The New Africa Command: A Hedge Against Neocolonialism or a True Agent of Change?

September 1, 2007
By Cmdr. Gregory E. Glaros, USN (Ret.)

Recently, President George W. Bush and the U.S. Defense Department announced the creation of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to “help Africans achieve their own security, not to extend the scope of the war on terrorism or secure African resources.” Had this statement been made five years ago, most of the world would have openly supported the notion of a U.S.-led effort to ease human suffering. But today the perspective is distinctly different, warranted or not. Many see this new combatant command as a hypocritical attempt at regional hegemony rather than an altruistic intent to stop the humanitarian ravages that have long plagued the continent. Even if AFRICOM’s stated goal is accepted, the reason for U.S. involvement is because of the interest of others. Africa is fast becoming a breeding ground for al-Qaida recruitment, and its resources are courted and reserved for China’s voracious energy appetite.

Cynical views overlook the areas where AFRICOM can—and must—be effective. Continental security can come only from rule of law and fair distribution of wealth, not contrived notions built on idealistic pronouncements of what AFRICOM won’t be. Plainspoken intent and clear, realistic objectives for economic independence hold far greater weight on the world stage than prognostications about security.

For fear of giving a geography lesson, how many people understand African issues, know the stakeholders, have studied the diverse culture or are informed of the continent’s real potential? Western civilization’s intrusion, as past colonialists, deformed cultures, which played a disfiguring role in Africa’s modern politics. The continent was separated along pastoral, agricultural, hunter-gatherer and westernized Africans. Westernized Africans were used as troops against rural Africans, pastoralists were radicalized by the wholesale confiscation of grazing lands in favor of plantations and agriculturalists came into conflict for land and water with pastoralists after the traditional sharing arrangements had been destroyed by colonial policies. How will AFRICOM’s actions differ from the negative influences of past colonial masters?

Pre-colonial Africa once possessed thousands of different states and polities, characterized by different political organization and rule, ranging from small family groups to autonomous city-states along coastal trading towns of the East African coast. Before European influence, national borders were not much concern. Territory was congruent with military or trade influence. The European insistence of drawing borders around territories to isolate them from those of other colonial powers often had the effect of splitting otherwise contiguous political groups or of forcing traditional enemies to live side by side with no buffer between them. While Africa’s vast diversity is cherished today as a polyglot continent rich in culture, mineral resources and natural beauty, it is overshadowed by perpetual instability, corrupt governments and poverty so pervasive that few solutions can make a difference.

When AFRICOM is established as an “interagency” command, and a U.S. State Department official acts as its deputy, what will the U.S. Commerce Department contribute? How will non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participate since they have the greatest insight into widespread troubles? Will NGOs have a say in crafting intervention strategies? Can these combined, organizationally diverse voices divert future disaster? AFRICOM can transform a troubled frontier only if Africa becomes a contributing member to the global economy. The Defense Department is an institution keenly, if not uniquely, capable of recognizing strategic interests, but can it alone provide regional stability by fostering economic development? The cynic would argue that providing humanitarian assistance does nothing to prevent systemic calamity, and garrisoned encampments do little to foster lasting peace.

Many believe that the existence of ethnic strife and cultural violence experienced today is rooted in colonial-derived boundaries. Yet the genocide in Darfur certainly cannot be blamed on the intrusion of colonial powers several generations removed. But, that genocide is influenced by China’s voracious demand for energy to feed its booming economy, which in turn is driven by our global consumption. China accounts for 64 percent of Sudan’s oil exports. As China secures exclusive oil rights in Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo, its investments are fueling corruption and abuse. China’s view is that business is business; separate politics from business and don’t impose a market economy or multiparty democracy on these countries, which are not ready for it. Chinese companies have lived up to this creed and have doubled investments each year for the past five years totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, primarily on oil exploration projects and infrastructure.

As widespread human rights violations continue and corruption prevails, despotism is rewarded and conflict is fueled from war to civil conflict to guerrilla war to genocide. The insatiable global hunger for energy seems to be in direct conflict with regional stability. Africa remains the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped continent—globally, 25 of its 53 nations are among the poorest in the world. If the United States is committed to aid that is targeted at judicial reform, democratic institutions, parliamentary governance and human rights, then the focus of AFRICOM must include clear economic goals for African civil society.


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