Africa, AFRICOM and Proxy Imperialism
by Mark P. Fancher
"Except for Liberia, not one African country has been willing to host AFRICOM's headquarters."
Oil company executives would love to get their hands around the necks of the so-called "pirates" from Somalia who have hijacked aircraft carrier-sized super tanker ships. How about the militants in and about the Niger Delta whose attacks on oil company pipelines, facilities and personnel have caused production shortfalls of more than 33 percent for certain operations in recent years? U.S. generals probably fantasize about sending in elite squadrons to wipe out those guys. But they know that if they were to do that - oh boy, would there ever be a diplomatic and possibly economic price to pay later. They dare not even contemplate the repercussions of a failed mission. They have recurring nightmarish memories of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Somalia back in 1993.
Controlling an empire isn't as easy as it used to be. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European states and the U.S. bullied their way through the underdeveloped world. With an oppressive iron fist, and no concern about anything but profits, colonizers used their militaries and other government personnel to brutalize the "natives" and plunder natural resources. No apologies were needed because, early on, opponents were in no position to mount a serious challenge.
However, after liberation movements consolidated themselves and intensified their resistance, it was no longer expedient for western powers to use their own nationals to administer colonial territories. Faced with attacks by seriously angry freedom fighters, exploiters pretended to withdraw from the territories they dominated, and rely instead upon indigenous tyrants to do their dirty work in purportedly independent countries. Heads of state like Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo flagrantly betrayed their people, looted state treasuries and imposed mass terror on their domestic populations.
By the late 20th century, the Mobutus of the world had outlived their usefulness. In a growing climate of global concern about human rights and the ever-increasing political sophistication of oppressed populations, the bloodthirsty neo-colonial buffoons became all-too convenient targets for movements that challenged the hegemony of western governments and multi-national corporations in southern countries.
"Exploiters pretended to withdraw from the territories they dominated, and rely instead upon indigenous tyrants to do their dirty work."
Maintaining an essentially colonial arrangement in a post-independence world required a new level of finesse. The new leaders of underdeveloped countries had to present themselves as small "d" democrats who, while scrupulous about avoiding (detectable) human rights violations and corruption, nevertheless had to maintain friendly relations with the west and assure continuing unfettered western access to the underdeveloped country's natural wealth. Preservation of the illusion of independence also required that the west avoid using its own armed forces to carry out military operations in underdeveloped countries. The deployment of U.S. or British troops to these regions to address essentially local problems would be far too reminiscent of old-style colonialism, and the global backlash would be overwhelming.
All of this (particularly developments in Africa) contribute to exceptionally high levels of frustration in the Pentagon and in the corporate suites that set the U.S. military agenda. Generals and corporate executives stare helplessly at maps of the African continent. They see Sudan, Nigeria, Congo, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and other places where they are convinced that several strategically deployed battalions of American G.I.s could land, fire a few rounds, drop a few bombs and quell any disturbances that have jeopardized profits, er, uh ..."democracy." But because that is not an option in the modern world, they have decided that the best way to do their dirty work in Africa is to have Africans do it for them.
Enter a new U.S. military initiative called Africa Command - better known as AFRICOM. According to official statements, AFRICOM's mission is to conduct "...sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy." AFRICOM statements assert: "The creation of U.S. Africa Command does not mean the U.S. military will take a leading role in African security matters, nor will it establish large U.S. troop bases. Rather, Africa Command is a headquarters staff whose mission entails coordinating the kind of support that will enable African governments and existing regional organizations, such as the African Standby Force, to have greater capacity to provide security and respond in times of need."
This doesn't sound completely unreasonable until we re-visit that critical clause in the AFRICOM mission statement that explains that the command's work will be "in support of U.S. foreign policy." Why not in support of Africa's interests? Perhaps because more often than not, Africa's interests are in direct conflict with those of the U.S. This point has not been lost on Africans themselves. Except for Liberia, not one African country has been willing to host AFRICOM's headquarters. The operation has been forced to base itself in Stuttgart, Germany where it is expected to remain for the foreseeable future. Dig that. A military command that was purportedly established to benefit Africa has been banished from most of the African continent.
"Preservation of the illusion of independence required that the west avoid using its own armed forces to carry out military operations in underdeveloped countries."
