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The Vicious Circle of U.S. Military Involvement in Africa

By Sonny Okello | Dissident Voice | March 27, 2015

It seems that a day rarely passes without news of a new atrocity committed by an increasingly notorious terrorist group. And, without fail, this news is accompanied by an increase in U.S. military interventions around the world.

While for many Americans, supporting intervention may come from a laudable sentiment – the desire to ‘do something’ in the face of widespread suffering – the situation on the ground is always more complicated than it appears, with various powerful interests intersecting. Now, under the guise of counterterrorism efforts – the U.S. military’s alibi of choice since 9/11 – the Pentagon is spreading its ever-expanding footprint throughout the African continent despite the understandably lackluster welcome they are receiving from many ordinary Africans on the ground.

The African front

Just as the specter of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has led President Obama to continue indefinitely bombing the Middle East, “terrorism concerns” in Africa are leading to an ever greater American military presence on this otherwise neglected continent. Boko Haram and other radical Islamist groups are wreaking havoc in multiple African countries, taking advantage of states’ lack of resources, corruption or general ineptitude. The Nigerian terrorist group, which recently declared its allegiance to ISIS, now reportedly controls a territory roughly the size of Costa Rica, commands 4,000 to 6,000 well-equipped fighters, and is relentlessly pushing outwards in the region.

Much of this military ‘pivot to Africa’ has taken place under the auspices of the United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM. Brought to life by renowned warmonger Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 and authorized by President George W. Bush the following year, AFRICOM aims to “build defense capabilities, […] advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity, according to their vague mission statement. The neoconservative founders should leave no doubt as to AFRICOM’s true motives, however: further military intervention, “national building”, and gaining a hold on Africa’s immensely valuable natural resources.

While Washington initially expected African countries to jump at the opportunity to host AFRICOM’s headquarters, outbidding each other for the contract, only Liberia offered to host a new base. Even close allies of the United States such as Nigeria and South Africa expressed their strong opposition to AFRICOM, with many claiming that the Pentagon’s new offensive is more about mineral and oil interests than peacekeeping or anti-terrorism activities. In the end, AFRICOM announced it would remain headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany for the “foreseeable future”.

America’s favorite dictator

The closest the U.S. has gotten to achieving Rumsfeld’s dream of occupying Africa is AFRICOM’s Camp Lemonnier drone base in the small East African country of Djibouti. Though poor in natural resources, what Djibouti offers is a strategic location on the Gulf of Aden, north of anarchic Somalia and across from the Arabian Peninsula. Djibouti’s coastline is also among the most valuable for maritime commerce, bordering both the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

An impoverished country run by aging autocrat Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (or ‘IOG’) since 1999, Djibouti has based its economy around selling its strategic position to the highest bidder. So far, this seems to be the United States, who signed a 20-year lease on Camp Lemonnier in May 2014 at the cost of $63 million a year, plus an additional $7 million per year for “development aid”. However, IOG has additionally courted the Chinese, who are increasingly present in East Africa, even suggesting that Beijing construct their own military base in his small country. Playing one great power off another has not only allowed IOG and his clique to enrich themselves, it has also reinforced his position as dictator-in-residence, as the United States would not risk political instability in a country hosting its 4,000 troops and an undisclosed number of Predator drones.

The tragic but all too typical outcome of America’s military presence in Djibouti is that the population is even worse off. On one hand, civilians have even less hope of ever moving towards greater democracy and accountability from their government as IOG entrenches his position with backing from his powerful allies. Even if its GDP doubled in the last decade, 74% of Djibouti’s population still live on less than $3 a day, lack access to drinking water and are subject to grueling human rights abuses.

On the other, they have to fear the consequences of these allies’ military presence in their country. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a May 2014 suicide attack in the country’s capital, which killed a Western soldier and wounded 11 others. It was the first suicide bombing in Djibouti’s history and the terrorist group vowed others would follow. Furthermore, according to the UK website Drone Wars, there have been at least five drone crashes in Djibouti in the past five years and it goes without saying that the Djibouti population has not been asked how they feel about foreign drones circling overhead.

Boko Haram’s recent allegiance to ISIS will only increase the potential justifications for the Pentagon to extend its reach across the African continent but the Djibouti experience should remind us that military deployments only embroil the United States into further quagmires, make Washington dependent on questionable strongmen, and worsens the situation of the population on the ground.

Sonny Okello is a writer and social entrepreneur based in Uganda.

March 27, 2015 - Posted by | Corruption, Militarism | , , , ,

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