Anniversaries are time to look back and take stock of the good, the bad and the ugly of the last year. So, Obama’s one year in charge of the US government has brought a number of assessments regarding his tenure, and the unrealistic expectations placed on him. Regarding his foerign policy, and more precisely, his Africa foreign policy, a number of assessments have been made. I have pointed before that, as it was expected, there has been no Obama-effect magically bringing stability and democracy to Africa (here). More insightfully, and perhaps more worryingly, different media have noted that one year on, it seems that «President Obama has decided to follow the path marked out for Africa by the Clinton and Bush administrations» (Daniel Volman in Pambazuka News). Although different authors have stressed various reasons for this – as we will see below – there is an agreement on the most important tools used by the US in its foreign policy towards Africa.
The most important of these tools, acting as an umbrella for more specific operations, is the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). AFRICOM’s birth in 2007, was a significan policy change from the late 1990s, when Africa was seen as nearly irrelevant. AFRICOM is part of the Department of Defence (DOD), something which endows it with huge resources (the Pentagon controls 20% of all aid to Africa), but also represents an «awkward alliance between defence and development» (Africa Confidential Vol. 53, Nº3, 5 Feb. 2010). Since the announcement of its creation AFRICOM has been controversial, with African countries rejecting that AFRICOM would be based in Africa, and commentators labelling as a new imperialist tool. At present AFRICOM, under the command of General William «Kip» Ward, is based in Stuttgart (Germany) and has an allocated budget for 2010 of $278m (up from the $75m in 2008) (AC 53,3; Volman).
Most of AFRICOM work consist of «sustained security engagement», this is military-to-military programmes (training, equipment…), with ocasional direct action – for example in Uganda, or Mali. The total budget for this security assistance to the whole of Africa in 2007-08 was about $600m (AC 53,3). But AFRICOM also supports humanitarian relief efforts and HIV/AIDS programmes. Sometimes these roles overlap – for example on the the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance programme (ACOTA) training of peacekeepers, or AFRICOM’s work with the Bureau of African Affairs to overhaul military and civil security in DRC, Liberia, Somalia and South Sudan – leading to the acusation that the US is militarising aid to Africa (AC 53,3).
Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA)
The most visible AFRICOM operations and involvement are those in the Horn of Africa – especially since the US’ support for the December 2006 Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia. Since then, the CJTF-HOA (with an expected $60m budget in 2010 (Volman)) has been involved in the Horn, not only at its 500-acre base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, and its naval base in Manda Bay (Kenya), bur also in other «cooperative security locations». Another sign of the growing importance of this region for US foreign policy is the creation of the State Department’s East Africa Regional Security Initiative (EARSI). The EARSI is a smaller version of the Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans-Sahara (OEF-TS), the «number three worlwide war on terrorism plan» after Iraq and Afghanistan (AC 53,3).
Burundi peacekeepers, trained as part of the ACOTA programme, prepare for next rotation to Somalia – Foto US Army
Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership
It seems then, that although the rhetoric is no longer there, the war-on-terror strategy continues to be a central piece for US foreign policy under President Obama. According to Daniel Volman, «Obama genuinely believes in the strategy of the global war on terrorism and thinks that Africa must be a central battlefield in America’s military campaign against al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups». And if the US’ and AFRICOM’s chief priority is counterterrorism, then the Sahel region is, without a doubt the «up-and-coming» region of concern. The reason for concern is the threat of radical islamist groups, such as “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM), which requires more intense and direct involvement by the US in countries like Mauritania, Niger and especially Mali (as blogged before, here).
But for Volman, Obama’s belief on the war-on-terror, and the need to «deal with the threat posed by al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups», is not the only reason for his continued use of «military force» in West Africa. Another reason is the need «to ensure that America can satisfy its continuing addiction to oil», as well as minimise US dependency on «unstable countries ruled by repressive, undemocratic regimes». The importance of oil and other strategic interests in Africa, has led some to conclude (in my opinion an exaggerated conclusion) that growing US involvement in Africa constitutes a «new imperialism in Africa» – for example, Michael Schmidt in a 2006 article reprinted by Pambazuka last week).
If we then accept that the US’ main concern in Africa is counterterrorism, but that other strategic and energetic considerations play also an important role, then we must note how, slowly but surely, Nigeria appears to have placed itself at the centre of numerous US concerns, and thus has gained an extreordinry importance for US foreign policy. There is no need to repeat here how important Nigeria is for the stability of West Africa, and its influence on the whole of the continent, nor its strategic value for the US energy requirement, with 10% of US oil imports coming from this country. For the past few years, oil extraction however, has been by the instability of the Niger Delta. During her visit to Nigeria last August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked what the US government intended to do to help the Nigerian government establish stability and security in the Niger Delta. Her answer was the «(Nigerian) defense minister…had some very specific suggestions…which we think are very promising, to try to bring peace and stability to the Niger Delta. We will be following up on those…we will through our joint efforts…determine what Nigeria would want from us for help». In fact, some of AFRICOM’s actions to secure maritime security, have not been limited to the Horn and Somali pirates. Thus, the Africa Partnership Station, launched in November 2007, has been carrying out «a rolling 5-6 month tour of the Gulf of Guinea by warships with about 400 crew», to prevent both pirate attacks and oil bunkering (AC 53,3). To these activities, ones needs to add the growing concern with drug smuggling accross West Africa and the fact that the security situation in the Gulf appears to be worsening.
USS NASHVILLE ARRIVES IN SEKONDI AS PART OF AFRICA PARTNERSHIP STATION 2009 Foto US Embasy- Ghana
If last summer the US’ Secretary of State could be hinting at a possible collaboration between Nigeria and the US to deal with these matters of strategic concern, then this need for close co-operation is more than likely to have increased following the failed Christmas Day bombing of an airplane in Detroir by the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Furthermore, this whole episode took place among a serious leadership crisis – or rather power-vacuum – in Nigeria which still continues given President Yar’Adua’s continued absence form the country for over two months (although it may be coming to an end as Nigeria’s National Assembly has just passed a motion demanding Yar’Adua to hand over power to his deputy) . Initially the bomb plot, and no doubt the lack of leadership from Nigeria, moved the US to list the country on the terror watch-list – although, according to some, there are signs that the country will be de-listed.
This growing concern has even led an «intelligence oficial in AFRICOM» to affirm «that Northern Nigeria could become like Western Pakistan» (AC 53,3), which in my mind leads to the follow-up question: Could Nigeria be the next Pakistan? I am totally ignorant about the specifics of US foreign policy decision-making or about the details of US-Nigeria collaboration, but given the growing strategic weight of Nigeria on both the energetic and counterterrorism fields, could this country – like Pakistan – become a (borrowing a fashionable economic term): a country «too-big-to-fail», which will require closer attention, and intervention from the US?
I find this an extremely interesting question, and I would welcome more informed comments and feedback of whether this possibility is feasible, or whether I am way off the mark, and the US has more than enough commitments in the Horn and the Sahel?