the American people and say there’s no gasoline at the gas stations and there’s nothing I can do about it, which would of course be political suicide for any President. The only other alternative they could see was for the US to send 20,000 American troops into the Niger Delta in the hope that somehow they could get the oil flowing again. But these guys are not stupid people; they know that this is an impossible mission for the military. There’s no way that the military could get the oil flowing again—it would be impossible to protect with military force. But they could see that under these circumstances there would be irresistible pressure on any American president to send American troops to Nigeria.

In my opinion, this is why they went very public about this kind of information. They were really hoping, by alerting the American public about what was coming, that somehow pressure could be brought to bear on whoever is running the US whenever that happens to make sure that they never got that order, because they really understand how futile and crazy such a military adventure would be. They don’t want to think about it, they don’t want to be engaged in direct military interventions at that time. They can see that day coming.

That brings us to what has changed or not changed since President Obama came into office. He came into office, elected just after the official inaugurations of African Command. All the evidence I see is that he has essentially decided to continue on the same trajectory established under the Clinton and Bush administration. In his budget proposal for the fiscal year 2010, which began in Oct 2009, he asked for more money for arms to be sent to African regimes, more money for military training, more money for the operations of AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, more money for bases in Djibouti, more money for the naval operations off the oil rich coast of Guinea. And that was in addition to everything else that was contained in the budget. When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went to Africa and made a tour of African countries, it was significant that virtually every single country she toured was a primary recipient of military assistance; countries like Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Nigeria. In addition, after discussions with Nigeria and the Nigerian military, she stated that the Obama administration would do whatever it could to fulfil its pledges within the budget request. She came out and said, in addition to everything we have promised to the Nigerians, if they have any more requests for military equipment to be used specifically in the Niger Delta, the US would be perfectly willing to provide that. It gives you a sense of how the trajectory is going to be continued and the dangers it poses for Africa, but also for the US as well because of all its military activity. In my opinion, first of all, this kind of military activity puts oil resources in jeopardy and strengthens the threat of terrorism. That’s what the people at the Pentagon understand. So, beyond that, it will inevitably lead to the day when the US will be forced to go into combat in Africa and take responsibility for the young men and women under their command, which they take very seriously. They don’t want to see them coming back in body bags from a disastrous military intervention they foresee happening in countries like Nigeria.

Go to Part Three: Contribution from Jeremy Keenan:

About the Author

Dr. Daniel Volman is director of the African Security Research Project and a board member of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. His most recent articles include ‘US to Create New Regional Military Command for Africa: AFRICOM’, Review of African Political Economy 114 (December 2007), pp.737-744, and ‘The African “oil rush” and US national security’, Third World Quarterly 27/4 (May 2006), pp.609-628, with Michael Klare.

1 Comment to “The origins of AFRICOM: the Obama administration, the Sahara-Sahel and US Militarization of Africa (Part Two)”
cabinet styles: March 26th, 2015 at 10:51 am

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