In the face of almost universal African rejection, the AFRICOM machine stubbornly moves forward. What's happening in Africa that makes it so important for the U.S. to find ways to have African soldiers carry out military missions that the U.S. prefers not to carry out itself? Plenty. Consider Sudan where U.S. policy would be much easier if it were feasible to send troops in to effect a regime change. U.S. sanctions against Sudan's current leadership bar U.S. oil companies from maintaining operations in that country, while other countries (most notably China) are very active there and make very large profits. U.S. frustration over its helplessness in Sudan most likely led the U.S. to stand virtually alone in the world when it characterized mass killings and torture in the Darfur region as "genocide."
Genocide has a very specific definition in international law that relatively few outside of the U.S. believe describes the mass killings in Darfur. Some have speculated that the branding of the Darfur situation as genocide was a U.S. attempt to manipulate the United Nations into effecting a regime change in Sudan. A General Assembly resolution gives the UN a responsibility to intervene militarily if necessary to protect populations from genocide. But wouldn't U.S. officials believe it to be far more convenient for AFRICOM to train, direct and support African troops to go into Sudan and take care of business in precisely the way the U.S. would like to see it happen, and according to a U.S. timetable?
Although AFRICOM's use of proxies to play the role of "cop" could be very useful to U.S. interests, Africa does not always present straightforward situations where attacks on "bad guys" will make the continent safe for western corporations. Sometimes internecine conflicts can be good for business. For example, a 2005 Human Rights Watch report states that from 1998 to 2003, more than 60,000 persons died in conflicts over control of gold fields in northeast Congo. The violence involved "ethnic slaughter, executions, torture, rape and arbitrary arrest..." The report attributed significant responsibility to Metalor Technologies, a Swiss refinery; and AngloGold Ashanti, two foreign corporations that allegedly financed and fueled at least part of the conflict. When necessary, war can serve to either distract attention from corporate mischief, or it can be a means by which one party to the conflict is used to achieve corporate aims.
The potential for the manipulation of war is at the heart of one of the major concerns about AFRICOM. In Congo, there is quite a lot to manipulate. In addition to squabbles over gold fields, there are ongoing battles being fought between Hutu and Tutsi forces that formerly clashed in Rwanda, and which now fight in Congo because groups of Hutu fled into that country. In addition, other countries in the region have been drawn into Congo's numerous battles from time to time over the last decade at a cost of millions of lives.
"From 1998 to 2003, more than 60,000 persons died in conflicts over control of gold fields in northeast Congo."
Not long ago, the New York Times reported on still another point of conflict in Congo. Militia groups made up of renegade government troops have fought to control tin ore mines. In a town called Bisie, the proceeds from sale of tin as well as the collection of bribes for access have motivated one particular militia group to defend its control of a local mine even from a consortium of South African and British investors who claim to have purchased rights to the mine two years ago. According to the New York Times, the militia group shot at the consortium's helicopter and otherwise forced the company's representatives to flee.
In Bisi and other places with comparable circumstances, how does AFRICOM determine how and whether it will become involved? Does it brand the militia group a security threat and use African troops to suppress it so that foreign investors will have a clear path to Congo's natural resources? If so, what are the legal, political, historical and moral implications of the U.S. government playing such a role?
Use of African military proxies in Congo, or any other African country, to effect a foreign economic and geo-political agenda is no less imperial than direct intervention. The people of any given country have a right to self-determination under international law that includes the right to decide how their resources will be used. Thus, in an ideal world, the question for AFRICOM would not be whether force will be necessary to protect the interests of South African and British investors. It would be how can AFRICOM best facilitate truly democratic control of tin ore and other Congolese minerals.
Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world, and all indications are that AFRICOM (more so than other military units or operations) is more subject to political influence because of a radical break from centuries-old military command structure concepts. As part of what is characterized as an "interagency" leadership approach, AFRICOM will be staffed by a significant number of civilians from the State Department and other federal agencies. The implications of giving non-military personnel with political agendas opportunities to significantly influence, if not direct military operations is breathtaking.
Barack Obama supported the AFRICOM concept throughout his presidential campaign. As he settles into the White House, those who are concerned about the danger that AFRICOM poses to Africa will do well to intensify ongoing efforts to raise the level of awareness about it and help to build a consensus for AFRICOM's de-activation.
Mark P. Fancher coordinates the National Conference of Black Lawyers' AFRICOM Task Force.