Since its establishment in 2007, the US defense department’s regional combatant command for Africa, has adopted a military-first approach to securing its interests on the continent writes Samar Al-Bulushi

Nigerian Navy Honor Guard perform for U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Kirk Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Africa Command, during a visit to the Joint Maritime Security Training Center in Lagos, Nigeria, 2 Feb 2023.

Technically, the United States is not at war in Africa. But the practice and terminology of the US-led War on Terror has changed, making the US military’s involvement more difficult to trace. In the past 15 years, the US government has quietly expanded its military footprint across the African continent, engaging in “special operations” with African troops in the name of security. Since the 2007 establishment of the Africa Command (AFRICOM), the defense department’s regional combatant command for Africa, the US has adopted a military-first approach to securing its interests on the continent. This has had disastrous effects. Whether it’s the seemingly endless (undeclared) war against the militant group Al-Shabaab in Somalia or the wave of coups (in many cases led by US-trained officers), AFRICOM has contributed to the very instability it claims to address.

The decision to establish AFRICOM came at a time when US influence on the continent was on the decline — and Africa’s geostrategic significance was on the rise. By 2050, Africa is predicted to account for about 25% of the world’s population. It contains some of the world’s fastest growing economies, and by 2063, the continent as a whole is expected to become the world’s third largest economy, surpassing Germany, France, India, and the United Kingdom. According to the United Nations, approximately 30% of the world’s mineral reserves can be found in Africa, along with 12% of the world’s oil, and 8% of the world’s natural gas reserves. Africa is also home to 65% of the world’s arable land and 10% of the planet’s renewable fresh-water sources.

With this in mind we can make sense of the increasing number of foreign players competing for influence in Africa, including the US, China, Russia, Turkey, and Gulf Arab States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Critics of AFRICOM decry the US government’s reliance on the military to protect its access to resources and markets on the continent. And because of the legacy of colonial-era slavery and resource exploitation, Africans remain suspicious of US intentions and have protested agreements that give AFRICOM more power, arguing that it compromises the sovereignty of African states.

The popularity of the film Black Panther and its sequel, Wakanda Forever, is closely tied to how these films center questions of colonialism and the scramble for African resources. The films reject racialized depictions of Africa as a poor, war-torn continent, instead suggesting that it is the US and Europe that have posed the greatest threats to peace and stability. In the Afrofuturist world of Wakanda Forever, it is African knowledge and wisdom that have contributed to the advancement of science and technology, and that protects the wider world from violent destruction.

Outside of Hollywood, though, today’s reality presents a more sobering picture. Despite the efforts of anticolonial figures like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere in the 1950s and ’60s to craft a new, more equitable world, African leaders continue to navigate a racialized global order that is formally premised on equality, but is practically constituted by relations of hierarchy and domination.

AFRICOM uses the language of “partnership” to characterize much of its engagement with African countries, but this terminology conveniently elides the structural humiliations that continue to shape relationships between the Global South and Global North. Indeed, the US uses its influence as the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) largest financial contributor as leverage in its negotiations with Global South states to ensure their cooperation on matters of security.

As scholar Zohra Ahmed has explained, “The kinds of international relationships the United States cultivates in support of its wars fall somewhere in a legal gray zone between consent and coercion.” As with other countries across the Global South, economic constraints and continued dependence on foreign credit have compelled African states to go along with the priorities of the US government.

African Solutions for American Problems?

What does this look like in practice? The US has become wary of costs associated with deploying its own troops to the front lines. For this reason, AFRICOM relies on African forces to assume the burden of counterterrorism missions on the continent. The underlying logic of AFRICOM can be traced back to the Clinton administration’s Africa Crisis Response Initiative in the mid-1990s. As scholar Adekeye Adebajo explained in reference to US strategy at the time: “The idea was that Africans would do most of the dying, while the US would do some of the spending to avoid being drawn into politically risky interventions.”

Partnerships with elite African military units enable the US military to rely on proxy forces in cases where America is not officially at war and where the presence of US troops would garner scrutiny. These US-trained, elite African military units are often touted as the most professional and capable fighting forces in their respective countries; however, according to a 2019 article in the journal Current Anthropology, they are also the least accountable and “most likely to brutally exercise their own authority domestically.” Even in scenarios where these security forces are deployed for ostensibly humanitarian purposes — as in the case of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — they have resorted to urban warfare tactics against civilians in the name of containing the spread of disease.

Equally significant, AFRICOM’s cultivation of elite military units has prompted internal divisions within national militaries across the continent. In Somalia, the sheer number of US-led training of different (in many cases, newly formed) security bodies within the country has spurred competition for power among security actors. The formation and training of these elite units also causes a division between the “special forces” and the common soldier, a phenomenon political scientist Rahmane Idrissa described as a “military caste system.”

It is partly in this context that analysts have drawn a direct link between US military trainings and the wave of coups that have taken place in recent years. In Guinea, for example, American Green Berets trained a special forces unit led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, who went on to lead a coup in September 2021. In Mali, the colonel who seized power in 2020 was also the leader of an elite special forces unit. Both were alumni of an annual training program known as Flintlock, sponsored by the US military.

By the mid-1990s military coups in Africa had become an exception rather than the norm, but the events of the past few years may signal the return of growing political instability. And while mainstream news outlets often frame these developments as the outcome of “local” tensions, the role of the US military in training and emboldening certain armed actors is increasingly difficult to deny.

America’s alignment with unpopular regimes that are friendly to US interests has also provided cover for those regimes to crack down on protest and dissent in the name of security. Growing frustration with abuses by security forces is spawning new activist movements across the continent, including Missing Voices in Kenya and #EndSARS in Nigeria, which called for the abolition of the country’s deadly, secretive police force known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

The Crisis of “Democracy”

But there is a broader political-economic context that we also need to consider: International policymakers emphasize the importance of restoring democracy and civilian-led governments, but there is increasing recognition among Africans that the formal apparatuses of democracy, like elections, mean very little in the face of worsening socioeconomic conditions.

As Amy Niang, associate professor of political science at the African Institute, observed in a recent article for the Review of African Political Economy: “Overwhelming media attention of the military government’s standoff with the ‘international community’ muddies an understanding of very urgent crises that will not be resolved by another round of elections. As long as fundamental problems of economic sovereignty, of the state’s capacity to raise financial resources internally, and to provide security and social services to its population are unresolved, rushing to elections will merely enable a change of guards to run the same derelict institutions. The democratic struggle is first and foremost a struggle for a political model that is responsive to people’s demands for basic public goods.”

At a time when Africans are confronted with skyrocketing food prices and spiraling debt, the recent coups should prompt discussion and debate about AFRICOM’s support for highly trained militarized actors and about the crisis of democracy itself. If the December US-Africa summit in Washington, DC, was any indication, though, the US government and its security “partners” on the continent will continue to view political frustration and economic desperation as threats that warrant a militarized response. Given the rich history of protest on the continent, those most affected are not likely to passively accept their fate, but to actively take the lead in what could amount to Africa’s second struggle for independence.

Samar Al-Bulushi is an assistant professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine. She is a contributing editor at Africa is a Country and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute.

Source: Teen Vogue

02 Aug 2023 by Samar Al-Bulushi

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