US/China/France: Africa’s security woes complicated by foreign boots

As the coronavirus pandemic triggers Africa’s worst economic downtown for three decades, the continent needs a heroic upturn in investment in public goods such as education and health, and tens of millions of new jobs. Yet investment in the continent is slowing in almost all areas, except for the military.

And there are serious worries about a more complex replay of the big power rivalries that exacerbated local and national conflicts in Africa between 1960 and 1990.

Two big things are different this time. Insurgencies are rapidly spreading across Africa, feeding on local economic and political discontents, especially sharpening inequalities. And there is a multiplicity of foreign powers offering military help: the United States, the European Union, Britain, Russia, China, India, Turkey and Iran.

US General Stephen Townsend summed up Washington’s view about these rivalries : “The Chinese are outmanoeuvring the US in select countries in Africa ….port projects, economic endeavours, infrastructure and contracts will lead to greater access in the future. They are hedging their bets and making big bets on Africa.”

On the gates of the well-fortified US Airbase 201 a sign reads : ‘Welcome to Agadez: Niger’s best kept secret.’

China is looking for a military base on Africa’s Atlantic coast, perhaps in the Gulf of Guinea, Gen Townsend told Associated Press on 6 May. “The Atlantic coast concerns me greatly …  [Beijing] is looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in a conflict.”

Townsend pointed out that Africa’s western seaboard is far nearer, in nautical miles, to the US’s east coast than the distance between China and the US’s west coast. Through that prism Africa becomes a strategic chessboard again.

Base placement

Many pieces — more pawns for now than knights or bishops — are in play. In the Horn, Djibouti has become a militarised Vienna of the Cold War vintage. It offers military basing rights to the highest bidder.

China set up its only overseas military base, so far, in Djibouti. Others running military and maritime operations there include France, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Russia, which was a bit of a player in the Libyan civil war via its hapless proxy, rogue general Khalifa Hafter, sent mercenaries and military advisors to Mozambique and Central African Republic. In the wake of the killing of President Idriss Déby Itno, Moscow has its eyes on displacing France’s military presence in Chad.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has been turning up the volume on security issues, sending envoys to meet Ethiopia’s Premier Abiy Ahmed over the escalating Tigray crisis, trying to shore up the fragile civilian side of Sudan’s transitional government and lobbying regional allies.

And at a meeting of the Group of 7 industrialised countries in London on 5 May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed security cooperation with South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor focusing on the insurgency in northern Mozambique.

There have been US troops in Somalia since the ill-fated Operation Restore Hope in the 1990s, as well as the US military bases at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti and Manda Bay in Kenya.

And the US has had multiple teams of military trainers in the region and has two drone bases in Niger, at Agadez and Niamey from which it has launched attacks against jihadists. On the gates of the well-fortified US Airbase 201 a sign reads : “Welcome to Agadez: Niger’s best kept secret.”

There are reports that the CIA has a base further north towards the Libyan border. And France, which uses US logistics, has its own military bases in Niamey and N’Djamena.

But France’s military operations in the region face growing local opposition, especially in Mali where they have been the target of street demonstrations. Renowned musician Salif Keïta has added his voice to the protests.

All the putative security allies to African governments will have to navigate the well-founded scepticism of local activists and politicians. Traditionally, one of the most sceptical and nationalist countries on foreign military interventions has been Nigeria.

That makes the last few weeks drama in Nigeria’s capital Abuja all the more surprising.

Nigeria’s scepticism

In sombre tones on 26 April, Governor Abubakar Bello of Niger State announced at a refugee camp that the insurgents of Boko Haram had planted their black flag at Kaure and Shiroro, a few hours drive from the federal capital in Abuja.

Bello’s message was alarming enough for legislators in the National Assembly to call an emergency debate on an imminent threat to the capital. Boko Haram started its war in north-east Nigeria in 2009 ; two years later it claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja.

A day after Governor’s Bello grave message and the legislators’ response, President Muhammadu Buhari, suggested to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Washington should consider relocating its military operation known as Africa Command (AFRICOM) from its current base in Stuttgart, Germany to Africa ‘closer to the theatre of operations’.

This was not off-the-cuff but a carefully scripted talking point. President Buhari was flanked by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, who knows Blinken from his UN career.

It was a remarkable volte face because Nigeria, along with South Africa, had led regional opposition to locating AFRICOM anywhere on the continent, when President George W Bush established it in 2007. Leaders such as President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua were more diplomatic but many African activists and commentators dismissed AFRICOM as a ‘neo-colonial’ project.

Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the only African leader to have expressed an interest in her country hosting the US operation, was discreetly counselled by her regional counterparts to drop it. That’s how AFRICOM ended up in Germany.

Volte face

It’s more difficult to explain why Nigeria’s thinking has changed. Since Independence in 1960, Nigeria’s generals have been sturdily nationalistic towards western security officials, deemed to tread on national sovereignty.

So the sequence of events sounded alarms: reports that Boko Haram insurgents have pitched camp hours, then President Buhari’s invitation to AFRICOM.

It had all followed in the wake of a relentless stream of atrocities, thousands killed by insurgents and armed robbers over the past year in the north. Over 700 students have been abducted at gunpoint since the beginning of the year ; hundreds have been returned after ransoms were paid.

And then on 6 May, the service chiefs briefed senior members of the National Assembly in a closed door session on security, arguing for bigger budgets amongst other needs. They also briefed representatives on their strategy to quell the multiple insurgencies launched by Islamists, secessionists and opportunist politicians working together with thugs and armed robbers.

Security, with the lobbying and diplomacy around it, is dominating all else in Nigeria’s politics. But Buhari’s proposal to Blinken has angered nationalists. Former Senator and human rights activist Shehu Sani dismissed its as an ‘open invitation for recolonisation of Africa.’

Obadiah Mailafia, former deputy governor of Nigeria’s central bank and and chief economist of the African Development, also rejected the AFRICOM proposal, arguing instead for the ‘Pax Africana’ – collective continental security proposed by Kenyan historian, Ali Mazrui.

“If General Buhari feels cannot lead us out of our current doldrums without AFRICOM relocating to our continent,” wrote Mailafia in the Lagos-based ‘Business Day’, “…I fear he is sleepwalking into the oblivion of history.”

At the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the US’s former ambassador to Abuja, John Campbell argued that President Buhari’s policy shift “…likely reflects the conclusion that the security situation in West Africa and Nigeria is out of control, spurring a willingness to consider options hitherto unacceptable.”

Those might include, said Ambassador Campbell, “…greater US involvement in West African security, including a kinetic dimension in the context of greater Western support for West Africa’s response to its security threats.”

No formal request for military help

Despite the furore over the Blinken invitation, officials in Abuja say there has been no formal request by Nigeria to the US, or any other powers, for military help.

Nigeria buys few of its weapons from the US. Its requests have often been held up by Congress on human rights grounds. Its purchase of 12 Super Tucano military jets directly from the US government took over four years to go through.

That might change; there might also be more intelligence cooperation, with the US making available more satellite surveillance to Abuja. Much of it will be highly discreet, which makes the AFRICOM saga politically embarrassing for both sides.

Salih Booker, President of the Center for International Policy and a Africanist scholar, told PBS Newshour that there is a high risk of political fall out from such operations.

Referring to the US drone bases in neighbouring Niger, Booker said : “That makes it very much a target for those who would oppose a US interest, but also for those who may be opposed to the Nigerien government, who can use the presence of the US as a target to try and undermine the government.”

That argument may resound in Abuja as Nigeria, with the biggest military and the biggest economy in the region, struggles for a more effective response to a barrage of regional security threats. 



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